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Saturday, October 22, 2005
Australian republicans seek to revive debate

Let voters choose president: Beazley
Steve Lewis, Chief political reporter, The Australian
October 21, 2005

KIM Beazley has thrown his support behind a directly elected president as the head of an Australian republic - a different model to the one supported by Labor, and defeated by voters, in the 1999 referendum.

The move towards a "people's republic" comes as a cross-party parliamentary group prepares to launch a campaign next month for an Australian head of state - a push that is certain to reignite Coalition tensions over constitutional reform.

Liberal senator Mitch Fifield, a key supporter of Treasurer Peter Costello, will be one of three co-convenors of the group, along with Labor's spokeswoman on legal affairs, Nicola Roxon, and former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja.

Seeking to tap into popular support for a directly elected head of state, the Opposition Leader said it was clear most Australians wanted a say in who should be the national symbol.

"This is an area where we need to listen to the people," Mr Beazley told The Australian. "We need to have a clear-cut understanding from them about the sort of presidency they want.

"You would have to say there is strong support for a republic and strong support for a directly elected president - that is what is out there."

However, many parliamentarians are wary of endorsing plans to allow the community to elect the head of state. They would prefer the parliament to appoint the president by a two-thirds majority vote.

Community concern over this model, which was supported by Labor, sank the republic at the time of the 1999 referendum because the pro-republican movement was split between the two models, and voters ultimately backed Prime Minister John Howard's view that constitutional change was unnecessary.

Under the direct election model, Mr Beazley said it would be important to "codify" the powers of an elected head of state so the 1975 constitutional crisis could not be repeated.

Opponents of a directly elected president argue that such an office could potentially hold too much power, undermining the role and political potency of the elected government.

Mr Beazley said while he supported the parliamentary-appointed model in 1999, he now had an "open mind" on a directly elected head of state.

"Now I might have a preference as a politician - the public may have another view," he said.

Senator Fifield's cross-party group, likely to be called Parliamentarians for an Australian head of state, is expected to attract strong support from across the political spectrum. It will aim to revive public interest in the republic, amid signs of waning community support for an Australian head of state.

Polling support for a republic was at its lowest level in January since the referendum in 1999, with Newspoll showing only 46per cent of voters now supported a republic.

Senator Stott Despoja last night welcomed Mr Beazley's renewed backing for a republic but cautioned against pre-empting the campaign for a "specific model".

"That is something the Australian people should be involved in determining," she said. "It has to be the people's republic."

Mr Beazley said he had yet to decide how to proceed on a republic ahead of the next election, scheduled for 2007.

If Labor wins office, Mr Beazley said it would be his intention to hold a referendum in tandem with the following election, due to be held in 2010.

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