Australia prepares for republican life without a Queen

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Australia's move to ditch the Queen is finally under way. It could become a republic by the end of the millennium. Robert Milliken reports from Sydney.

A constitutional convention of 152 delegates from all walks of life gathered in Canberra yesterday to decide the nuts-and-bolts of how a new Australian head of state will replace the British monarchy which has been at the centre of the country's constitution for the past 97 years.

The central question of whether Australia should become a republic at all will hardly feature at the convention. It seems to have been decided by consensus already. More than half the delegates are committed republicans. They include politicians, church leaders, Aboriginal chiefs, television personalities, sports stars and household names such as Janet Holmes a Court, Australia's most powerful businesswoman.

Even John Howard, the Prime Minister, who is sometimes described as Australia's "last monarchist" because of his staunch opposition to changing the constitution, grudgingly conceded, when he opened the two-week convention, that history may be on the republicans' side. He said: "In my view, the only argument in substance in favour of an Australian republic is that the symbolism of Australia sharing its legal head of state with a number of other nations is no longer appropriate."

Mr Howard promised that, if the convention could agree on a republican model by the time it winds up on 13 February, the government would put such a model to the people in a referendum next year. If the referendum passed, then Australia would become a republic in time for the centenary of its federation in January 2001.

There will be frantic horse-trading over the next fortnight, therefore, to make sure that such a model emerges. If it does not, the republican debate which has ignited Australian politics over the past four years will have counted for nothing, and the issue is likely to recede into the next century. As Kim Beazley, leader of the opposition Labor Party, put it yesterday: "The Australian people did not vote for a train wreck at this convention, and they must not get one."

Republicans are divided on the key question of how a president should be appointed, and what powers the office should have. The Australian Republican Movement (ARM), the main republican lobby group, wants the president elected by a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament sitting together, rather than by a direct popular vote, the overwhelming choice in public opinion polls.

The ARM argues that a directly-elected president could create havoc in Australia's Westminster parliamentary system by installing a potential rival power base to that of the prime minister.

The ARM and Mr Howard are strange bedfellows on this point. The Prime Minister called on the convention yesterday to reject the direct election model.

Some republicans fear that if they do that, the whole republican issue could fall flat at a referendum.

Opinion polls show that most people believe a former politician would get the job of president if it is left to parliament to elect him or her.

Recent opinion polls show that 52 per cent of Australians want a republic, and about 35 per cent want to keep the monarchy. A survey a week ago by The Australian produced 67 per cent in favour of a republic.