PRIME Minister Paul Keating has taken another stride forward toward creating an Australian republic.
In a speech in Sydney on Wednesday he announced the composition of a committee to report on the option of removing the Queen as head of state and on removing all references to the monarchy from the Constitution.
The 10-member Republic Advisory Committee would include the head of the republican movement, a top Aborigine leader, a prominent newscaster, and a former Liberal Party premier.
Under the plan, the leader of the opposition, John Hewson, would nominate one representative, and the state premiers and chief ministers would nominate two.
To replace the Queen, the committee is expected to create a new office for head of state and determine its title, powers, and procedures for appointment and removal of the leader. The committee's deadline is early September.
Mr. Keating is meeting resistance from opposition members, who say he is rushing the debate and controlling it for political purposes.
Dr. Hewson flatly refused to nominate anyone for the seat left open. He says it is too early for his Liberal Party to take part in the Prime Minister's committee.
"We can't support that committee on the basis of composition, on the basis of its agenda, or on the basis of its deadline," he says.
"Keating's not interested in building a consensus," adds John Howard, the opposition's shadow minister for industrial relations.
The question of what kind of a republic Australia could become is a big one. There are several different models to choose from, among them the United States, France, and Germany.
Keating, in the speech, called himself a "minimalist," saying he wants to simply replace the Queen with an Australian head of state.
Beyond that, he says, "I do not know what the detail of such changes would be, and what range of options might exist within this minimalist approach."
OPPONENTS are concerned that what Keating really has in mind is a wholesale revamping of the roles of this country's Senate, states, and judiciary.
The Committee's early deadline suggests that Keating may be planning to bring the republic debate to a referendum sooner than the official target of 2001, the year of the nation's centenary.
"We're not going to let him run away and pursue what we believe to be his long-term agenda," says leader of the opposition Hewson.
He acknowledges, however, that the shift in public opinion toward a republic means that hard-line monarchists are out of touch.
The Liberal Party's platform currently commits the party to a constitutional monarchy. Hewson wants the party to debate the platform at its federal council in August.
"The whole idea of a republic is such a long shot, given the history of constitutional amendments in Australia," says Ernie Chaples, professor of politics at Sydney University.
"But Keating's certainly got the Conservatives caught between a rock and a hard place," he says. "They're deeply divided and the whole thing is going on without them."
In the speech, Keating's theme was going it alone. "We need to be in every sense including the symbolic one, our own masters. It is why the affirmation of our nationhood is central to our psychology."
With Japan's Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's arrival yesterday for a two-day visit, Keating's message of Australia's new independent identity took on greater significance.
"The fact is Australia will be taken more seriously as a player in regional affairs if we are clear about our identity and demonstrate that we really mean to stand on our own feet practically and psychologically," Keating says.