Migrants could hold the key to republic vote

Kathy Marks finds that new Australians want their adopted home to cut old ties
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At midday in Cabramatta, Australia's most ethnically diverse neighbourhood, four Vietnamese men are huddled intently over a game of chess at a table set up in the shade of a noodle soup stall.

At midday in Cabramatta, Australia's most ethnically diverse neighbourhood, four Vietnamese men are huddled intently over a game of chess at a table set up in the shade of a noodle soup stall.

Over a cup of iced coffee, the stall-holder, Tien Nhung Do, explains why he wants his adopted homeland to sever its ties with Britain and become a republic. "When a child grows up, he still respects his parents, but he needs to be independent", says Mr Do in halting English. "We still respect England, but we have grown up."

With one-in-four Australians born overseas, migrant communities will be influential in determining the outcome of the constitutional referendum on 6 November, when the country will vote on whether to replace the Queen as the head of state. Migrants also feature prominently in the debate, with republicans arguing that the British monarchy is irrelevant to many new Australians, particularly the growing numbers from South-east Asia.

Jason Li, an international human rights lawyer and leading light in the republican movement, said: "One reason why I am so passionate about this is that I want us to create a more inclusive vision of what it means to be Australian soeveryone, regardless of their background, can feel totally at home here."

His sentiments are echoed by many in Cabramatta, a northern suburb of Sydney, where a sign in the foyer of the Whitlam Library welcomes visitors in 11 languages, including Italian, Laotian, Greek, Thai, Cambodian, Arabic and Cantonese. Vietnamese refugees make up more than half of Cabramatta's 100,000 residents.

Quoc Ty Hoang, a silver-haired old man sitting on a bench in the shopping mall, said: "I have lived in Australia for seven years and I have never seen the Queen. She means nothing to me." He adds: "I don't like to see the Union Jack in the corner of the Australian flag. I would like to see a kangaroo instead."

Down the road, during a lunchtime break in surgery, Dr Van Phuoc Vo says Australia would have more credibility if it cut the final link with Britain."It sits in the middle of the Asia-Pacific region, but still looks towards England."

But not everyone shares his enthusiasm for reform. Many migrants, particularly those who escaped repressive regimes, say they came to Australia because of its freedom, tolerance and stable politics. Any change, they fear, could jeopardise that stability. Maurice Mansoor, who migrated from Egypt in 1980, said: "A lot of people from Africa left behind bad republics. They have a legacy of nightmares, torture and corruption. The word 'republic' stirs so much bad feeling."

Migrant communities have been pursued by monarchists and republicans but some community leaders complain that not enough information on the issues has been produced in minority languages. They say that many migrants, confused by the claims and counter-claims of the rival campaigns, are falling back on their own points of reference.

Paul Nicolaou, the vice-chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia, says some Greek immigrants are hostile to the Queen because of their own experience of monarchy. Australians of Italian extraction, meanwhile, value stable government above all, because of Italy's volatile political system.

Mr Nicolaou dismisses the idea that a republic would mean a more inclusive society. He says Australia, home to people from 160 countries, has already embraced multiculturalism and points out that more than 300 Aboriginal languages and cultures co-existed in Australia before Europeans arrived on the First Fleet.

In Cabramatta, Nga Hong, owner of the Thanh Binh restaurant, offers a more sobering perspective. "We Vietnamese are not entirely accepted within Australia," she says. "A republic will make no difference. We will always look Asian."