Opposition offers second chance to vote for republic

IN A LAST-DITCH attempt to entice the large numbers of Australian voters who want to be able to elect their own president, the opposition leader, Kim Beazley, pledged yesterday that he would stage a second referendum offering a more populist style of republic.

But Mr Beazley warned that this could happen only if there was a "yes" vote in the first referendum this Saturday, when Australians will be asked whether they want to remove the Queen as head of state.

The other condition that would need to be met, of course, is that Mr Beazley's Australian Labor Party, which is campaigning hard for a republic, would have to win the next general election in 2001. His appeal was aimed at "direct election" republicans, who dislike the prospect of a president being appointed by two-thirds of parliament, as is currently envisaged. These are the voters whose actions will deter-mine whether Saturday's referendum is carried.

But Mr Beazley's intervention may have come too late. The latest opinion poll puts the anti-republicans well ahead, confirming the conclusions of other polls and suggesting that the republic is, for now, almost certainly doomed.

The Newspoll survey, published in The Australian newspaper yesterday, found that 54 per cent of people nationally are planning to vote "no" and 42 per cent "yes". The poll also concluded that the "yes" case is trailing badly in the two crucial states of New South Wales and Victoria. For the referendum to succeed, it must be approved by a majority of people nationally and in four out of Australia's six states.

Women are proving especially resistant to change. The poll found that only 32 per cent approve of the referendum proposal, with 58 per cent against. Men are evenly divided, with 49 per cent planning to vote "yes" and 49 per cent "no". In every age group, opponents outnumber supporters of a republic. A second referendum question, proposing that the Australian constitution be given a new preamble that recognises the Aborigines as the first occupants of the land, also looks likely to be defeated.

Mr Beazley's promise is that if voters behave themselves and approve the unpopular republic offered on Saturday, a Labor government will organise a second referendum in which Australians will be able to vote on whether the president should be directly elected by the people. In what was in effect also an election pitch, Mr Beazley said: "If there is a "yes" vote, then a subsequent Labor government - assuming we win the next poll - will put a direct election proposal to the Australian electorate for them to consider."

Greg Barns, the campaign director of the Australian Republican Movement, the main republican organisation, said last night that recent opinion polls had fluctuated wildly because people kept changing their minds. "There is an outrageous, dishonest scare campaign being run by our opponents, which has bitten to some extent," he said.

"But people are starting to turn off that now and the momentum is with us."

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