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Australians renew debate about the role of the monarchy Down Under.
BRISBANE, Australia — For a country that a decade ago looked ready to stage its own orderly revolution and throw off the yoke of the British Empire, Australia sure seems happy to see the queen.
Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, on Wednesday began her 16th official visit Down Under.
TV screens and newspaper front pages are awash with news of civic preparations and interviews with expectant wellwishers in the four major cities the royal couple will visit — Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth (Sydney, uncharacteristically, has been left off the list).
Dignitaries, meanwhile, have been briefed on royal etiquette and are reportedly practicing their bows and curtsies.
Politicians are lining up to be photographed with 85-year-old monarch and her husband, Prince Philip, 90.
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The question on everyone's mind: Will this be the final visit by Australia's nominal head of state? It's an honest question, given her advanced age and the likelihood she will, perhaps one day very soon, hand over the crown to a successor — possibly even to the wildly popular Prince William, rather than his father, her son, the decidedly out-of-favor Prince Charles.
The other question on everyone's mind: What happened to the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), which has long argued that it is a matter of when, not if, the royals will be ditched in favor of a homegrown head of state?
The Wills and Kate effect may help explain the results of a nationwide poll released Wednesday, showing that Australians are now largely in favor of keeping the monarchy.
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According to the Roy Morgan poll, released in time for the Royal Tour and reported by The Australian:
Only 34 percent of Australians aged over 14 support a republic, the lowest level since 1991.
Fifty-five percent are in favor of keeping the monarchy, the highest level since the same year.
The year 1991 is significant because the ARM was founded in July of that year, following a move by the now-ruling Australian Labor Party to make republicanism a core policy.
The move was credited with generating enough support for a republic, and a head of state based in Australia rather than London. A referendum on the subject was called in 1999. (Australia's Constitution can only be changed by way of a referendum, which gives all Australians of voting age the chance to have their say.)
But despite overwhelming support for the concept, voters rejected the change. The defeat was blamed largely on the ARM's inability to form a consensus on the kind of republic Australia should have — one led by a president nominated by Parliament, or a president directly elected by the people.
In the 10 years since the republican referendum, sentiments appear to have shifted. Even the country's (Welsh-born) prime minister, Julia Gillard — a declared republican — seems in no rush to break ties with the country's colonial overlords.
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Gillard has ruled out another referendum on the question while Queen Elizabeth remains on the throne.
The prime minister was seen to have further damaged the republican cause by accepting an invitation to attend the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton in London in April.
The British media, particularly, has enjoyed pointing out so-called evidence of a reluctance by Australians to forge their own identity as separate to that of Great Britain, which established the first white settlement in Australia — the penal colony of New South Wales — in 1788.
The BBC's Nick Bryant, in an article entitled "The William and Kate Effect," cited a "lingering and occasional sense of deference towards Britain" as the cause of Australian interest in the Royal Wedding.
Further, Bryant writes:
One of the reasons why the monarchy has survived so long in Australia, aside from the long-standing constitutional inertia, lack of political consensus and divisions within the republican movement, is because this remains a surprisingly Anglo-centric country where the British-made or British-influenced takes up a huge amount of cultural space. It means that a British head of state is not so incongruous as perhaps it should be in a country so fiercely patriotic, egalitarian and suspicious of elites.
Others attribute Australian interest in remaining loyal British subjects squarely with the star power of Prince William, along with the personal charm of the queen herself.
The BBC's royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell, reporting from Canberra, where the queen touched down in a British Airways 777 on Wednesday evening, recalls that Prince William, shortly before his nuptials, paid a "highly successful visit to Australia and New Zealand to meet the victims of recent natural disasters."
His understated charm and obvious sincerity made a positive impression on a country which isn't easily won over by visiting Pommie princes.
Witchell continues, quite uncynically, that:
With a serene and matriarchal Queen Elizabeth, and an attractive king-but-one and his glamorous new wife, it is little surprise that the politicians in Australia, even those who a few years ago were unhesitating in declaring their republican ambitions, have realized that the future of the monarchy in this country is no longer an issue with any significant public resonance.
Meanwhile, Australian commentators writing in the (admittedly largely leftist) mainstream media, suggest that republicanism is alive and well and living in the fine print of polling on the subject.
Melbourne constitutional law expert Glenn Patmore, author of "Choosing the Republic," wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday that the polls show that considerable support remains for a republic as well as a large undecided vote, the uncommitted.
Patmore points out that in the immediate aftermath of the failed referendum, a survey "found that a staggering 89 percent of those surveyed agreed that our head of state should be an Australian."
Further, he writes, at the Labor government's 2020 summit in 2007, 999 party members declared the republic as a key issue for constitutional reform.
Patmore's conclusion is that:
While the Queen deserves respect, the British monarch should not be officiating as the chief public representative of Australia at our ceremonies.
The royal couple will spend 10 days in Australia. This will include five days in Canberra, one in Brisbane, one in Melbourne and three-and-a-half days in Perth, where the Queen will declare open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Media coverage of the Royal Tour 2011 went into overdrive Wednesday evening, with the Sydney Morning Herald comparing the cavalcade of Australia's Queen to that of a traveling U.S. president:
It was not immediately clear how big her convoy was, but U.S. President George W. Bush had a 64-car motorcade when he visited.
In uncertain times, Australia's republicans can only hope the answer to that particular unknown is 63 or fewer.