Australia set for a battle royal

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A vote next year will decide whether to ditch the Queen and become a republic, Robert Milliken writes in Sydney

ALMOST a century after their constitution came into being, Australians vote next year to decide whether to remove the British monarchy from it and become a republic.

The decision to call a referendum to decide whether to end the last constitutional link with Britain came at the end of a constitutional convention in Canberra yesterday, where 152 delegates decided overwhelmingly that the question should go to a public vote. It voted 133- 17 to set up a referendum, after agreeing earlier by 89-52 to support in principle that Australia become a republic.

Republican delegates at the two-week convention clapped and hugged when the results were announced. John Howard, the Prime Minister, and a monarchist, told the convention it had spoken "very clearly".

If Australia voted yes to become a republic, it should make the change on 1 January 2001, the centenary of the country's federation.

There are two big hurdles still in the way of the change. The first is that the constitution is hard to change. Amending referendums must win a majority nationally and also a majority in four of the six states.

The second problem is that, despite the convention's support for a republic in principle, the question of what form of republic Australia should become is destined to divide the referendum campaign. Four different models, from four different blocs, fought for support at the Canberra convention.

The model that won did so by four votes. It proposes that the head of state who replaces the Queen be approved by a two-thirds majority of federal parliament, after candidates have been nominated by the people, sifted by a committee and boiled down to one by the prime minister and leader of the opposition.

The aim is to to avoid any disruption to Australia's Westminster system by preserving the head of state's largely ceremonial functions. Dissident republicans, who wanted the head of state elected directly by the people, have branded this model a "mule republic".

Mr Howard privately believes the referendum will fail. His conservative coalition will campaign neither for nor against. He said members of the Liberal Party, which he leads, will have a free vote. He had little choice: six Liberal ministers have come out as republicans and more are expected to follow. Kim Beazley, the Labor Party opposition leader, said his party would campaign for the referendum.

It could also be that Australians will swing behind the referendum as the country prepares for celebrations to mark the 2001 centenary. The Canberra convention captured the country's imagination. Thousands queued at the original Parliament House to watch republicans and monarchists debate the pros and cons of removing the monarchy from a constitution drawn up in Queen Victoria's day.

The convention came 100 years after three conventions that drew up the constitution. These were largely non-elected and entirely male. Half the delegates to the 1998 convention were elected in a postal ballot, half appointed by the government. Almost half were women, and five were Aborigines.

The monarchists maintained that tacking a republic on to Australia's constitution would bring the Westminster system crashing down. Younger delegates said it was all about ditching the last vestiges of Australia's colonial past and recognising the reality of its multicultural society. Jason Yat-Sen Li, 25, a lawyer and son of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, said: "I have a vision in which an ethnic Australian may be elected head of state."

The Queen was barely mentioned at the convention. It would seem that her biggest worry will not be if the referendum decides to end her family's reign over Australia since 1788, but if it produces an inconclusive result, leaving her to stay on as a head of state who is not really wanted.