American television producers, who seek any excuse to run stories about the British monarchy, should be jealous of their Australian counterparts. This is the one country outside Britain where the British monarchy is a live political issue.
Australians are voting in November on whether to become a republic. If the referendum is approved, the queen will no longer be the formal head of state. Australians would join their American cousins, who settled this particular question 223 years ago.
Why all the fuss? The Australian system seems to work just fine. In the corner of the national flag is the British Union Jack. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported this week, many of the country's eminent institutions carry the word "Royal" in their title. What will happen to the Royal Easter Show, the Royal Agricultural Society and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects?
Prime Minister John Howard is one Australian who doesn't think the change is worth it. He describes himself as a "Burkean conservative" after the great Edmund Burke, who believed in the stabilizing effect of settled institutions. Howard's argument is simple: Why change something that works?
But Howard's conservative party -- confusing Americans, it's known as the Liberal Party -- is split. Some of the leading ministers in his government favor the republic. The Australian Labor Party, the main opposition, is firmly republican, though some in the rank and file have doubts.
Labor Party leader Kim Beazley says the strongest force working in favor of a victory for the republic is "the view in the country, including the monarchists, that it is now an inevitability." Politicians who oppose it risk appearing less than "forward looking."
Australia long ago became an independent republic in fact if not in theory. The queen exercises no authority. Australia's foreign policy is oriented more toward Asia and the United States than to Britain. Why not match the country's formal institutions to what it really is?
There's certainly nothing musty about this place. Australia is both deeply democratic and technologically hip. How much has the country embraced the high-tech world? Consider that in the current state election campaign in Victoria, Jeff Kennett, the incumbent premier (governor) is building his campaign around a Web site.
His billboards blare out: "www.jeff.com.au" and the site includes a car-racing game. It promises users they'll be able to pull down a campaign screensaver: "Now you can have Jeff with you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." Imagine an American politician making that offer.
Australia's trade union movement is also jumping on the high-tech bandwagon. It's negotiating a deal to get union members and pensioners cut-rate access to computers and the Internet.
Former prime minister Paul Keating forced this referendum. Although he lost in a landslide in 1996 and was seen even by his friends as difficult and distant from his Labor Party's old working-class base, Keating was also a visionary. He insisted that Australia's future was as a republic in Asia and that it should stop defining itself in terms of a British colonial past.
The idea of the republic had won enough popular support that Howard finessed the issue with the Nov. 6 referendum rather than blocking it outright.
The Is-Australia-Asian? debate proved very divisive, and a backlash helped Howard. But even after the Asian economic downturn, few Australians -- including Howard -- doubt that the country's economic future lies in cooperation with Asia. The prime minister tries to put the debate to bed by arguing that Australians shouldn't have to choose "between history and geography," meaning they can honor their Western roots and their Asian future.
The debate over the monarchy embodies but also cuts across this old fight over identity, republicanism being as much a part of Western history as kings and queens. Republican sentiment is strong. But to win, the referendum needs to carry both the national vote and four of the country's six states.
Beazley is campaigning hard for the republic. But he thinks its opponents may profit from two kinds of anti-politician feeling. Some tradition-minded Australians, he says, didn't want this vote to happen at all. Others want a directly elected president -- the referendum calls for an appointed president who would replace the queen as the symbolic head of state. Many in this group will also vote no.
So if the monarchy is saved a bit longer here, it will be because of old-fashioned, democratic populism. Such are the paradoxes of democracy.