Keating takes first step on republican road: Australian PM moves to drop monarchy

PAUL KEATING, Australia's Prime Minister, last night took the first formal steps towards making the country a republic when he appointed Malcolm Turnbull, a prominent lawyer and banker, to head a body which will examine ways of ending constitutional links with the monarchy.

Mr Turnbull is a leading advocate of republicanism, and is best known in Britain as the lawyer who represented Peter Wright, the former MI5 agent, in his successful court battle in Australia seven years ago against the British government's attempt to stop publication of his book, Spycatcher. Mr Turnbull said recently: 'I have always been a republican, but the Spycatcher affair radicalised me.'

He will chair a body called the Republic Advisory Committee, which will report to Canberra by September on what Mr Keating described as 'the minimum constitutional changes necessary to achieve a viable Federal Republic of Australia'. The committee's other members are two former politicians, a newsreader on Australia's multicultural television network, the chairwoman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, a historian and a constitutional lawyer.

In establishing the committee, Mr Keating was following up a campaign pledge from the general election last month. In a speech last night, he said the committee would describe the main arguments for and against changing the constitution, without recommending preferred choices, on seven main questions. 'The first is removal of all references to the monarch and the governor-general as the Queen's representative in the constitution,' Mr Keating said.

The other questions covered the creation of a new office of head of state, its title, method of appointment and powers and the implications for the governors - the vice-regal representatives - in Australia's six states if the country becomes a republic.

Mr Keating stressed that the government wanted the committee to achieve consensus about principles, and that actual detail of what might be put to the people in a referendum by the end of the decade would be a matter for a different body altogether.

He said: 'Our Head of State, the British monarch, cannot in the nature of things ever be a purely Australian head of state since she holds that office in relation to a range of other countries. And the monarchy, being hereditary, gives us no choice about who the person might be. It implies no criticism of the monarch to question whether this arrangement remains meaningful and relevant to Australia today.'

The day before Mr Keating's speech, the republican cause was quietly nudged ahead when Michael Lavarch, the last minister in Mr Keating's re-elected government to be sworn in, dropped any reference to the Queen in his oath of office.