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Australians Head to the Polls

November 6, 1999

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Australians headed to the polls Saturday to decide whether the nation should say goodbye to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and become the world’s 147th republic.

Even though most Australians believe the queen is a throwback to the days of colonialism, opinion surveys suggested the referendum would fail, in large part because the nation has not been able to agree on a system of government without her.

Still, a final poll showed a surge in support for the proposal, which would replace the queen with an Australian president elected by a two-thirds majority of parliament.

``Of course I voted for the republic,″ said Christian Hampson, 28 and unemployed. ``I’ve just been to London and I’ve seen the monarchy in action. It’s just got nothing to do with Australia. The queen has got to go.″

Others argued that the proposed change offered no improvement.

``I think you have reached the stage now where the Australian people will resolve this,″ Prime Minister John Howard said as he cast his ``no″ vote. ``I hope they will decide to stay with this system that helped give this country probably the best democracy in the world.″

The voting got underway at polling booths from downtown shopping malls to remote sheep farms. Authorities flew four dozen mobile voting stations from one outback settlement to another, while 42 stations were set up in prisons.

Voting was compulsory for the 12.3 million people who were eligible.

Although Australia gained independence in 1901, it continued to recognize Britain’s monarch as its head of state.

Monarchists and those republicans who want the public _ rather than the parliament _ to elect the president have united in a powerful marriage of convenience against the proposal. The monarchists hope a ``no″ vote will end the republican debate. The radical republicans hope that if they scuttle this model, they will soon be offered the one they want.

The republican cause even united two former prime ministers, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, whose bitter rivalry once plunged the queen’s representative in Australia _ the governor-general _ into the heart of a constitutional crisis.

In 1975, Governor-General Sir John Kerr used his generally ceremonial power to sack Whitlam’s Labor government and appoint Fraser, a conservative opposition leader, in order to break a parliamentary deadlock over government spending. It was the only time a governor-general flexed any political muscle.

But Whitlam and Fraser campaigned together in favor of the republic, saying Australia came of age as a nation long ago and no longer needs the queen.

Becoming a republic would have no impact on the day-to-day workings of government, and the economy and trade would not be affected. The queen’s head would remain on Australian money and Britain’s Union Jack would still occupy a corner of Australia’s flag.

Peter Costello, Howard’s deputy in government but adversary in pre-referendum campaigning, said Australians clearly want a republic but are divided on how to elect a president.

Choosing to remain a constitutional monarchy ``will bear trouble for Australia, because our constitution will tell us something that we don’t feel in our hearts nor our heads,″ Costello said.

Also headed for rejection, according to polls, was a second question asking if Australians want to add a preamble to their constitution.

A general statement of Australian values and with no legal significance, the text also officially recognizes Australia’s Aborigines as ``the nation’s first people,″ and praises them ``for their deep kinship with their lands and for the ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country.″

The proposed preamble also refers to generations of immigrants who have helped shape Australia. Many of them _ about 23 percent of Australia’s 20 million residents were born overseas _ have said they likely will be voting for change.

Last year, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, the national umbrella group of various migrant organizations, overwhelmingly endorsed the proposed switch to a republic.

The preamble was crafted and supported by Howard, but has received little attention _ overshadowed during weeks of intense lobbying about the republic question.

Almost nothing has been heard from an estimated 200,000 British citizens living in Australia and registered to vote.

If the referendum succeeds, Australia will become the world’s 147th republic on Jan. 1, 2001. It is now one of 64 nations with a monarch as head of state.

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