Australian referendum - Queen or country

June 11, 1999

In five months, Australians decide whether they want to cut royal ties with Britain and become a republic. Legislation for the November 6 referendum was introduced this week and referred to a select committee.

Polls show most people want a republic, but an overwhelming majority are opposed to having an appointed president. Yet the referendum will only offer a choice between a republic with a president appointed by a two-thirds vote of parliament and retention of the Queen as head of state of Australia.

The debate has been clouded by a bitter dispute on whether the preamble to the Australian constitution should be rewritten and what it should say. Prime minister John Howard tried, with the help of poet Les Murray, but the result was dismissed by almost everyone as wordy and cliche-ridden, while Mr Howard was condemned for refusing to describe Aborigines as the "original custodians" of the land.

Rufus Black, a lecturer in ethics at Melbourne University, says that if Australia was to have a preamble worthy of the vision of a new republic it should not be written by politicians, but poets: "Our preamble must contain the rich language of metaphor, myth, even allegory."

Lawyer Malcolm Turnbull, head of the Australian Republican Movement, opposes inclusion of the preamble question in the referendum, fearing it will generate a divisive, race-based campaign which will confuse the republic issue. But he, too, has come under attack from academics, who say the referendum represents a crucial moment for defining the nation - made more so if it gives appropriate recognition to indigenous peoples.

Historians Marian Sawer, of the Australian National University, and Henry Reynolds, a specialist in aboriginal issues at James Cook University in north Queensland, say: "Mr Turnbull claims he fears the consequences for the process of reconciliation if a new preamble recognising indigenous Australians fails to achieve bipartisan support. But that is not what we are hearing from indigenous leaders, who have expressed their support for the preamble being put to the people."

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