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Australia's perverse decision

KERRY JONES, head of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, slipped off her high-heeled shoes and relaxed her heavily made-up features for a moment. It was 9.30pm, and across town Malcolm Turnbull, chairman of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), had just conceded defeat.

As the television cameras rolled in the Tumbalong Room of the Sydney Convention Centre, Mrs Jones painted on a smile and began her speech. "This is a very special day in the history of our great country," she said. "Let this result tonight be celebrated by all Australians as a victory."

The result to which she referred was the unambiguous "No" - by 55 per cent to 45 per cent - to a referendum question that asked Australians whether they wanted their country to become a republic, with the Queen replaced as head of state by an Australian president.

But for whom or what was it a victory? Not for the monarchy, certainly, which commands the support of less than one-tenth of the population. Not for republicans, who may have to wait decades for another chance to get rid of the Queen. And most assuredly not for the Australian people, three- quarters of whom favour a republic with their own head of state.

This is the perverse and paradoxical situation in which Australia finds itself this morning, less than two months away from the dawn of a new century that many had hoped would usher in a new phase in the history of this young, self-confident nation.

For a clue as to how it reached this impasse, look no further than the slogan on the dark blue "no" campaign posters outside polling booths yesterday: "No More Power To The Politicians".

It was Australians' deep-rooted distrust of their masters that Mrs Jones and her fellow campaigners exploited. They told the electorate that if a president was elected by the method envisaged - appointed by two-thirds of parliament after a public nomination process - he or she was bound to be a politician. In a superficially attractive populist message, they said it would be far preferable for a president to be directly elected by the people.

Republican campaigners tried in vain to point out that a candidate with cross-party backing was unlikely to be a politician, and that a directly elected president with a popular mandate would sit uneasily within Australia's Westminster-style system.

It might seem strange that the monarchists were getting involved in this debate rather than concentrating on defending the Queen. But with few diehard royalists left in Australia, and most people in principle supporting a republic, they knew that the only way to sink the referendum was by attacking the type of republic proposed.

In a stunningly cynical move, Mrs Jones and her colleagues formed an alliance with dissident republicans and told Australians that if they voted "no" this time, they would get another referendum that offered them a directly elected president. The slogan in the final phase of their campaign was: "If you want to elect the president, vote `no' to the politicians' republic." This is what Mr Turnbull has called "the biggest lie in Australian political history" - and the electorate swallowed it whole.

One person could have stepped in to stem the tide of disinformation and clarify the issues for the Australian people. That was the Prime Minister, John Howard. Mr Howard, a staunch monarchist, spent the final week of the campaign speaking out in favour of the status quo.

At the ARM's party at the Sydney Marriott Hotel last night, Mr Turnbull, a lawyer and merchant banker who defended the former MI5 agent Peter Wright in the Spycatcher case, singled out Mr Howard for blame. "He knew that most Australians want a republic and he had the chance to shape an inevitable transition, to leave his mark upon it," he said. "Whatever else John Howard achieves, history will remember him for only one thing. He was the Prime Minister who broke this nation's heart."

Mr Turnbull, who has devoted the past nine years and millions of dollars of his own money to the republican campaign, did not use those words lightly. As he left the room to deafening applause and an impromptu rendition of "Advance Australia Fair", the national anthem, tears rolled down his face.

Across the room, Tom Keneally, author of Schindler's List and leading republican, was being comforted by his wife, Judy. Mr Keneally said: "I am desolated. All bets are off, but Australia is definitely republican. We will finish it. I want to be buried in a fraternal republic."

Today a nation that has torn itself apart for the past six weeks will begin the inevitable recriminations, and it may be that Mr Howard is one casualty of the fall-out. He has made it plain that he wants yesterday's vote to be the end of the story and has said that, while he is in office, there will not be another referendum "over his dead body".

But the republican yearnings in the country will not be quelled so easily. Kim Beazley, the Labor opposition leader, has promised to reopen the constitutional debate, but the next general election is not until 2001, and it will take a brave political leader to tackle this profoundly divisive issue once again.

In 14 months, Australia will celebrate the centenary of Federation, when the six self-governing states came together as one nation. Australians with a sense of history had hoped that 1 January 2001 would be the date on which the new republic would come into being.

They wanted to throw off the final vestiges of their colonial past and show the outside world that they truly are a modern, vibrant, multicultural nation that can stand on its own two feet. Instead, they will enter the new millennium ruled over by a hereditary monarch in a distant land.