Australia poised to say no to republican dream

THEIR DREAMS of a republic about to disappear in a puff of smoke, campaigners for a "yes" vote in today's historic referendum made a last appeal to Australians yesterday to follow their hearts and enter the new millennium free of the final vestiges of colonialism.

Malcolm Turnbull, chairman of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), was up at the crack of dawn, handing out leaflets to office workers stepping off ferries at Sydney's Circular Quay. But even as he joked with commuters, he was digesting yet another opinion poll showing that the electorate is poised to give a decisive thumbs down to his vision of a truly independent Australia.

After a long and profoundly divisive campaign, the country's 12 million voters will be asked today whether they want to replace their head of state, the Queen, and her representative in Australia, the Governor-General, with an Australian president nominated by the public and appointed by two-thirds of parliament.

Yesterday's opinion poll, in the Sydney Morning Herald, put the republicans at 41 per cent and their opponents at 47 per cent. The gap was smaller than in other surveys but, ominously, the number of undecided voters has fallen sharply.

Within a few hours of the polls closing at 6pm (7am today GMT), the nation will learn whether it has, as predicted, stepped back from the brink. The great irony of the sequence of events likely to unfold today is that two-thirds of Australians actually want a republic. It is the type of republic on offer, not the principle, that is destined to sink the referendum.

The dispute is about the method of choosing a president; many republicans believe that the head of state should be directly elected by the people, and substantial numbers of them plan to join forces with the monarchists to vote "no".

The other irony is that the ill-fated "yes" camp has achieved the singular feat of uniting an extraordinary mix of Australians behind the proposed republic. They are not just the celebrities who lend their names to such campaigns, although there are plenty of actors, authors and sports stars urging their compatriots to vote "yes". They include people such as Sir Anthony Mason and Sir Gerard Brennan, former High Court chief justices, and Sir Zelman Cowen, a former governor-general.

The debate has transcended ideological rivalries. The Australian Attorney- General, Daryl Williams, and his opposition counterpart, Robert McClelland, have appeared in public together to endorse the move to a republic. Most of the Labor Party supports it, but so do many Coalition (conservative) politicians, most notably Peter Costello, the Treasurer. The premiers and opposition leaders in all six Australian states are of similar mind, with just one exception.

But the most remarkable display of unity has been that of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, key players in a constitutional crisis that has great resonance today as Australia ponders whether to cut the umbilical cord with the mother country.

Mr Whitlam, who had been the first Labor prime minister in more than 20 years, was dismissed by the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, in 1975 after the Senate, the upper house, refused him the funds to govern. Mr Fraser, the Liberal leader, was installed as caretaker prime minister and confirmed in office at a subsequent general election.

These two sworn enemies, now elderly men, have put aside their differences and this week appeared in a television commercial for the ARM, sitting on a settee and chatting like old friends. They also shared a platform at the ARM's final campaign rally in Melbourne on Thursday.

Most of the business community wants a republic, according to a recent survey by the Australian Financial Review, a respected daily newspaper. So does the media; the majority of the country's newspapers, including those owned by Rupert Murdoch, have campaigned vigorously for change.

High-profile supporters of the "no" camp are less numerous and more disparate. There is Bill Hayden, a former governor-general who is a "direct election" republican; Professor David Flint, the chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority; Dame Leonie Kramer, the chancellor of Sydney University; and several cabinet ministers.

But the monarchists have a trump card that the republicans cannot match: the Prime Minister, John Howard.

With Australians traditionally cautious about constitutional reform, having approved only eight out of 42 referendums this century, Mr Howard's intervention last week in support of "the devil you know" will have been crucial in swinging undecided voters.

The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the move to a republic is inevitable, but he wants that day to be put off for as long as possible.

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