Australia united in rugby win but deeply split over republic

 

With impeccable but coincidental timing Australia's large British community held their annual cultural event yesterday as organisers said the trouncing of the republic caused many there to wave their Union flags with added gusto.

Australians may have woken up united at their World Cup rugby win but they remain deeply divided over the 55 per cent No vote in the referendum which, ironically, may also serve to put the House of Windsor on notice.

The moves have already started with the Opposition Labor Party aiming to later put a simple plebiscite on the question: "Do you want a republic?"

Polls show two thirds of Australians want a president but the question was lost because of suspicion over the compromise model on offer.

However, the celebration of Britishness at Blacktown in Sydney's sprawling western suburbs brought together at least one migrant community, the Poms, who were delighted that the so-called "Brit-bashing" caused by the nine-year constitutional debate may be over.

"We wiped them, mate, we really wiped them," said Mr Steve Sanders, who helps runs the event which features everything for a homesick Briton from black London taxis to tins of mushy peas. You could even buy bumper stickers which read: "Anglo-Saxon and proud."

Mr Sanders, whose move from Birmingham 31 years ago has not mellowed his accent, said former prime minister Mr Paul Keating stirred up old sectarian divisions between the Irish and English to advance his republican crusade. Now it was all over, with the British in the crowds not afraid to show their true colours any more and wave their flags.

"They are all royalists here, every one of them. I haven't met anyone who is a republican. Nobody said a word against what's happened. They've all said: `We've got it, we got it'. "

Unfortunately, their sense of triumph was not shared by many others, including the monarchists, whose leader said she was not elated but relieved by the win, which meant a flawed republican model had been defeated.

Others, including young monarchist leader Mr Julian Leeser, said while the people had reclaimed their constitution, there was also a need for humility.

"There has to be a lot of healing going on in Australia. We now have to concentrate on the things which unite us."

Mr Keating, the man who once put his arm around Queen Elizabeth and almost single-handedly re-ignited the republican issue which had been simmering for 150 years, issued a bitter statement last night. He lamented that the result denied the nation's maturity. And he warned the pressure for an Australian head of state would continue, as the monarchy was now "irreversibly broken" and no longer a unifying symbol in Australian life.

There was early, if slightly drunken evidence, of his claim in the early hours of yesterday, when crowds in Sydney who had seen the Wallabies win the rugby world cup in Cardiff booed and abused TV images of Queen Elizabeth as she handed over the prize.

The angry reaction against the loss continued all day with fallout between the republicans, who had backed the model of minimal change, with the president appointed by parliament, and those who wanted the people to elect their head of state and backed the No case.

In the middle were the disaffected voters in blue-collar and rural areas who overwhelmingly rejected any change. Mr Keating's old electorate and other Labor seats voted heavily to maintain the status quo.

The only support for change came from more prosperous and highly educated voters in inner-city seats in Sydney and Melbourne. The Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, fought hard in the past week to push the monarchist side but his own constituency voted 55 per cent for the republic.

Election analyst and No vote advocate Mr Malcolm Mackerras said the people understood perfectly well the issue was not the queen but the specific model on offer in which it was claimed the prime minister could sack a president more easily than his driver.

"It's the wealthy suburbs of the two big cities of Sydney and Melbourne which are voting solidly Yes and the battlers [workers] who are voting No," he said.

"In other words, the elite that have been pushing this thing at ordinary people have made themselves thoroughly unpopular."

Labor frontbencher Mr Daryl Melham said blue-collar voters shunned the republic because they felt alienated from the debate, which was being led by the elites. "It's an up you Jack mentality. These people felt taken for granted. There's a cynicism there."

The founding father of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), author Thomas Keneally, said a negative monarchist campaign which stirred up fears of instability and politicians getting more power had hit home with a disillusioned public.

"I feel as if a dream has been squandered. I understand why it has happened but I don't like the fact that Australians have unwittingly betrayed themselves into this fate."

And leading art critic Robert Hughes, who has also been involved in the ARM for years, said the monarchists were astute but ignoble liars in claiming by voting No now those in favour of a popularly elected president would have another referendum chance later.

"No Australians really want to have a monarchy. All they wanted was to get some kind of a republic and they were sold the wrong horse.

"It's deeply ironic that the fortunes of the royal family as heads of state of Australia should be saved by a bunch of splinter republicans."

On the night, republican hopes turned to tears as the results which had been predicted by the opinion polls flowed in. One young woman wept as she said: "God bless the queen - but she will be history."

A distinguished historian said: "It's pathetic, mate. Just what sort of nation are we?"

However, the republicans are determined to regroup and continue the fight, which has so far cost about £50 million of taxpayers' money. Yesterday, their chairman, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, who is standing down, said their campaign must adopt direct election of a president as its preferred model for change as long as people understood what it would deliver.

"The single most troubling statistic about direct elections is that the overwhelming majority who want to directly elect the president do so because they think a directly-elected president will not be a politician, whereas a person chosen by two-thirds of parliament with the support of both sides of politics will be. The fact is the reverse is true."

But no one is gambling how long it will take until another referendum is called. Mr Howard says some years. Opposition leader Mr Kim Beazley thinks two more elections and others have talked about a generation.

Ms Kerry Jones, leader of the victorious Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, now faces the advocates of a direct election splitting from her No vote alliance, which she concedes will be another battle.

"I'll support another referendum if it comes along of course, but that's very different from saying I'd support a model of republic versus our very good working constitutional arrangements."

Workplace Relations Minister Mr Peter Reith, one of the key proponents of what could be an Irish-style direct election model, said the public had clearly demonstrated it was ready to move from the monarchy but it had to be on the people's and not the politicians' terms.

"The reason they [the people] voted against it was because they reckon that they're entitled to equality of franchise, they're entitled to as big a say as somebody who happens to sit on a board and is earning big money."