Australian PM gags Cabinet in run-up to vote on republic

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The Independent Online

By Kathy Marks in Sydney

By Kathy Marks in Sydney

17 October 1999

THE Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has banned members of his Cabinet from debating the issue of whether Australia should become a republic, in an attempt to prevent the unseemly spectacle of ministers quarrelling in public.

With three weeks to go before Australians vote in a referendum on whether to give up the Queen as head of state and replace her with an Australian president, the Cabinet, like the electorate, is divided.

Members of the government have been told that they have a free vote, but they have also been warned to avoid criticising one another directly. Mr Howard was furious when Nick Minchin, a senior minister and staunch monarchist, launched an attack on Peter Costello, the republican Treasurer (finance minister), while he was out of the country recently.

At a public meeting in Adelaide on Friday, the Employment Services Minister, Tony Abbott, another monarchist, was forced to listen from the back of the hall while someone else read out his prepared speech, after he was gagged by Mr Howard.

Opinion polls show that the result is too close to call, with support for the monarchists boosted by a splinter group of republicans who object to the proposed method of electing a president. They want a public vote, but the referendum question calls for the president to be elected by two-thirds of a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament after a public consultation process.

The "direct electionists" made a raucous contribution to a special Question Time debate that was recorded in Sydney last Thursday and co-hosted by the BBC's David Dimbleby and Kerry O'Brien of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Animosity between two of the participants continued in the bar after the debate, when Bill Hayden, a former governor-general, refused to let Bob Hawke, the former Labor prime minister, buy him a drink.

In Adelaide, Malcolm Turnbull, chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, warned dissident republicans they would "blow the chance of the century" if they succeeded in defeating the referendum. He said that to vote "no" on 6 November meant "voting for Prince Charles as our next head of state".

Christopher Pearson, who read out Mr Abbott's speech, defended the monarch. "It is true the Queen was born in another country, speaks Australian with an unusual accent and doesn't spend much time here," he said. "But that's true of a lot of perfectly good Australians."

The monarchists and republicans are now gearing up for the final crucial furlong, with a significant minority of voters still undecided. The republican movement launches its national campaign in Melbourne today.