2001: Australia's republican odyssey looms: Robert Milliken reports from Sydney on Keating's target date for severing links with the Queen

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The Independent Online
IT MAY have been a coincidence, but on the day last week when he launched his election campaign with a call for a Federal Republic of Australia by 2001, Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, also appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, peering self-confidently over the top of a pair of dark glasses.

In a long interview, which ranged across his detailed knowledge of Sixties rock music (in his youth he managed a Sydney band called the Ramrods) to whether he knew many homosexuals ('Some of them are close friends of mine'), Mr Keating ended on the question he has now placed firmly on Australia's political agenda: the prospect of scrapping, over the next eight years, two centuries of constitutional links with the British monarchy, and of replacing the Queen with an Australian head of state.

'There is an inevitability that Australia will become a republic,' Mr Keating told Rolling Stone. 'But we need to be clear about the constitutional models . . . At least now Australians are thinking about the subject and not waiting for some resolution of the Prince and Princess of Wales's marriage to see who should govern us.'

The same day, as he formally launched the ruling Labor Party's campaign for the 13 March general election, Mr Keating pledged in more restrained language to set in train a process towards a referendum in which Australians could choose by the end of the decade whether to become a republic. This was the first time that any Australian leader had made such a promise.

If the conservative opposition Liberal-National coalition translates its opinion poll lead into an election victory, the republican momentum will grind down at the political level. But it will not disappear. Mr Keating took a gamble in first raising the issue last year, and he appears to have struck a subliminal chord.

The issue has become entwined in his mish-mash of Pom-bashing over Britain's role in Asia in the Second World War and his call for a new Australian flag, for which some Australian commentators have attacked him as a crass, insensitive wrecker who wants to destroy history. By itself, though, the republic question has not produced the outrage that might have been expected. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Australians support it, as do most of the country's leading newspapers.

Republicanism was strong in Australia a century ago, when the country enjoyed great prosperity and was moving towards nationhood. The Bulletin, a radical magazine, allowed a writer of the stature of Henry Lawson, one of Australia's most venerated poets, to describe the Prince of Wales in 1892 as 'a bloated prince of parasites' and Queen Victoria as 'the dull yet gilded dummy'.

Australia stuck with the monarchy for two main reasons. Right up to the 1970s, most of the country's population was of Anglo-Celtic origin, and many Australians saw the Crown as an essential link. And fear of being swamped by Japan and China, the 'Yellow Peril' to the north, kept Australia tied firmly to Britain up to the Second World War, then to the US throughout the Cold War.

The latest republican wave is almost entirely Keating-driven, but it has tapped the reality of the post-Cold War world in which Britain has entered Europe, Japan has become Australia's leading trading partner and the British element of Australia's population is being balanced by immigrants from continental Europe and Asia.

Mr Keating, himself of Irish-Catholic background, has also struck a chord with the deep-rooted nationalism among the substantial number of Australians with Irish origins. His speech of welcome to the Queen in Canberra last year was remembered mainly for the words, 'Our outlook is necessarily independent,' for which the British tabloid press branded him 'the lizard of Oz'. His later welcome to Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, was equally pointed. 'Like you, we have stepped out of the past,' he told her. 'We share your country's determination to be a modern and dynamic nation.'

Of all the social and economic upheavals, that of abandoning the monarchy would seem to be at once the simplest and the most difficult. In many ways, the country had been a de facto republic, even before the Australia Act five years ago finally severed the remaining constitutional and legal links with Britain, except for those with the Queen. Abandoning the Crown would be a jolt for the older generation of Australians, which still remembers days of Empire, but it would not affect a Britain-Australia relationship unique for the breadth of its links.

Yet confusion reigns about taking that final step. Republican supporters are agreed on two issues: Australia would not leave the Commonwealth, with the Queen as its head, nor would it adopt an American-style republic, with the president at the centre of the executive wing of government. According to the Australian Republican Movement, a group of leading writers, academics, lawyers and business figures, Australia would retain its Westminster system of government, and simply replace the Governor-General, the Queen's representative, with an Australian president.

Mr Keating's target date of 2001 is symbolic as the centenary of the year when Australia's six self-governing colonies joined in federation.

If Australians are to begin the new millennium without the Queen, there will be no shortage of reminders. To the discomfort of republicans, over the past 20 years she has opened every newly constructed public building that symbolises Australia's sense of nationhood.

(Photograph omitted)