Howard puts fresh gloss on the old ties

Australian PM's first visit to Britain marks a sea change in relations, writes Robert Milliken

Sydney - When John Howard, the Australian prime minister, arrives in Britain today, he will be more interested to bolster his country's sagging cricket fortunes than its republican credentials.

Making his first visit to Britain since the election 15 months ago of the conservative Liberal-National coalition (Australia's Tories), Mr Howard will reinforce the sea change that has happened in Australia since his Labor predecessor, Paul Keating, told the Queen at Balmoral in 1993 that it was time Australia replaced her with a head of state of its own.

Mr Howard is an old-fashioned monarchist and cricket-lover, who believes Australia should maintain the constitutional arrangements under which it has been governed for the past 96 years, with the British monarch as head of state. But his election reflected a disenchantment with 13 years of Labor Party rule more than a rejection of the republican cause. Opinion polls still indicate that more than half Australian voters want a republic.

So, much as he would like to keep the topic off his British agenda, Mr Howard will be obliged to tell the Queen during his audience with her later this week that he will be convening a 10-day constitutional convention in Canberra in December during which delegates will canvass options through which Australia could amend its constitution to abolish links with the monarchy.

The other issue which Mr Howard would like to leave at home, but which is also likely to dog him here, is a row over his government's approach to Aborigines. The focus is a chilling report released last month of an inquiry, ordered by the Keating government, into the "stolen generation" - an estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children taken from their parents up to the 1960s, and put in white foster homes.

The report's author, Sir Ronald Wilson, president of Australia's human rights commission, described such practices as "genocide" because their ultimate aim was to obliterate Aboriginal culture. This was so, he argued, because Australia's now discredited approach at the time was to separate indigenous babies and children from their traditional backgrounds in the belief that a white upbringing offered them a "better" future. For thousands of so-called beneficiaries, the policies proved a disaster.

Sir Ronald called on the government to apologise formally on behalf of the country. Mr Howard has baulked at this. Instead, he has said he is "personally" sorry. He maintained that a formal apology could open a flood of compensation claims. But Mr Howard is far less sympathetic than Mr Keating was to the way reconciliation with Aborigines over past injustices has become a flashpoint of Australian politics.

Supporters of the "stolen children" are taking the cause to London, with newspaper letters and advertisements calling on Mr Howard to think again and apologise. His critics contrast his stand-offish manner with President Clinton's official apology to black Americans unwittingly used as guinea pigs in experiments on untreated syphilis up to the 1970s.

Mr Howard's talks with Mr Blair will focus on measures to reduce unemployment, which last week climbed to 8.8 per cent in Australia. Philosophically, Mr Blair is more in tune with Paul Keating, from whom he allegedly borrowed some social policies, than with Mr Howard.

The British and Australian governments this year are spending millions of pounds on a programme called New Images, designed to revive cultural, scientific and educational links between the two countries. New images is a term many people associate more with Tony Blair than with John Howard. It will be a challenge for this unlikely pair to put a fresh mask on an old relationship.

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