Republicans heal the rift in Australia

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The Independent Online
Australia's constitutional convention was nearly derailed by battles between the various republican groups. But Robert Milliken in Sydney says a consensus is now emerging over how to replace the Queen.

After a week of acrimonious debate, the Constitutional Convention reached its halfway point yesterday, apparently heading for a compromise on the question of an alternative head of state.

The sticking point has not been the monarchists, who comprise less than half the delegates to the convention in the capital, Canberra.

They have vowed to vote against any republican model, however "minimalist" its proposed changes to the 1901 constitution that has a monarch at its centre.

The biggest division has been among the republicans themselves, over the question of whether the head of state should be elected directly, or by both houses of parliament.

At one point, several republicans - mainly from Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory - threatened to join the monarchists at the convention's final vote next week, unless their fellow republicans agreed to the direct election formula.

Their target was the Australian Republican Movement, the biggest republican lobby group, led by Malcolm Turnbull, a Sydney lawyer and merchant banker.

They accused Mr Turnbull's group of elitism owing to its insistence that parliament must choose the head of state.

"We've had a gutful of the Turnbull model being rammed down our throats," declared Shane Stone, chief minister of the Northern Territory.

Mr Turnbull's group argues that a directly elected president could become a rival power to the prime minister in Australia's Westminster-style democracy.

Late yesterday, both republican factions appeared to have kissed and made up.

There is talk of two possible compromises. One would allow Australians to nominate choices for the head of state in a plebiscite, after which parliament would make the final decision.

The other compromise envisages a council of "eminent Australians", which could appoint and also dismiss the head of state on the advice of the prime minister.

This latter plan would be the driest and most "minimal" change of all. John Howard, the Prime Minister, an opponent of constitutional change, on Thursday called it the "least worst" republican model.

Mr Howard has promised to put whatever model the convention agrees on to a referendum next year, with a deadline of January 2001 for the introduction of a republic if that proves to be the outcome of the referendum.

Mr Howard has been a political loser at the convention. One by one, several ministers in his right-of centre Liberal Party government have come out in favour of a republic, including his most senior colleague, Peter Costello, the Treasurer (finance minister). Another prominent Liberal, Tony Abbott, a former leader of the monarchist camp, switched sides during the week.

Newspapers have portrayed Mr Howard as isolated, with photographs of him sitting glumly on the front bench of the old Parliament House, where the convention is being held.

The convention seems to have fired Australia's imagination. Delegates have been flooded with messages from around the country urging them to vote one way or the other when the convention ends next Friday.