Australians to vote on whether to sever ties to British crown; Approval would lead to republic, with president chosen by politicians


SYDNEY, Australia -- In a referendum that could end more than 200 years of formal ties with Britain, Australians are going to the polls today to decide whether to cut their ties to the British royal family.

The vote will determine if Australia, born as a British penal colony, will drop Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and scrap its 98-year-old constitutional monarchy in favor of a republic.

Polls have shown that as many as 75 percent of Australians favor becoming a republic, in which a largely ceremonial president would replace the queen as Australia's head of state.

But the referendum offers voters a republic with a president chosen by the prime minister, opposition leader and Parliament, not directly elected by the people -- a model that some republicans say they won't support.

So, the referendum may lose -- not because of love for the queen, but because many distrust Australian politicians more than they dislike the British monarch, political analysts said.

Even though it recognizes the British monarch as its head of state, Australia is fully independent and boasts one of the world's most stable democracies.

Queen Elizabeth's powers as Australian head of state are largely symbolic. Her representative -- the governor-general, who is Australian -- signs parliamentary bills and attends ceremonies.

He holds the power to dismiss governments but rarely does so. The last time was 1975, when an Australian Labor Party prime minister was shown out.

Monarchists contend that the British crown's most important contribution is to curb the worst excesses of local politicians, thereby ensuring the very stability of Australia's political system.

"It may seem to the rest of the world to be an archaic system," said Pat Woodley, a businesswoman and former Miss Australia in her 70s. "It may be archaic, but it works, and it safeguards us from the power grabs of the politicians."

Frank Millen, a republican in the country town of Albury, in New South Wales state, says there is truth to that argument.

"But that same brake would be applied by an indirectly elected president rather than the queen's representative here," he said.

Like many Australians, Millen, 44, traces his republican beliefs to his childhood, when he and his classmates had to sing "God Save The Queen" every morning. When he joined the Australian navy, he had to swear allegiance to the queen -- not Australia.

"There was always that unfortunate requirement of expressing devotion to things British rather than things Australian," said Millen, who owns a small Internet and mobile communications business.

Breaking this final, formal tie to Britain is "to a large degree symbolism, but it's also a last step to sever ourselves conceptually from being a British dependency," he said.

Such republican sentiments have existed in Australia for decades, but this is the first time the question has been put to a vote.

For much of the campaign, the debate has been muted, with republicans and monarchists trading slogans: "A Resident for President," the catchy motto coined by republican Thomas Keneally, the novelist who wrote "Schindler's List" -- countered by the appropriately staid monarchist rallying cry, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it."

The republicans have carefully avoided direct attacks on the queen. But they have tried to arouse passions by raising the specter of a bumbling British King Charles III becoming Australia's head of state with a conniving Queen Camilla at his side.

The monarchists rarely mention the queen. Instead, their campaign is stressing the fact that if the republic is approved, the president would be chosen by that most hated of Australian species -- politicians.

They're also appealing to republicans who want a directly elected president by urging them to reject "this republic" -- implying that a "no" vote would lead to another vote on a republic with a directly elected president, political analysts said.

But, as conservative Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch monarchist, made clear this past week, the question won't be put to a vote again anytime soon.

The republic forces face the hurdle of having to win a double majority: more than 50 percent of the votes cast nationally, and more than 50 percent of the votes cast in four of six states.

Pub Date: 11/06/99

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