Leading Article: Australia's right to become a republic

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The Independent Online
PRINCE CHARLES was right to say, after his brush with danger yesterday, that the debate in Australia over moves to make the country a republic is the sign of a mature and self-confident nation. For it is a question that centres upon the wish among Australians to define Australia itself. It is not, therefore, a choice that is likely to yield a definitive verdict upon the virtues or defects of the monarchy in Britain itself.

The Prime Minister, Paul Keating, has won considerable political support for his proposal to turn the country into a Republic by 2001, 100 years after its component states united in a federation. It is not yet clear, however, that the overall majority of Australians feel so sure. Opinion polls suggest the cause is far from won. Prince Charles said in a judiciously chosen phrase that the Royal Family would happily accept the verdict of all Australians on their future constitutional relationship.

Mr Keating and the House of Windsor thus seem to be at one in favouring a referendum to determine the outcome. It promises to be a fascinating exercise in deciding a national identity. Australia has come a long way in the last four decades from the steadfast dominion that stood at our side through two world wars. Australians witnessed a crude shift in interests when Britain embraced the European Community in 1973 and, thus repelled, they turned their focus upon South-east Asia and the Pacific basin. The country absorbed great numbers of immigrants from a variety of cultures, so that the dialects of Calabria and Piraeus resound in Melbourne, while Sydney is one of the world's greatest cosmopolitan cities. All of this makes the residual attraction of the British monarchy a diminishing asset.

So the Australian Republic, if it comes about, would exist through the assertion of will as a nation free of foreign ties. The change would produce little practical effect, since the Australia Act of 1986 removed the last vestiges of real power from Britain. Yet it certainly seems an anachronism that a modern and successful democracy should have a head of state of different nationality, and many Australians feel mildly patronised, if not affronted.

Prince Charles spoke effectively yesterday of people's confusion in a world of technological and economic change, their search for new certainties and their possible attachment to systems tried, tested and true. His message was clear. But if a majority of Australians voice their wish to sever this last symbol of a more certain age, their decision deserves to be greeted with understanding by the British people.