Age and race the key to Australia's republican choice

As the Canberra meeting on whether to replace the monarchy begins, Robert Milliken finds an ethnic and generation gap on the issue
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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE Australia's "old" Parliament House in Canberra, Roy Dingo, a member of the Aboriginal tent embassy, lights a fire that he hopes will smoke out the people inside. The 152 delegates to Australia's Constitutional Convention are, however, well dug in. They are wrestling with the question that Mr Dingo, and more than half the Australian population, want answered: how to delete the Queen from Australia's constitution and turn the country into a republic.

The delegates to this historic convention, half of them elected and half government-appointed, have been there since Monday, and will stay on until Friday, the 13th. By then they are expected to have come up with a formula that the Australian government can put to the people in a referendum next year, paving the way for a republic by January 2001, the centenary of the country's federation.

What must the Queen be thinking as she follows proceedings in this low-slung, whitewashed colonial-style building which her parents opened in 1924 amid great imperial pomp, and whose brash, modern replacement she herself opened in 1988? What must be flashing through her mind now as she remembers her first visit as Queen in 1954, when Australians turned out in their millions almost to deify her? What has brought it to this just 44 years later?

The main answer is: a new Australia. When the Queen first visited, the non-Anglo-Celtic population was negligible. Since then, people from more than 200 countries have settled here. In the early 1960s none of the top six source countries for immigrants was outside Europe; by the early 1990s four were Asian countries. One-fifth of the population is now Asian- born. In a recent survey of non-Anglo ethnic communities, 80 per cent of those questioned wanted an Australian as head of state; 9 per cent wanted the Queen to remain. No Vietnamese in the survey preferred the Queen, and only 4 per cent of Chinese did.

Support for the Queen staying on seems confined largely to people over 55 with British backgrounds, and those for whom the very word "republic" conjures images of instability, governments coming and going, Italian- style, and riots in the streets. But ask your average young Australian, particularly those from non-Anglo-Celtic families, and they are more likely to say that, while they respect the Queen and her work as monarch, the hereditary institution that she represents is foreign to modern, egalitarian Australia. The most common word used is "irrelevant".

One of those is Tan Le, 20, a Melbourne law student who arrived in Australia with her penniless parents 16 years ago after they fled from Vietnam in a boat. Today her mother is mayor of a Melbourne municipality and Ms Le herself was named 1998 Young Australian of the Year last month for her work with Vietnamese refugees and other immigrant groups. John Howard, the Prime Minister, presented her with an award.

"The Queen? Straight away I think of the Queen of England," said Ms Le. "I don't think of her as the Queen of Australia. That's the whole problem. She's the symbol of something whose rules have never changed. Princess Anne could never get to be Queen. That's something I don't find very Australian. My family came to Australia because of what we'd heard about the country, its freedom and tolerance. We didn't come because it was a former part of the British Empire."

Less restrained about the Queen is Linda Burney, an Aboriginal community worker, who stood unsuccessfully as a republican candidate for the Constitutional Convention. "She represents to me the symbol of oppression and subjugation of the Aboriginal people," said Ms Burney. "It was the British who invaded this country, and started the taking of it from many indigenous nations. Reconciliation will be a long path, but a new head of state chosen by all Australians will be a start."

Not everyone responds predictably towards the Queen. Neville Bonner, now 75, Australia's first Aboriginal federal MP and a convention delegate, believes that Australia should keep her. Change to the unknown, he argues, could work against his people: "I've seen too many republics go wrong." Other Aboriginal delegates, such as the fiery Pat O'Shane, who wants not just the Queen removed but the entire constitution rewritten, shake their heads and dismiss Mr Bonner as an old man who has been bought off by the system.

But now that the republican bandwagon is rolling, almost every multicultural group is climbing on board. That includes the Greeks and Italians, who formed the first wave of post-war immigration and whose sons and daughters grew up in the old British Australia. Even George Pappas, 66, who arrived as a refugee in 1947, and received an MBE from the Queen years later for his work with Australia's ethnic communities, has become a convert.

"I was raised in a British culture, if you like, and feel very sympathetic towards Her Majesty," said Mr Pappas. "But this country is mature enough to have its own head of state. I think a majority of the Greeks here will be voting for a republic."

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