Australians fight over Queen's role in Olympics

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Even before the Atlanta Olympic Games begin in July, Australians have begun to row over the Queen's role when they host the Olympics in Sydney four years later. The question of whether the Queen should or should not open the 2000 Olympics has reignited the country's republic debate after the election two months ago of the anti-republican John Howard as Prime Minister of the conservative coalition government.

John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, touched a republican nerve when he said that the Queen should open the Sydney Olympics, according to the Olympic Charter, which states that the head of state of the host country should perform that role. "In my mind that's the Queen, if available," he said.

Republican Australians, a comfortable majority of the voting public, according to opinion polls, have condemned such a proposal. They want Mr Howard to advise the Queen to forego her constitutional role and allow an Australian public figure, either the Governor-General or the Prime Minister, to do the job.

They say if the Queen attends Australia would lose its dignity and be seen around the world as a British colony on the eve of the centenary of the country's federation in 2001.

Peter Fitzsimons, a leading sports commentator, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: "Stone the crows and tie our kangaroo down, sport! It's just not on ... With due respect to Mr Coates, and indeed to Her Majesty, the thought of her opening our Olympics is simply unthinkable, the most unheard of thing most of us have ever heard of." The same newspaper called for the Olympic rules to be "adjusted in response to a specific local difficulty" if there was no way around having the Queen open the Games.

Rather than snuffing out republicanism, Mr Howard's election victory in March appears to have lulled it into a temporary sleep. Mr Howard at first opposed the republican debate which Paul Keating, his Labor Party predecessor, inspired. But he has promised to hold a constitutional convention next year, followed by a popular referendum, if the convention reaches a consensus on change to a republic.

The Duke of Edinburgh opened the last Olympics in Australia, in Melbourne in 1956. The Queen opened those in Montreal in 1976, the last time they were held in a Commonwealth country. It is likely that as the millennium approaches, together with a drum-beating of Australian nationalism around the 2001 centenary, the Queen may have to contend with popular sentiment that she stay away.

If anything, Mr Keating's departure from politics has helped the republicanism cause. Many of his opponents, who are sympathetic to republicanism, opposed it under Mr Keating because of what they saw as his demagogic style. Mr Howard's convention next year may usher in change sooner than Labor could have managed.