Howard weighs in on behalf of monarchists

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The Independent Online

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, made a dramatic and strategically timed intervention in the referendum debate yesterday, urging Australians to vote "no" to a proposal to turn their country into a republic.

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, made a dramatic and strategically timed intervention in the referendum debate yesterday, urging Australians to vote "no" to a proposal to turn their country into a republic.

Mr Howard has never hidden the fact that he is a monarchist but had refrained from entering the fray. Yesterday he issued a 3,000-word exposition of his reasons for supporting the status quo.

His statement, nine days before Australia votes on whether to replace the Queen with an Australian head of state, was clearly timed to have maximum effect.

In the statement, distributed through local newspapers in his constituency, he said he saw no reason to tinker with the constitution, since Australia already had a strong democracy. He also criticised the proposed republican model - which envisages a president being appointed by two-thirds of parliament after public consultation - as a flawed compromise.

"We should not lightly put aside something that has worked so well and helped give us such stability," Mr Howard said. "There are no demonstrated benefits from the proposed changes. They would add nothing to the already democratic character of Australia."

The executive director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, Kerry Jones - already buoyed by three opinion polls showing that support for the republican cause was falling - was jubilant yesterday, and with good reason. During a century as an independent nation, Australians have never endorsed referendum proposals that were not backed by the political leadership.

The chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull, said yesterday that Mr Howard's support would have swung a large majority of the electorate behind a republic.

Kim Beazley, the leader of the opposition Labor Party and a committed republican, accused Mr Howard of undermining the referendum at every stage "to give it the best possible chance of failure.

"We all know from the history of Australian referendums, anyone who runs a spoiling campaign has got every chance of succeeding," he said.

"[Howard] has of course organised the mode of presentation of this proposition right down to the detail of the question itself to give it the best possible opportunity of failure."

Mr Beazley challenged Mr Howard's warning on instability and said the republic model that Australians would vote on was safer than the existing system. "There are many more checks on capricious prime ministerial action in the new model," he said.

Mr Howard made clear that if the referendum proposal was defeated on 6 November, Australians would not get another chance to vote on the issue "in a hurry".

He warned that constitutional change would create instability. "There is nothing to be gained from tampering with a system of government which has contributed to our country being one of only a handful of nations which has remained fully democratic throughout the 20th century," he said.

Mr Howard argued in his statement that Australia's head of state was in effect not the Queen but her representative, the Governor-General. He said every holder of the office since 1965 had been an Australian.

He said Australia's role in leading the international peace-keeping force in East Timor had proved that it was already a fully independent nation.

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