Aussies poised to throw royalty on the barbie Some insist republican rage is treason

June 11, 1993|By Bob Drogin | Bob Drogin,Los Angeles Times

BOSSLEY PARK, Australia -- It's a balmy Sunday, and the gathering of 300 or so revolutionaries in this staid Sydney suburb is hardly the Boston Tea Party. Blue and white balloons festoon the tables. There are Riesling and radicchio.

But up on stage, white-bearded rebel leader Thomas Keneally tells the crowd it's high time for what some call high treason: He wants to dump Queen Elizabeth II as Australia's official head of state, like so much tea in the harbor.

"Even if she were Mother Teresa, she'd still have to go," Mr. Keneally, an author who now heads the Australian Republican Movement, explained later.

"We are a society surrounded by Asian nations," he added. "If we go face them with our primary icon a picture of the British queen, it makes us look like idiots. . . . They look at us and say, 'Don't they know she's 12,000 . . . miles away?' "

Anti-royalism is sweeping Australia. It's led by no less than Prime Minister Paul Keating, who won re-election in March in part by promising to sack the sovereign and change from a constitutional monarchy to a republic by 2001, the centenary of federation as an independent nation. More important, opinion polls show that a clear majority of voters agree.

Australia's battle with Britain rages in Parliament and pubs. At least one television talk show ended in a fistfight. Her Majesty, who bears the title Queen of Australia, has yet to join the fray, but die-hard monarchists are terribly upset.

"I'd like to see them all charged with treason," growls Bruce Ruxton, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to do just that. The deputy national president of the Returned Services League, Australia's chief veterans' organization, adds a personal note: "I wish I could get the [scoundrels] hanged."

Barring that, Mr. Ruxton pledges that his entire 250,000-member legion of former servicemen will "fight to the last ditch" for the throne. Australia without the Crown, he says, "would need a new coat of arms -- two crossed bananas."

Clipping the crown

No one else has proposed that. But Mr. Keating wants to clip the British Union Flag from the top left corner of Australia's flag and cut the queen from the oath of allegiance. Her crowned head would come off all coins, her gold initials off mailboxes and her portrait off ballroom walls.

A national referendum will be required to make the full break. Beyond that, the debate has only begun on what kind of political system to adopt and how much it will cost. Mr. Keating has named a seven-member commission and asked for options by Sept. 1 on the constitutional changes needed to create "a viable Federal Republic of Australia."

In the meantime, he has stopped proposing Australians for knighthood and other royal honors.

A government report suggests that the British-style armed forces bag bagpipes and kilts, remove "royal" from regiments and forget Trafalgar Day and the Waterloo Dinner.

Most important, republicans want an Australian head of state. This is one of 16 former British colonies that kept the monarchy after independence.

If Australia fires the queen, nearby Papua New Guinea is likely to follow. Canada could get ideas.

A little revolution

"People no longer openly boast of their British heritage," said Donald Horne, a historian and pro-republican author.

"They used to talk about the Royal Family setting great standards of Victorian morality. Now they actually set a lower standard than the average Australian."

Rebellion has been rife here almost since the first fleet of British convicts landed in 1788. In 1807, for example, an Englishman warned that Australia's six colonies might follow America's lead:

"In 50 years, Australia, that wretched country, could become an unmixed community of ruffians," wrote James McKintosh, a visiting lawyer. "They will shake off the yoke of England and . . . become a republic of pirates."

It became, instead, a parliamentary democracy in the British Commonwealth. In theory, the prime minister rules at the queen's pleasure. Her appointed representative, the governor general, is officially the commander in chief and has the power to call Parliament into session or to dismiss it.

In practice, the job is more pomp than circumstance.

But in 1975, the governor general, Sir John Kerr, aroused the population when he dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's Labor government because it couldn't pass a budget. Mr. Whitlam was the first prime minister sacked by the Crown in 200 years.

Mr. Keating, who was then a minister in Mr. Whitlam's government, never forgot the constitutional coup. But he bided his time until the queen visited Australia in February last year.

Not only did Mr. Keating decline to bow -- nor did his wife, Anita, curtsy -- to the visiting monarch, he gave a pro-republican speech, the first by a prime minister, then publicly put his arm around the royal back.

As the news weekly Bulletin later noted, this caused "the poo to hit the punkah" back in Britain.

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