Australia wakes up to renewed divisions

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PRIME Minister John Howard, regarded by many Australians as the architect of Saturday's referendum defeat, will be confronted today with the fall-out from the vote when he attempts to resume normal political business with a cabinet as divided as the rest of the country.

Mr Howard - who on Saturday night was described by Malcolm Turnbull, chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, as "the prime minister that broke this nation's heart" - gave his government a free vote on the question of whether Australia should become a republic.

As a result, ministers have spent the past month publicly sniping at each other while campaigning on behalf of various factions: monarchists, mainstream republicans and dissident republicans. Now, with the referendum defeated by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, they are expected to put aside their differences.

But hostilities will not evaporate overnight. Three monarchist ministers - Nick Minchin, Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop - upset their colleagues by claiming that a republic would be vulnerable to a military coup or a Third Reich-style dictatorship.

And Mr Howard himself may have mixed feelings about his Treasurer, Peter Costello, an ardent republican regarded as his likely successor. A few hours after Mr Howard issued a lengthy defence of the status quo, Mr Costello demolished it line by line in a rival statement.

Mr Howard said yesterday that, as far as he was concerned, constitutional reform was now off the political agenda. But Peter Reith, the Minister for Workplace Relations, has made it clear that he plans to keep the issue alive.

Mr Turnbull said on Saturday that the Prime Minister was the one person who could have made "the vital difference" to the outcome of the referendum. "When we get a republican prime minister, we will have a republic," he said.

Mr Howard insists that he has played a straight bat since he was elected in 1996, making no secret of his loyalties while allowing the Australian people to make their own decision.

But critics point out that no referendum in the past century has succeeded without the support of the political leadership. And far from remaining above the fray, the Prime Minister tipped the scales when he intervened on behalf of the monarchists, they say.

Most damagingly, he tinkered with the referendum question itself. Voters were asked whether they wanted Australia to become a republic, with the Queen and Governor-General replaced by a president appointed by two- thirds of parliament. Mr Howard had wanted to leave the Queen out of the question, but backed down following a public uproar.

It was at his insistence, however, that "an Australian president" became simply "a president" and that, crucially, the words "appointed by two- thirds of parliament" were added.

Thus, Australians were asked two questions, not one: whether they wanted a republic and whether they favoured a particular method of electing the president. But the second question did not mention that candidates would be nominated by the public before they were approved by parliament.

The referendum failed largely because many republicans thought they would have no say in choosing the president.

Mr Howard may find it difficult to shake off the charge of republic wrecker. He also faces mounting pressure to allow the Queen to open the Sydney Olympic Games next September as required by the Olympic Charter. The Prime Minister, a diehard monarchist, realised that this would be unacceptable to pro-republican Australians so he decided to open them himself. After Saturday's vote, he may have to reconsider.


TWO-THIRDS to three-quarters of Australians want an Australian head of state, the opinion polls show. But the future of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), the main campaigning group, is unclear.

First, it has to find a new leader. Its driving force, Malcolm Turnbull (right), a lawyer and merchant banker, plans to become an "armchair republican".

Then it has to thrash out the difficult question of whether to abandon the model of republic it promoted for the referendum and promote one with a directly elected president, which most Australians prefer.

But the group must await a change of leadership in Australia, for only governments can sponsor constitutional referendums and the Prime Minister, John Howard, has ruled out another vote.

Kim Beazley, the Labor Opposition leader, pledged yesterday to hold a plebiscite on whether Australia should become a republic, followed by a debate on the kind of republic preferred. The next election is not until 2001 - and there is no guarantee Labor will triumph.