Britannia Finds Less to Rule

The queen rues the fraying of the Commonwealth as Australia asserts identity and `nationhood'

AFTER two years of witnessing marriage breakups in her own family circle, Queen Elizabeth II is being forced to contemplate a fraying of the British Commonwealth family of nations of which she is the head.

Paul Keating, Australia's prime minister, wants his country to break its constitutional links with the British crown.

In a tense encounter on Sept. 19, he told the queen he intends to call a referendum and ask voters to declare Australia a republic. After the meeting at Balmoral, the royal holiday castle in Scotland, Mr. Keating said the queen had told him she would accept ``any decision made by the Australian people.''

Australia, like Canada, New Zealand, and several of the Commonwealth's 50-plus countries, retains the queen as head of state. This means that, as well as being Britain's monarch, she is the constitutional head of Australia and other former British dependencies. Instead of having presidents, such countries have governors-general appointed by the queen and prime ministers who are chosen after a popular election.

Peter Lyon, head of Commonwealth studies at London University, thinks Australians will vote to end the link with Britain.

``It may not happen by 2001, Keating's preferred date, but I think it is probably inevitable,'' Dr. Lyon says. He adds that other Commonwealth countries, such as Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and even Canada and New Zealand are likely to follow suit eventually - though ``unscrambling the Canadian constitution'' promises to be ``extremely complex,'' and New Zealanders would be ``unlikely to opt for a republic simply because their large neighbor had done so.''

Keating, a Labor Party politician of Irish Catholic descent, claims that he wants his country to be a republic not because he dislikes Britain or the queen, but because he would prefer Australia (in relaxed moments he calls it ``Oz'') to assert its own identity. ``We are not talking about treason but about nationhood,'' he says.

In Australia, opponents accuse Keating of trying to curry favor with voters when the economy is weak. Sneering at his fondness for Italian lounge suits, anti-Labor newspapers have dubbed him ``the Lizard of Oz.''

Last year, during a royal visit to Australia, Keating put his arm around the queen's waist as he guided her through a crowd. This breach of royal protocol earned him a rebuke from one Australian newspaper that headlined a story ``Hands Off the Queen.''

Opinion polls in Australia suggest a ground swell of republican sentiment, especially among young people and older citizens who trace their family origins to southern Europe and Asia.

Derek Ingram, a British journalist who has covered Commonwealth affairs for more than 30 years, predicts that Keating's bid for republican status may be ``a messy affair.''

``There will be strong opposition from Australians who prefer the status quo,'' Mr. Ingram says.

Officials at the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat, which coordinates links between the member states, argue that in some ways cutting Australia's constitutional link with Britain would make ``little apparent difference.''

``Commonwealth countries such as India, Ghana, and Singapore are already republics with their own presidents, and we would soon get used to Australia electing its head of state,'' one official said.

But according to Lyon at London University, the queen is unlikely to see things that way. ``I think she will be very sad,'' he says. ``She has invested a huge amount of personal effort in the Commonwealth, which she looks on as a family, and she has a particular affection for Australia.''

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