Australians opened their newspapers last week to find full-page advertisements crowned by the Queen waving regally from a carriage. It declared: "If you're not related to the Queen, you'll relate to the Australian Republican Movement."
Another advert read: "If you want your children to have a chance of being Australia's head of state, you could marry Prince Charles - or vote Australian Republican Movement." It bemoaned that no Australian could ever be head of state under the constitution as it stands. "That privilege belongs to the Queen of Great Britain. Upon her death it will belong to her son. Then to his son after that..."
Such a concept of inherited rank was foreign to Australia's egalitarian tradition. "No one gets to captain the cricket side because their dad did. No one holds a seat in parliament because it was their mother's."
This was merely the opening salvo as voting got under way to elect delegates to a Constitutional Convention next February. This will decide whether Australia should become a republic and, if so, when and how. If delegates agree, a referendum will be held by 2001.
Voting will take place over the next four weeks by postal ballot and the republicans and their main opponents, a group called Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, are resorting to increasingly bitter tactics.
A week ago, it was revealed that a speech writer for John Howard, the Prime Minister and an avowed Queen's man, had written to the monarchists' organisers advising them how to run their campaign. Turn it into a battle of "us against them", he suggested: "us" being the "real Australia" and "them" being "elites of politicians, journalists, radical university students, welfare rorters [Australian for rip off], academics, the arts community and the rich that, deep down, they've always hated".
To which Malcolm Turnbull, a Sydney merchant banker, and chairman of the republican group, retorted: "They're advocating that the richest, most elite woman in the world, and the most hereditary family in the world, is more suitable than any Australian to be our head of state. So who's elitist? The Crown is indefensible... So the best thing they can do is to be negative."
The republicans have managed to recruit some of the best-known names in the country, including Janet Holmes a Court, the millionaire businesswoman, Hazel Hawke, ex-wife of Bob Hawke, the former prime minister, and Bryan Brown, the actor. All three appeared in TV commercials last week calling on Australians to "stand up and be counted" and cast their votes against the Queen.
Mrs Holmes a Court, though, is having an each way bet. As well as running an extensive business empire in Australia, she owns a swag of theatres in the West End of London, where she spends much of her time. "In Britain I am a royalist," she says. "I am on the Queen's side. In Australia, I am a republican."Reuse content