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Australians Gearing Up for Royal Battle : Independence: Loyal subjects debate republicans as nation prepares for referendum on cutting ties to British monarchy. Election is expected in about three years.


SYDNEY, Australia — Americans freed themselves from a British monarch by fighting a war two centuries ago. Australians are getting ready to do the same through a constitutional referendum, without a Redcoat in sight.

Prime Minister Paul Keating, whose Labor government was reelected March 13, promised in the campaign to declare a republic within seven years.

He said Australians, loyal subjects of the British crown since white settlement began in 1788, must become "masters of their own destiny."

If the referendum wins, Queen Elizabeth II will be replaced by a president as head of state, her likeness no longer will appear on the currency and the Union Jack will be removed from the top left corner of the flag.

Keating plans to appoint a group of eminent Australians to weigh the issues and help educate the public before the referendum, which is expected in about three years.

Although Australia is an independent nation, it has kept the reigning British monarch as head of state, represented by an appointed governor general. Sixteen other former colonies, such as Canada and New Zealand, do the same.

The prime minister argues for a change now that Britain is part of the European Community and Australia seeks closer ties with economically booming Asia.

He wants the constitution amended and a "Federal Republic of Australia" declared by Jan. 1, 2001, the start of a millennium and the 100th anniversary of the federation of the six Australian states.

Not everyone applauds the idea.

"Hands off our constitution and hands off our flag!" is the war cry of the main group of anti-republicans, Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. They argue that the current system has served Australia well and should remain.

Lloyd Waddy, their leader, said having the British monarch as a head of state not involved in politics has helped maintain democratic stability in Australia.

"To tinker with the role of the British crown is to imperil national unity," he declared.

Waddy also pointed out that only a few referendums have succeeded in Australia, but the rival Australian Republican Movement feels this one is a sure bet.

"It's inevitable" that Australia become a republic, said novelist Tom Kenneally, spokesman for the movement.

Supporters of a republic cite recent opinion polls that indicate 60% of Australians agree. Most who do not are 55 or older, with personal memories of the 1940s and 1950s, when loyalty to Britain was strong.

"The move toward a republic reflects a generational shift in Australia," Kenneally said. "As time marches on, it will come. We are hoping sooner than later."

Recent scandals involving members of the British royal family have "dissolved respect many had for the royals" and helped the republican cause, he said.

Extensive and varied immigration in the last 40 years also has had an effect. Of Australia's 17.8 million people, one in four comes from a non-British background or has parents who do.

Pro-republicans have suggested the new head of state be a figurehead, rather than an executive president as in the United States. They say this would require only slight changes in the constitution, not a redesign of the government.

Monarchists and some legal scholars insist it would not be that simple.

"Many questions will have to be answered," said Cheryl Saunders, director of the Center of Comparative Constitutional Studies at the University of Melbourne. "Even if the new president is a figurehead, the powers of that office will have to be spelled out.

"That in itself will generate a lot of discussion. That doesn't mean it will be impossible. It's just going to be more complex than some make out."

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