Australia split on monarchy

A funny thing has happened on the way to cutting Australia's ties to the British monarchy. Polls show a lessening of popular support for the agreed-on proposal to switch to a republic.

But perhaps more important, the issue has been partially upstaged by the other fundamental historic question in this country: reconciliation with the Aboriginals.

This November voters will face a referendum in which they will be asked whether they want a president, appointed by Parliament, to replace Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

But now the government has announced its decision to have a second question on the ballot: Voters will be asked whether they want to amend the preamble to the Constitution to acknowledge that the Aboriginals were here first and also to express support for democracy, gender equity, and perhaps other ideals as well.

RECONCILIATION between whites and Aboriginals has been a sensitive subject, and the conservative (and monarchist) prime minister, John Howard, has been widely criticized for doing "too little, too late" on the issue. And so his recent call for a referendum on the preamble change has been blasted by republicans as a confusing diversionary tactic.

"You could be cynical and say, he's thrown this thing in to muddy the waters ... or you could say he's an honest man, trying to do the right thing," says John Freeland, executive director of the Evatt Foundation, a Labor-affiliated think tank in Sydney.

But Mr. Howard has staunchly insisted, "As I go around Australia, I find a greater unanimity of support for [constitutional recognition of Aboriginal occupancy] than I do on the issue of the republic."

An A.C. Nielsen poll supports this contention: 63 percent of respondents agreed that the preamble should be amended to "acknowledge Aboriginals as the first inhabitants of Australia." John Stirton, research director for A.C. Nielsen in Sydney, ties the high level of support to the wording of the statement, which he calls "pretty safe, because it's a matter of fact, indisputable, and relevant." A formulation that could be interpreted as opening the way for compensation or other rights would find less support, he suggests.

All this contrasts with support for a republic "in principle," at 50 percent early this year, down from 53 percent last year. Given the timing of last year's poll, in February, when the constitutional convention was being held, Mr. Stirton says, "I don't think a drop of 3 percentage points is that significant."

Support for the specific model approved by the convention, known as the "minimalist republic," has also fallen from 43 percent last year to 41 percent. The minimalist model would replace the queen with a president appointed by Parliament. It was a compromise, intended to hold the constitutional change required to a minimum - no small concern, since every amendment requires a nationwide majority and a majority within each of at least four of Australia's six states. This is the model on which the Howard government has promised a referendum.

But getting to elect a president themselves - rather than letting Parliament do it - turns out to be what people like most about the prospect of a republic. Nielsen found that 1 in 5 of the supporters "in principle" of a republic would vote against the minimalist model.

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