Australia has often been the most advanced of democracies. It was, for instance, the first nation to institute universal suffrage. On Saturday, however, it voted in a referendum to keep the English monarch as the Australian head of state rather than replace it with a weak president within a republic.
Even in Britain the political current is running against royal privilege. The House of Lords will no longer have members who hold their seat by nature of their birth. For the United States, its very origin lies in a rejection of a monarch's claim to be above a people's desire for representation.
But Australians find comfort in having a monarch, even if Queen Elizabeth is half a world away and can dismiss the prime minister (as her representative did in 1975).
Australia bars discrimination in public office on grounds of race, sex, religion, or birth. Yet by this vote, Australia will continue to give the highest public office to a person who wears the crown that, as defined by a British law of 1700, shall remain with "the most excellent Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and the heirs of her body, being Protestant."
The vote also signals that Australia is not yet ready to throw its lot with Asia, preferring its ties to the West. Yet a rising portion of its population is ethnic Asian, and more and more of its trade is with its neighbors.
This vote was muddied by a proposal to have the new head of state chosen by parliament rather than by a direct vote of the people. The debate over that elitism prevented Australia from improving on its democracy.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society