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Keating faces tough battle


PAUL KEATING will almost certainly spend some of the Queen's Birthday weekend holiday in Australia contemplating the difficulties ahead in cutting his country's ties with the British monarch.

In the immediate aftermath of the Prime Minister's landmark republican speech to Parliament on Wednesday, one of the republican movement's biggest tasks will be educating the public about the political system it already has.

The reinvigorated debate on the republic could not have demonstrated more starkly the recent findings of a civics experts group that Australians generally are ignorant of their history and democratic institutions.

The group found that in 1993 only six per cent of final-year students at high school were studying Australian history, that only 19 per cent of people surveyed showed any understanding of the effect of federation in 1901 and only 40 per cent could name both federal Houses of Parliament.

In the last Budget, the Government announced an injection of A$25 million (HK$139.12 million) for a civics education programme - an initiative which will now play a major role in the republican debate leading to Mr Keating's proposed referendum in 1998 or 1999.

A deep suspicion in Australia about anything politicians propose, combined with ignorance of the political system, presents one of the greatest challenges to the republican dream.

Since Mr Keating's speech, the debate, pushed along by conservative opposition leader John Howard, has focused on two main issues: whether a ceremonial president to replace the Queen as head of state should be elected by a two-thirds majority of Parliament or at a popular election; and whether there should be a so-called 'people's convention' ahead of a referendum.

Public opinion is strongly in favour of a popular election, but appears to ignore some key facts: first, that election by a two-thirds majority of Parliament would be more democratic than the current method of selecting the Governor-General, appointed by the Queen on the Prime Minister's nomination; and, second, that a popular election would become a partisan contest between the two main political parties.

More importantly, it ignores the fact that a popular election risks undermining Australia's Westminster system of government.

A nationwide election would provide a mandate to a single person who could at some time come into serious conflict with the government of the day.

A poll in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday showed Australians were dubious about Mr Keating's preferred model for selecting a head of state. The AGB McNair poll of 1,016 people taken this week showed an overwhelming majority in favour of popular election of the head of state and opposed to Mr Keating's plan for election by a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament.

Mr Howard, a monarchist, has steadfastly refused to state in the most recent debate whether he believes Australia should have an Australian citizen as head of state, but has opposed Mr Keating's proposal on the grounds that there should first be a 'people's convention' to decide what questions are put to a referendum.

But Mr Howard has yet to show how a convention of about 250 people would better represent 18 million people than their own Parliament.

A campaign against the republic by the opposition could probably, on historical evidence, sink the proposal at a referendum.

But even a win by the conservatives at the next federal election does not mean there will not be a republic by the centenary of federation in 2001, if momentum for it continues to grow.

Already, polls show about 50 per cent of Australians support the severing of ties with Britain, compared with 40 per cent opposed and 10 per cent undecided.