Wednesday, October 6, 1999 Published at 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Off with her head?
The results of Australia's most significant political vote of the century will be known in a few weeks
By Red Harrison in Sydney
One of Sydney's tabloids covered its front page the other day with a report that the head of the Queen on Australia's currency was to be replaced with notable Australians including aborigines.
A gigantic headline screamed - Off With Her Head! And there was, indeed, an Alice in Wonderland quality to this, because the story turned out to be little more than wishful thinking.
Charitably, it might also have been an attempt to try to set fire to the debate about whether Australia should become a republic. Here we are with the referendum just around the corner, and the formal - and very pedestrian - campaigns for voting Yes or No have just begun.
The choice presents Australians with their most significant political vote of the century. One might imagine the whole country would therefore be consumed with the throbbing of brass bands and ballyhoo, with thousands marching and manning the barricades in joy and ferocious conflict.
A bog of boredom
In fact, as Peter Beattie, Premier of the State of Queensland, put it, there is not enough energy in this debate to change a light bulb. Opinion polls say that if the question were simply 'Do you want Australia to become a republic?' the vote overwhelmingly would be yes.
But a more interesting confidential poll says about half the people eligible to vote don't feel they knew enough to say Yes or No. Nearly 30% didn't even know a referendum was going to be held.
More astoundingly, nearly half the people who did know the referendum was about constitutional change did not know that change was intended to create a republic.
The man seemingly least troubled that apathy is thriving is the prime minister, John Howard. He says most Australians simply don't care about the republic so, obviously, it suits him not to see anyone get too excited - to let the whole campaign perish in a bog of boredom.
Leading players on both sides don't want that. The monarchists, seemingly embarrassed that it might prove too emotive, proposed that the word Queen be omitted from the referendum question.
Perhaps it could read - Do you agree that, er, um, well, you know, should be replaced as head of state by a dinky-di Australian?
Bound to be monarchists
Malcolm Turnbull, chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, wanted the word 'republic' deleted from the question because many people did not understand what becoming a republic involved.
Obviously it might be easier to found any republic provided no one mentions the republic.
Another republican sought a High Court action against British immigrants who have not taken Australian citizenship. Being British, he says, they're bound to be monarchists and shouldn't be allowed to vote.
The monarchists fired back - If Britons were banned - then all immigrants from republics should be barred, too - all the Greeks and Italians and Germans.
Little trust in politicians
And David Elliott, a monarchist organiser, is warning that once a republic is created, one man alone could assume dictatorial powers - just as in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. I had no idea we lived in such dangerous times.
The referendum proposes the choice of president be approved by a two-thirds majority of parliament, yet the polls show clearly that the people themselves want to elect the president.
This part of the question exposes how little trust Australians have in politicians and, certainly, their record is not encouraging - four ministers in this government charged over various financial dealings, three forced to resign and two members of the prime minister's staff dismissed.
So here is one serious obstacle on the path to a republic. There's another.
The counting of votes is a complicated process involving the states as well as the commonwealth - so complex that out of 42 referendum questions in this century only eight have succeeded.
Historically, Australians go on saying no, no, no. I heard Australia's leading disc jockey complain the other day that he'd been talking republic for days - and not a single listener had bothered to respond.
Doesn't anybody care? He asked. We'll know the answer to that in just a few weeks.
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