Keating sets a date for ousting the Queen

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The Independent Online

in Sydney

After 207 years of constitutional links with the British Crown, Australians will vote within four years in a referendum on a republic.

Announcing the plan to parliament in Canberra last night in a nationally televised speech, Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, called on Australians to ditch the monarchy in 2001 by appealing to the same spirit of nationalism that saw the colonies unite in a federation in 1901.

"Our course is simple and, we believe, irresistible," he said, "as simple and irresistible as the idea of a Commonwealth of Australia was to the Australians of the 1890s. Our goal now echoes that founding sentiment of a century ago. It flows from the fact that we are all Australians. We share a continent. We share a past, present and a future. And our head of state should be one of us."

For the first time since becoming Prime Minister in 1991, Mr Keating was giving Australians a precise timetable for introducing the proposed republic, for which he has campaigned, and describing the politically explosive question of how a president would be appointed.

His speech formed the government's long-awaited response to a report 18 months ago by the Republic Advisory Committee, under Malcolm Turnbull, a prominent Sydney lawyer.

In adopting some key recommendations, Mr Keating said, the government wanted a "minimalist" approach to changing Australia's written constitution to remove all references to the Queen, the Crown and the Governor-General, the monarch's representative.

The president would be nominated by the prime minister of the day and appointed by a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of both houses of the federal parliament. (Now, the prime minister nominates a single candidate for Governor-General for appointment by the Queen).

The president would serve for five years, and no politician would be eligible for nomination until five years after leaving politics. Australia would remain a member of the Commonwealth, headed by the Queen.

The constitutional proposals would go to a referendum in 1998 or 1999 and, if passed, take effect in 2001. Recent opinion polls indicate about half of Australians favour becoming a republic. On how the president should be appointed, however, polls show an overwhelming majority want a direct popular election.

Mr Keating explained last night that the government had rejected that method because it would mean the head of state "would inherit a basis of power that would prove to be fundamentally at odds with our Westminster system of government. With a popularly elected president, potential would exist for the representative and democratically elected parliamentary chambers, the repositories of the diffuse power of Australian democracy, to be gradually diminished, while the embodiment of the nation and great powers were vested in one person."

Mr Keating said that, if a fresh Australian constitution was being written today, any suggestion that the monarch should fill the role of head of state would not be entertained. "This is not because our generation lacks respect for the British mon- archy, or the British people or our British heritage or the British institutions we have made our own or our long friendship with the British in peace and war. On the contrary, Australians everywhere respect them as they respect the Queen. But they are not Australian."

Creating an Australian republic, he suggested, would bring a "more thoroughly modern relationship" with Britain, for which John Major had expressed a desire two years ago.

Mr Keating's blueprint, with its failure to spell out specific powers for a president, is likely to spark vigorous debate. John Howard, the Opposition leader, delivers his response tonight, but said: "These are much bigger changes than the Prime Minister would have us believe. A referendum should not be held unless a special constitutional convention is set up beforehand to examine the changes."

Lloyd Waddy, a former MP and a convenor of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, said: "This is going to alienate and upset a large number of people. If you take away the monarchy and replace it with a former politician ... you are creating a new tiger without a cage."