Monarchists head for win, but dare not mention the Queen

HAD YOU not known better, you could have been forgiven for expecting to see a portrait of the Queen yesterday in the conference hall in Sydney where Australian monarchists held their final rally before the constitutional referendum that could mean curtains for the sovereign.

You might have expected to hear a ringing endorsement of Her Majesty by loyal subjects in the far-flung former colony where she faces her darkest hour - or, at the very least, a rendition of "God Save the Queen".

You would have been sorely disappointed. For the people who are leading the campaign against an Australian republic are not conventional monarchists. They tie themselves up in knots to avoid mentioning the Royal Family, and they never defend the institution of the monarchy.

The reason for this omission - so glaring that republicans have put up "Wanted" posters that refer to the Queen and the Prince of Wales as "missing in action" - is simple. There are few old-fashioned monarchists in Australia - too few to secure a "no" vote in Saturday's referendum, which proposes replacing the Queen with a president as Australia's head of state. What is more, for many Australians the Royals are a turn-off.

Thus 10 speakers took to the podium at the Sydney Convention Centre yesterday without so much as a hint of the Q-word passing their lips. Eventually, an hour and 40 minutes into the rally, Tony Abbott, a government minister, described a fellow speaker as "a loyal servant of Her Majesty the Queen". A frisson ran through the hall, as if he had uttered a profanity.

Rather than thump the tub for the Royals, the monarchists have adopted the extraordinary strategy of allying themselves to a splinter group of republicans who are so strongly opposed to the style of republic envisaged that they would rather keep the current system.

This coalition with dissident republicans - who want a president to be elected by popular vote, rather than appointed by two-thirds of parliament, as is planned - is not some informal arrangement. It has become the cornerstone of the campaign by the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), the country's main monarchist organisation, and it is working, if the opinion polls are to be believed.

The slogan of the ACM's latest television commercial is: "If you want to elect the president, vote `no' to the politicians' republic", the message being that Australians who favour direct election - a majority, according to the polls - should hold fire for a second referendum, proposing a different kind of republic.

Yesterday's rally offered the surreal spectacle of dyed-in-the-wool monarchists such as Mr Abbott sharing a platform with Bill Hayden, a former governor- general and leading "direct election" republican.

As for the 400 people in the audience, they could have come straight from a nursing home; it was hard to keep a straight face when Kerry Jones, executive director of the ACM, declared that "no" voters hailed from all age groups.

When Sir Harry Gibbs, a former High Court chief justice, embarked on a convoluted exposition of the constitutional flaws of the republic, several people nodded off, overcome by the excitement.

The problem facing the monarchists is the difficulty of becoming passionate about the status quo; the sentiment expressed on several T-shirts yesterday - "Who says we have to change?" - hardly makes the pulse race. The "no" campaign lacks charismatic speakers - Mr Abbott is its only effective orator - and celebrity support.

The sole touch of glamour, if that is the right word, at the rally was provided by James Blundell, a country music singer who composed the monarchists' anthem, "The People's Protest". The song contains immortal lines such as: "So we'll vote `no' in November, This republic's not the way, We'll vote `no' in November, Let the people keep their say." If the mainstream republicans are to be believed, the ACM is broke, having spent most of the pounds 2.9m given to each campaign out of public funds. The monarchists deny it, although volunteers with collection buckets worked the rows of seats with grim determination yesterday.

It does not matter if the "no" campaign is not as slick or sexy as that of the republicans. The ACM has already sown enough fear and confusion in the minds of a timorous electorate to ensure that the referendum will almost certainly be defeated.

Yesterday Bronwyn Bishop, another government minister and the ACM's scaremonger- in-chief, warned that a president appointed by parliament would be a dictator. She ended with the rallying cry:

"If in doubt, vote `no'."

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