Australia takes first steps towards vote for republic

A "people's convention" of a sort not seen in Australia for a century will be set up later this year to plan the constitutional transition to a republic.

After debating republicanism for the past five years, Australians yesterday learned that concrete steps are to be taken to allow them a vote on abolishing the Queen as head of state. Ironically, it was the monarchist Prime Minister, John Howard, who took the initiative.

Mr Howard told parliament in Canberra yesterday that a convention on constitutional change will be held in the capital in November or December. Half the delegates would be elected in a popular ballot and an "appropriate proportion" will be Aborigines and young people. The rest will be appointed by the federal government.

If recent opinion polls are any guide, the convention may decide that there is enough support to move on to a referendum on replacing the Queen with an Australian president. If that happens, Australia may become a republic by 2000, or at least by 2001, the centenary of the federation.

The forthcoming convention echoes the conventions which were held in the 1890s to draw up the constitution, and which placed the British monarch at its head.

Mr Howard surprised everyone with his announcement. As leader of the Liberal-National coalition, Mr Howard has opposed republicanism. The opposition Labour Party has adopted a republic as official policy.

But several prominent Liberal MPs have since come out as republicans and an opinion poll in December showed for the first time that there was enough popular support to carry a referendum on the issue.

"It remains very much my view ... that the existing constitution has worked very effectively and has played a very significant role in delivering stable government," Mr Howard told parliament. Republicans argued that it was not a question of wholesale changes to the constitution, but simply one of making the head of state an Australian.

Malcolm Turnbull, a Sydney lawyer and merchant banker, who is chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, said yesterday: "Support has been growing but republicans are going to have to fight hard."

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