Keeping the queen

Australia: Referendum retains monarchy, mere symbol of British connection.

November 12, 1999

THE "Bye-Bye Betty Barbeque" outside the Sydney Opera House last Saturday night was a bust. As returns from the national referendum showed majorities throughout the country for retaining the British monarch as Australia's head of state, republicans had nothing to celebrate.

It's mere symbol, of course. Australia has been independent under its own constitution since 1901. Its citizens carry Australian passports, spend Australian dollars and never sing, "Rule Britannia."

The British monarch is titular head of state, in the person of her governor general, who is appointed by Australia's prime minister.

In Britain, this issue is about republicanism versus monarchist trappings for continuity. In Australia, as in Canada, it is more about enshrining British origins.

Australia was first settled by British convicts in 1788 after the American Revolution ended use of Georgia for dumping them. Australia was an outpost of the Empire on the fringe of Asia, even after relying on U.S. naval strength for security in World War II.

Republicanism comes from Australia's Labor Party. It appeals to the Irish tradition in the population and to the 23 percent of Australians born elsewhere. The argument is that to belong among Asian countries that threw off the colonial yoke, Australia must do likewise.

The monarchist tradition is upheld by conservatives, including Prime Minister John Howard. It appeals to Australia's Christian right and opponents of immigration, but also to the silent majority who would leave well enough alone.

So after the sound and fury, Australia remains one of 16 nations that recognize Queen Elizabeth as their sovereign. The Labor opposition says the alternative was badly presented, and will try again when next in power.

As it stands, Australians are too indifferent to Queen Elizabeth to oust her. Mr. Howard's government can turn its attention to important matters.

Oh, another constitutional amendment was on the ballot Saturday. It would have added a preamble recognizing the folk who peopled Australia before the first English crook and debtor arrived.

The majority voted "nah."

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