COVER

UPSETS DOWN UNDER

AUSTRALIANS WEIGH REPUBLICANISM

SCOTT STEELE June 15 1992
COVER

UPSETS DOWN UNDER

AUSTRALIANS WEIGH REPUBLICANISM

SCOTT STEELE June 15 1992

UPSETS DOWN UNDER

COVER

AUSTRALIANS WEIGH REPUBLICANISM

It was to have been a jubilant nine-day visit to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Australia’s largest city and to meet the country’s new prime minister, Paul Keating. But just seconds after Queen Elizabeth II and her consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, stepped off the royal aircraft at Sydney Airport on Feb. 18, the tempest began. In a breach of customary protocol, the prime minister’s 43year-old Dutch-born wife, Annita, bowed instead of curtsying as she welcomed the visiting monarch. Six days later, the prime minister outraged traditionalists by touching the Queen—he put his arm around the royal waist as he steered her through a crowded reception at Parliament House in Canberra.

Then Keating went much further. In a speech congratulating the Queen on the 40th anniversary of her succession to the throne, he reflected on the former colony’s changing relationship with the United Kingdom. “Just as Great Britain some time ago sought to make her future secure in the European Community, so Australia now vigorously seeks partnerships with countries in our own region,” he said. “Our outlook is necessarily independent.” With those words, Keating plunged his country into a renewed and divisive round of national soul-searching over its historical links with what many Australians still refer to as “the mother country.” Suspicions: The Keatings’ behavior, along with the Labor prime minister’s self-confident message, angered devout monarchists in Australia and throughout the British Commonwealth. Critics blasted Keating for being “insulting,” “ill-mannered” and “impolite” in the presence of the country’s official head of state. And despite assurances from the prime minister’s office that Keating’s statement contained “no hidden messages,” opposition Liberal-National coalition Leader John Hewson branded it “a tilt in favor of republicanism.” Suspicions about Keating’s desire to weaken the bonds between the United Kingdom and Australia were already running high because of his previously stated support for dropping the Union Jack from his country’s flag. In late January, he had remarked: “I suppose people around the world are entitled to say, ‘Look at your flag. You’ve got the flag of another country in the comer. I mean, are you a colony or a nation?’ ” Even as the Queen flew home on Feb. 27, ending her 12th state visit to the continent, the outspoken Keating continued to stir controversy. In the first sitting of the Australian Parliament since he replaced fellow Laborite Robert Hawke as prime minister in December, Keat-

ing defended himself against opposition charges that he had been disrespectful. “I learned about self-respect and selfregard for Australia,” he said to loud cheers from the government benches, “not about cultural cringe to a country which [in

the Sec-_ ond Worlds War] decided not to | defend the Malaysian penins sula, not to worry about Singapore § and not to give us our troops back to keep § ourselves free from Japanese domination.” “ When opposition MPs loudly objected, Keating called them “the same old fogies who doffed their lids and tugged the forelock to the British establishment.”

Some MPs claimed that Keating’s attack on Britain was nothing more than an attempt to divert attention from his government’s inability to turn around Australia’s weak economy. “I thought he’d gone off his rocker,” said Liberal Party front-bencher John Howard. “I thought it was an extraordinarily prejudicial, irrational, scattergun attack calculated to play on emotion rather than reason—a rather disturbing piece of conduct from a prime minister.” The reaction in Britain was equally cool. Said Defence Minister Thomas King, using the Australian slang for Britons: “I think pommybashing is a pretty well-established Australian form of blood sport.” And a front-page headline in London’s The Sun referred to Keating as the “Lizard of Oz.”

Although Keating faced a barrage of criticism, his sentiments may in fact reflect a growing trend in Australia. A public opinion poll published in The Sydney Morning Herald after the royal visit showed that, for the first time, a majority of Australians favored republicanism. Fully 57 per cent of respondents said that they wanted the country to become a republic, compared with only 39 per cent who

wanted to retain the monarchy. Those results contrasted sharply with a 1988 poll in which only 45 per cent supported an Australian republic.

Rival groups are now competing fiercely over the issue. The Australian Republican Movement, for one, which was founded last year, includes prominent author Thomas Keneally among its members. On the other hand, a group called Australians for Constitutional Monarchy held its launch meeting last week, with opera diva Dame Joan Sutherland as a supporter. On the flag issue, a group calling itself Ausflag embarked on a campaign in January to remove the Union Jack and leave the Southern Cross constellation as the national emblem. “Canada is a model,” said Keating in a show of endorsement. “They did survive—the place didn’t fall into anarchy.”

Battle: For many, the battle lines are clear. Said retired secretary Beryl Stevenson, 78, of Sydney: “I definitely don’t want to change the flag. Our soldiers fought under it and I still feel we’re a part of Britain.” But Sally Macmillan, 37, who grew up in Hertfordshire, England, and emigrated to Australia in 1982, said that she was angered when she had to swear allegiance to the Queen to become an Australian citizen in 1988. “I think it’s anachronistic,” she said. “I don’t think the Royal Family has anything to do with Australia.”

A Labor Party conference held last June urged the government to undertake a “public education campaign” leading to a referendum on whether the country should become an independent republic on Jan. 1, 2001, the centenary of Australian federation. With a general election due within a year, Keating will have to carefully weigh the political risks of playing the republican card as he plans his strategy for re-election.

TASHA DIAMANT

SCOTT STEELE with TASHA DIAMANT in Sydney