Queen losing stamp of authority

Australia ready to decide on republican vote
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Robert Milliken


Australia will elect delegates later this year to a constitutional convention that will decide whether the country should go ahead and hold a referendum on becoming a republic.

The convention, to be held in the first half of 1998, will be the most searching examination Australians have conducted on the question of abolishing the monarchy and, if opinion polls are any guide, it could be the precursor for a referendum on a republic passing a popular vote early in the next century.

The conservative coalition government led by John Howard promised the convention when it was elected last year, even though Mr Howard himself is a monarchist who has done his best to bury the republican debate. But opinion polls - which show that more than half Australians want a republic, a continuing campaign by the Australian Republican Movement and the "coming out" as republicans of several prominent MPs in Mr Howard's Liberal Party - left him no option but to go ahead with his promise.

When he put forward legislation to set up the convention, however, it struck trouble in the senate, the upper house of federal parliament, where the Democrats, a small left-of-centre party, and some Independent MPs hold the balance of power. They and the opposition Labor Party were outraged by Mr Howard's plan for half the 152 delegates to the proposed convention to be elected and the rest to be appointed by the government. For the elected half, the government is proposing a voluntary postal ballot. Labor and its republican allies in the senate demanded that voting should be compulsory, as it is for general elections in Australia, and that all delegates be elected.

The legislation failed its first passage through the senate, and looked likely to fail again when the government re-submitted it, killing off the convention altogether, something Mr Howard would have been quite happy about. But a last-minute compromise yesterday by Bob Brown, a Green Senate member from Tasmania, means it will now go ahead. Mr Brown announced he would abandon his opposition to the voluntary postal ballot because he would rather have such a convention than none at all. Convention delegates will come from a cross-section of groups.

The convention is likely to re-ignite the country's republic debate, which was started by Paul Keating, the former Labor prime minister, who planned to hold a referendum on the issue by 2000. Despite Mr Howard's reticence, republicanism is likely to gather momentum as Australians prepare to mark their biggest national birthday in 100 years, the centenary of federation in 2001.