Whether Australia should drop Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and become a republic will be a key issue at the next election, after the country’s opposition leader promised a referendum on the matter if he became prime minister.

In a speech to the Australian Republican Movement on Saturday, Labor leader Bill Shorten is expected to say that if his party wins the next election, due in 2019, he would give Australians a vote on whether to become a republic.

In a copy of the speech released to media before his speech Saturday night, Shorten said the question would be simply: “Do you support an Australian republic with an Australian head of state?”

“I’m confident Queen Elizabeth would farewell us with the same affection and good grace she has shown every time a Commonwealth nation has made the decision to cut its ties with the monarchy,” national broadcaster ABC reported Shorten’s speech as saying.

“We can vote for a republic and still respect Queen Elizabeth.”

A second vote would be held later on how the Australian head of state would be selected and appointed, Shorten proposed.

It was the method of selecting a head of state that divided supporters of the republic at the 1999 referendum on the same issue, and it was soundly defeated 45 to 55 per cent.

Shorten’s move could put Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a difficult position as Turnbull led the republican movement in 1999 before he entered parliament.

Turnbull says he still supports a republic, but not while Queen Elizabeth reigns. He met the Queen for the first time on July 11 in London.

Before entering Buckingham Palace, he told reporters that the Queen embodied “selfless public service, dignity and leadership.”

“Even republicans like myself can be, and in my case are, very strong Elizabethans,” Turnbull said.

Shorten said at the time that having an Australian head of state would not diminish Australia’s respect for the Queen, who is aged 91.

Currently, the Queen’s representative in Australia, the governor general, is appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister.

The issue of a republic came to a head in 1975 when then Governor General Sir John Kerr sacked the Labor government of Gough Whitlam, and appointed the opposition Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser as interim prime minister until an election was held.

One of the mysteries of Australian politics is whether the Queen was consulted before Kerr dismissed Whitlam.

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