Colourful welcome for Australia's favourite Queen
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II was greeted by hundreds of flag-waving schoolchildren and a 21-gun salute as she began her 16th and possibly last visit to her realm Down Under on Wednesday.
The queen, who will open a Commonwealth leaders meeting in Perth later this month, touched down at 0640 GMT in Canberra, where she and husband Prince Philip were met by Australia's Welsh-born Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Cheers went up from those crowding the tarmac as the 85-year-old monarch descended the steps of a British Airways Boeing-777, flying her Australian royal standard, to be greeted by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.
Bryce, the monarchy's representative in Australia and the first woman to take the role, presented the Queen to Gillard -- the nation's first female leader and a sworn republican, who shook her hand but did not curtsey.
A scarlet-clad military band played "God Save the Queen" and a 21-gun salute rang out as the Queen -- wearing teal with a matching hat -- inspected a guard of army, navy and airforce officers.
Margaret Cunningham, the first person to present Queen Elizabeth with flowers on her inaugural tour 57 years ago as a young child, again had the honour of offering the first bouquet, a clutch of native flowers.
"That was a long time ago!" the monarch quipped as Cunningham shared her story.
Some 200 schoolchildren lined the runway to greet her with gifts of flowers, stuffed animals, handmade cards and crowns, while Aboriginal representatives gave her a plate decorated in a traditional style.
The queen is extremely popular in Australia, with an estimated 75 percent of the population turning out to catch a glimpse of her during her maiden 1954 tour.
This visit -- her 16th to the former British penal colony -- is set to be much more low key and may well be her last official trip Down Under.
Gillard, earlier said it would be an honour to welcome the queen and Prince Philip back to Australia.
"Visits by the queen are etched into the collective memory of the Australian people," Gillard said. "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."
But support for a republic is ebbing, with a recent Roy Morgan survey showing support for ditching the monarchy at its lowest level in two decades.
According to the poll, only 34 percent of Australians support a republic -- the lowest level since 1991 -- while 55 percent want to keep the monarchy.
Gillard would not be drawn on the republican debate.
"I think while the queen is here in Australia what Australians will be doing is enjoying and celebrating her presence here," she told reporters in Sydney shortly before the queen was due to arrive.
"I believe she is very well respected by Australians and I think she's going to be tremendously, warmly received from the moment that she sets foot on Australian soil."
The queen will meet victims of this year's devastating floods and Cyclone Yasi in Brisbane, ride through the streets of Melbourne on a tram, and attend a flower show in Canberra.
While in the national capital the royal couple are also set to lunch with about 40 people -- reportedly including actor Geoffrey Rush who played a speech therapist in "The King's Speech" about the queen's father King George VI.
But they 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.
© 2011 AFP