Eyewitness

October 29, 1999

Australians vote next week in a referendum to decide whether the country will cut its 210-year-old ties to the British monarchy and become a republic.

Although polls show a clear majority favours a republic, a significant proportion of voters object to the referendum's proposal that a president be chosen by politicians in the federal parliament. As a result, passionate republicans are calling on Australians to vote no.

Kenneth Macnab, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Sydney, believes prime minister John Howard - an avowed monarchist - has deliberately posed the referendum question this way. "I see it as a ploy by Howard for the referendum to fail," Dr Macnab says. "Two questions should have been put: do you wish Australia to become a republic and second, which of these two or three models do you prefer?"

Dr Macnab backs the arguments in favour of a minimalist change to the Australian constitution with the president fulfilling a purely ceremonial role. "The word 'president' gets bandied around without any real limiting definition. People talk about it as if it was an American or a French president with real political power when that is not what is being proposed. We should find another word to describe such a person and keep the powers as they are now - those of a figurehead."

Alan Gilbert, historian and vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, says a no vote will make Australia a laughing stock in Asia. Professor Gilbert says Australia has a tenuous hold on a place in the emerging East Asian regional economic community and some leaders would see rejection of a republic as a pretext for Australia's exclusion as "an outpost of Europe".

"A no vote might trigger delirious celebrations among monarchists but in the longer run it will not have pro-British consequences for Australian culture and institutions. On the contrary, it will prolong a process of decolonisation that by now should have been over and will tarnish some of the essential institutions and values we have inherited from our British past, along with the now antiquated links to the house of Windsor."

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