Leading Article: A question of Australia's self-respect

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The Independent Online
EVEN leaders of the opposition Liberal Party have this week come out in support of moves to make Australia a republic by 2001, the centenary of its states joining together in a federation. Until recently the Liberal (in reality, conservative) Party was considered to be a solid defender of the constitutional status quo. But it restrained itself from rising to the bait of the Labor leader Paul Keating's republicanism in last month's election, realising that to defend the monarchy would look unpatriotic. The election's dominant issue was the Liberals' proposal for a VAT-like sales tax. Unexpectedly, voters opted to give Labor a record fifth consecutive victory.

Yet even if republicanism was not an election issue, Mr Keating had clearly struck a chord in committing himself in February to a referendum on whether Australia should cease to be a monarchy - a chord amplified by the behaviour of members of the Royal Family. The Liberals do not want to be left out: hence this week's proposal from John Fahey, Liberal Premier of New South Wales, that state governments take part in a constitutional convention this year to consider how the move might be made. His call was promptly supported by three other state leaders. Mr Keating's own plan is for a committee of eminent persons to examine possible procedures.

With such signs that there will be bipartisan support for constitutional change, there is little doubt that there will be the necessary majority of votes and of states in its support. Only the most monarchist of Britons are likely to take offence. For most people in this country it surely makes little sense that a mature democracy should have a head of state of a different nationality.

No great upheaval would be involved. The real constitutional change came with the Australia Act of 1986, which removed Westminster's residual powers to legislate for Australia and its states. Being a republic would not affect Australia's membership of the Commonwealth, of whose 50 members 29 are already republics. It would, however, stop the Queen referring in Canberra to 'my Parliament'; and not before time.

For Australia, becoming a republic is essentially about self-respect and identity. The republican trend was always there, thanks to large numbers of Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants. Among factors that accelerated it was an upsurge of cultural activity in the Sixties; the jolt of Britain's accession to the European Community in 1973; and large-scale immigration from Mediterranean and Far Eastern countries. With the opposition now boarding the bandwagon, the momentum has become irresistible - to a point where the target date of 2001 may come to seem frustratingly distant. Meanwhile, the gathering debate may strike a few chords here in Britain.