In his most dramatic commitment so far towards making Australia a republic, Paul Keating yesterday promised that if his Labor government wins the general election it will hold a plebiscite within a year on replacing the Queen with an Australian as head of state.
To sustained, loud applause from supporters in Melbourne, where he formally launched his campaign for the 2 March election, the Prime Minister declared: "We believe that Australia's head of state should be one of us. We believe that an Australian head of state should welcome in the new century, should open the [Sydney] Olympic Games in the year 2000, should represent us abroad in this nation's second century."
At the last election three years ago, Mr Keating promised to devise a "model" for an Australian republic with a view to holding a referendum before 2001, the centenary of the country's federation. Yesterday's announcement makes that commitment more finite. If Labor wins next month, there will be a plebiscite, a non-binding popular vote, within a year of the first sitting of the new parliament on the question: "Do you want an Australian to be Australia's head of state?"
If the answer is yes, the government would set up a select committee from both houses of Parliament to make recommendations for a constitutional amendment to be put at a later referendum. Neither government nor opposition would have a majority on the committee. This reflects Mr Keating's belief that, without bipartisan support, a referendum on republicanism would be a waste of time.
Mr Keating's fanfare revival of the republican issue half way through the election campaign came as the government was fighting to claw back ground from the conservative Liberal-National coalition, which has led in opinion polls by up to 10 points so far. A poll in the Bulletin, a national news magazine, boosted Labor's morale when it showed a tighter gap with Labor at 49 points and the coalition at 51. Mr Keating led John Howard, the opposition leader, as preferred prime minister by 51 points to 42.
But Labor strategists have a hard road ahead. A lacklustre television debate between Mr Keating and Mr Howard last Sunday, the first of two planned for the campaign, produced no real winner and only appeared to confirm a mood among Australians that, while they believe the 13-year- old Labor government has been in power long enough, they are hardly inspired by Mr Howard, who is due to launch his campaign on Sunday.
At his launch yesterday, Mr Keating offered just three specific promises: the republic plebiscite; A$300m (pounds 150m) to buy computers for schools; and initiatives to help older Australians, the last possibly inspired by polls which show that the over-45s have swung against Labor. Otherwise, standing alone on a large stage, the word "Leadership" suspended above him, Mr Keating called on Australians to judge him on his record as a man of vision who has repositioned Australia's place in the world
"It is the greatest challenge we have ever faced as a nation," he said. "By the year 2000 we should be able to say that this predominantly British and European country has learned to live securely, in peace and mutual prosperity, among our Asian and Pacific neighbours."
While Mr Keating was pitching his republican vision to multicultural Australia, the opposition was in turmoil over remarks by two of its candidates in north Queensland, one of Australia's most conservative regions. Bob Burgess, a National Party candidate for the marginal constituency of Leichhardt, near Cairns, caused an outcry recently by describing functions at which immigrants take out Australian citizenship as "de-wogging ceremonies".
He also called on "traditional" Australians to reclaim the word "gay" from homosexuals and described as "garbage" the idea that more women were needed in parliament to represent women's interests. "The real men of Australia care about their women," he said.
Yesterday, Bob Katter, Mr Burgess's fellow Queensland candidate, sprang to his defence on national radio when he said: "He has paid no truck to the politically correct brigade and he is also making the Leichhardt seat a testing ground for those who are game to defy the politically correct enviro-Nazis and femi-Nazis and all the rest of these little slanty-eyed ideologues who persecute ordinary, average Australians."
Mr Howard, the Liberal Party leader, disowned the remarks. But Mr Keating is likely to seize on them to whip Mr Howard, whom he portrayed yesterday as "the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had"