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Australia may dump queen as its leader

Australians opened a constitutional convention Monday on whether their nation should become a republic, with most delegates determined to dump Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state.

Even the staunchly monarchist Prime Minister John Howard said in opening the assembly that "the symbolism of Australia sharing its legal head of state with a number of nations is no longer appropriate."Australia has been independent since 1901, but like many other Commonwealth nations, still recognizes Britain's queen as its head of state. Republicans want constitutional change so the nation can choose its own head of state, and opinion polls show more than half of Australians agree.

Howard is opposed to a republic but promised that he would put any republican model favored by the convention to a national referendum by the end of 1999.

That could allow an Australian head of state to open the summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and lead the nation into the new millennium and its second century of independence in 2001.

What the convention must do is sort out how the nation can become a republic without upsetting the system of checks and balances on power that most Australians already favor.

More than 150 delegates gathered for the two-week debate on breaking ties to England's monarch at the Old Parliament House, where the chairman sat in an English oak throne that was a gift from the British Parliament.

The British crown seal was displayed on the chair's canopy and behind the lectern was Australia's flag, one-fourth of it devoted to the Union Jack. Delegates sang the national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair," in what proved to be the last moment of consensus.

Monarchists insist the current system of government has preserved the nation's democracy and prosperity since it became independent. Republicans say it is absurd that no Australian can hope to become head of state since the post is reserved for Britain's monarch.

The queen's representative, the governor-general, acts in her stead, signing parliamentary bills and performing mainly ceremonial functions. The governor-general is nominated by the prime minister and appointed by the British monarch.

Even though at least 78 of the convention's 152 delegates favor having a republic, they are deeply divided over what they want the government to look like and could still face defeat.

"Those who oppose change should say why," Howard declared Monday.

Proposals range from a system like that in the United States, with a powerful, publicly elected president to a "minimalist republic" with Parliament appointing a non-political, ceremonial head of state.