Monarchy will be but a memory: With the election of Paul Keating, Australia moves a step closer to becoming a republic, says Robert Milliken

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The monarchy's tenure in Australia may have been shortened by Paul Keating's victory in the general election on Saturday. Now that he has won his first victory in his own right, he has pledged to press ahead with plans for a referendum by the end of the decade that would allow Australians to choose whether to replace the Queen with an Australian president as head of state.

If Australia abandons the monarchy, it will be the first of the old white dominions to do so. Opinion polls indicate a majority of Australians now support a republic. This has come about in a short time. A poll in 1990 showed 58 per cent of those questioned wanted to stick with the Queen. Another poll last year produced 55 per cent in favour of a republic; among 25- to 40-year-olds, it was 71 per cent.

The issue has gathered momentum because of renewed debate about national identity as the country approaches 2001, the centenary of when Australia's self- governing colonies joined in a federation and the target date republicans have set for change. That debate reflects rapid changes to a country that, only a generation ago, barely questioned the Queen's place in its affairs.

Compare two Sydney street processions 40 years apart. When the Queen visited Australia in 1954, more than half a million people crammed inner Sydney to cheer her through the streets. Hundreds slept on footpaths overnight, and the city was decorated with flags, banners and arches that said 'God Bless Our Queen'. The occasion marked the high point of Australia's devotion to the monarchy, and it was destined never to be repeated. When the Queen returned last year, there was no bunting and the crowds had dwindled to a few thousand.

Nearly 40 years later, crowds of the 1954 dimension turn out for processions of a different sort. Before the election, half a million people lined the streets under a balmy night sky to watch the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. What began as a minority gathering a few years ago has grown into Australia's largest and most colourful annual street parade, drawing spectators from all walks of life to watch a glitzy procession in which men dressed up as women carry placards saying 'It takes balls to be a Queen' and 'Sluts for Jesus'. Such irreverent behaviour would have landed them in prison in 1954.

Social revolutions in Australia in the past 40 years have done much to diminish the monarchy's allure. What was a uniformly Anglo-Celtic country, to which the monarchy was an essential link with Britain, has become a multicultural and multi- focused society, to many of whose citizens the British monarchy's survival in their system has become at best a curiosity but mainly an irrelevance. The trappings of monarchy that remind Britons of the institution's role in the social fabric are entirely absent in Australia. Far from being an outlet for public spectacle, a royal visit only serves to remind Australians of the growing constitutional chasm with Britain.

Republicanism flourished in the 1890s after Australia had transformed itself, against the odds, from a British convict outpost into the world's most prosperous country. The Bulletin, then a radical nationalist magazine, lampooned Queen Victoria and the British, but the invective did not last. Australia's fear of invasion by the 'Yellow Peril' from the north - Japan and China - put thoughts of cutting its constitutional ties with Britain into a slumber for another 70 years. Britain unwittingly nudged them awake when it joined the EC in 1973, burying the cosy system of imperial trading preferences. Australia, meanwhile, turned Japan into its leading trading partner and abandoned its pernicious 'white Australia' policy to the point where combined immigrant numbers from Hong Kong, Vietnam and other Asian countries now outnumber those from Britain and Ireland.

The Australian Republican Movement (ARM) was formed in 1991 by a group of prominent Australians, including Malcolm Turnbull, a Sydney lawyer and merchant banker. He is best remembered as the counsel for Peter Wright, the former MI5 agent, in the Spycatcher affair seven years ago in which Australian courts dismissed a bid by the Thatcher government to stop publication of Mr Wright's book. Mr Turnbull, the ARM director, said: 'I have always been a republican, but the Spycatcher affair radicalised me.'

Although in 1986 Australia abolished the final legal and political remnants of its colonial links with Britain, the ARM argues that the country will not achieve proper nationhood until it has its own head of state. 'No matter how much one may personally admire the Queen, no amount of tinkering with titles or strategically placed sprays of wattle (a native Australian flower) can render her Australian,' said Mr Turnbull.

'She is, and is seen by the world as being, the Queen of Britain. She has never promoted the sale of Australian goods, never represented Australia in foreign countries. She is only Queen of Australia while here on her fleeting visits. Her presence at the apex of our constitutional pyramid is a denial of nationhood. She stands there because Australia was not a nation, not independent, when our constitution was enacted. She remains there because too many Australians are still ashamed of themselves and their nation.'

Such statements have goaded the Queen's supporters in Australia to defend her. Australians for Constitutional Monarchy was formed by an eclectic group of prominent figures including a former High Court chief justice, a serving judge, a university chancellor, an Aboriginal former MP, a leading artist and a former director of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. They argue that Australia's identity is not affected by retaining a system which is part of its history, and that it is not worth sacrificing the Crown's unifying role for what they term 'the peril of populist politics'.

However, even some die-hard conservatives are starting to have trouble accepting this. Gerard Henderson, who runs a Sydney right-wing think-tank, drew attention last week to the Prince of Wales's speech in Paris in December when he seemed to condone the protectionist policies of French agriculture - policies that every Australian political party violently opposes in the interest of securing a better deal for Australian farm exports. In a newspaper article headlined 'The tide ebbs for King Charles of Oz', Mr Henderson wrote: 'If this continues, it will become virtually impossible for Australia to have a British-born European as its monarch . . . The perceived conflicts of interest would be too great by far.'

Paul Keating's role has been to use his Irish-Catholic and political instincts to be the first Australian leader openly to support republicanism. 'It's time,' he said at his election campaign launch three weeks ago. This reflected his belief that Australia needs to reform structures and attitudes wedded to the past, which he believes are holding it back. Asked on the campaign trail in Queensland why he favoured a republic, he replied: 'It's not just a cultural thing. It's economic. We will never make our way and feel comfortable with ourselves in the Asia-Pacific region unless we have clarity about our identity and who we are. It all starts from there.'

Last year, Mr Keating's government dropped a reference to the Queen in the oath of allegiance that new immigrants take. Now he has won a mandate to set his own agenda for the Nineties, there is no reason for him not to take some even bigger steps.