Australians prepare to welcome queen
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Australia on Wednesday for her 16th visit to the former penal colony on what will perhaps be the 85-year-old monarch's last tour Down Under.
The queen, who will open a Commonwealth leaders meeting in Perth, touches down in Canberra where she will meet Australia's Welsh-born Prime Minister Julia Gillard and London-born opposition leader Tony Abbott.
Gillard, an avowed republican, said it will be an honour to welcome Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip back to Australia.
"Visits by the queen are etched into the collective memory of the Australian people," Gillard said in announcing the visit.
"Many Australians can recall Her Majesty's previous visits as landmarks in their own lives."
None more so perhaps than former prime minister Paul Keating, who during a 1992 tour placed his hand on the back of the queen to help her through a Canberra crowd, outraging the British press who dubbed him "The Lizard of Oz".
Australian republicans, who for decades have been agitating for a severing of ties with the British monarchy, said the latest visit provided a focal point for discussions about the nation's head of state.
"It really is time for a grown up discussion about this,¨ Australian Republican Movement chair Mike Keating said.
"The British monarchy simply does not represent Australian values in 2011, and it's time for our elected representatives to stand up on this basic truth."
The queen is nevertheless hugely popular in Australia, a country she first visited as a young woman in 1954 and with which she has retained a strong connection.
Her face still adorns Australian coins, she opened Parliament House in Canberra in 1988 and the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and thousands are expected to come out and see her.
But while her first tour was the biggest event in the nation's history, with an estimated 75 percent of the population catching a glimpse of her, the 2011 visit is far more low-key.
The queen will meet with victims of last summer's devastating floods and Cyclone Yasi in Brisbane, ride through the streets of Melbourne on a tram, and attend a flower show in Canberra.
But she will bypass the harbour city of Sydney, instead travelling west to Perth where she will open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on October 28.
Monarchists in the former British colony, which voted against becoming a republic in a 1999 referendum, said Australians regarded the queen with deep affection whatever their political views.
"People want to catch their last glimpse of the queen," said Philip Benwell of the Australian Monarchists League.
"And whilst I don't think it will be the queen's last visit because as long as she can travel she will want to come and meet her people, it could be her last visit to the states that she's now visiting."
© 2011 AFP