Howard holds back tide of history

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The Independent Online
ROBERT MILLIKEN

Sydney

The stunning general election victory of John Howard, Australia's new Prime Minister, will slow moves towards making Australia a republic - but it will not change the direction of movement.

Taking up the pro-republic momentum generated by Paul Keating, the defeated Labor prime minister, will be nowhere near the top of Mr Howard's list of priorities. The overwhelming victory by the conservative Liberal Party, headed by Mr Howard, and its National Party coalition partner means that Australia is likely to take a longer and more winding road towards a republican future.

Mr Howard, whose victory was the culmination of a 22-year political career, comes from the conservative heartland of middle Australia. He believes that Australia's Constitutional links with the British monarchy have served it well and that Mr Keating had pursued a new trade and foreign policy focus for Australia in Asia at the expense of traditional ties with Britain and the United States.

Claiming victory before cheering supporters in Sydney on Saturday, he said he would take his "emphatic mandate" of a possible 50-seat majority in parliament as a signal to change all that. "We have not been elected just to be a pale imitation of the government we're replacing," he declared.

Yet even Mr Howard, nicknamed "Honest John", has been obliged to acknowledge that the tide of history has turned public opinion in multicultural Australia increasingly against retaining the Queen as head of state. Opinion polls show that a majority of people, especially younger Australians, favour replacing her with an Australian president. Despite his opposition to the Keating republic agenda for a referendum before 2000, Mr Howard has pledged to set up a convention in 1997 to examine reforms to Australia's 19th-century written constitution, including changing the head of state.

Reiterating his pledge during the election campaign, Mr Howard said that, if a consensus on a republican model emerged from the convention, the government would put that consensus to Australians in a referendum. If there was no consensus, then the government would hold a series of non- binding plebiscites on options. "If this country is ever to become a republic," Mr Howard said, "it ought to be a uniting and unifying moment in our history, not an occasion which leaves a section of the population feeling as though they weren't properly consulted."

Even as the Labor Party reeled from its debacle yesterday, the question of maintaining its drive towards an Australian republic was being discussed in the event that the party could return to power in 1999 after one term of coalition government. After Mr Keating announced his intention to resign as Labor leader on Saturday, party strategists and surviving MPs began closing ranks around Kim Beazley, the former Minister for Finance and former deputy prime minister, as his most likely successor.

Bob Hawke, the former Labor prime minister whom Mr Keating unseated as party leader four years ago, described Mr Beazley as a "warm, avuncular, cuddly bloke" with great experience and a "first-class mind". Mr Beazley, a former Rhodes Scholar, was himself struggling last night to retain his constituency of Brand, in Western Australia. Asked yesterday if republicanism was a high priority for him, he replied: "It is, and it's of great importance for the country."

Republicanism, however, had little, if anything, to do with Labor's massacre at the polls on Saturday, its most shattering election defeat since 1975 when Gough Whitlam's Labor government was swamped in a coalition landslide. After vote-counting stopped on Saturday night, Mr Keating's government appeared to have lost 30 seats. Depending on distribution of preference votes from marginal constituencies, Labor may be left with 47 seats in the 148-seat House of Representatives. Three Keating ministers lost their seats, and three more are unlikely to survive when counting resumes today.

Labor suffered a national negative voting swing of 5 per cent. In New South Wales, the most populous state, and Mr Keating's power base, the anti-Labor swing was 9 per cent. Labor reaped a backlash there from the unpopularity of the state government headed by Bob Carr, the only remaining federal or state Labor administration in the country. Ironically, some of that backlash came from an outcry over Mr Carr's decision in January to downgrade the vice-regal role of the state governor, a decision he belatedly reversed the day before the federal election.

Mr Keating lost the election largely because, after 13 years of Labor government, his brand of "vision politics" had ceased to strike a chord with Australians who were looking for answers to more fundamental questions such as national unemployment at 8.6 per cent, and three times that figure for youth unemployment in some areas.

Media battle, page 16

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