Queen sympathises with Australia's 'difficult year'
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II Friday acknowledged Australia's "difficult year" of natural disasters, as she also noted the catastrophe across the Tasman of the New Zealand earthquake.
In her first public address since arriving in Australia on Wednesday, the monarch praised the nation's dramatic progress since her first visit in 1954, including its ability to withstand the global financial crisis.
But she also spoke of the massive floods which peaked in January, inundating thousands of homes, devastating hamlets and leaving more than 30 people dead, and which were quickly followed by the monster Cyclone Yasi.
"It has been a difficult year for this country in many ways despite the successes," she told those gathered in the Great Hall of Parliament.
"We all witnessed the anguish of Australians as they lived through a summer of natural disasters. We saw towns battered by a cyclone; homes, businesses and families destroyed by devastating floods.
"And across the Tasman in New Zealand, we saw a city utterly ruined by an earthquake," she said in reference to Christchurch, which was hit by a major quake in February that killed 181 people.
The queen, who will meet those affected by the floods in the Queensland capital of Brisbane next week, said the courage and resolution shown by those people in the face of the desolation was admirable.
Thousands of people have gathered to see the queen, who will open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, amid speculation that the tour could be the 85-year-old's last to the far-flung former penal colony.
Welsh-born Prime Minister Julia Gillard earlier welcomed the queen, who is on her 16th visit Down Under, as a "beloved and respected friend".
Gillard said the queen's diamond jubilee next year would be celebrated with sincere joy in Australia, but that the future of the country, which voted against cutting ties to the monarchy in 1999, remained unknown.
"Your Majesty, we do not know where Australia's path of nationhood may lead in the times to come," said the prime minister, who favours Australia becoming a republic.
"We are, as you once so rightly said, 'a country on the move and will go on being so'," said Gillard, before adding that the queen would continue to have Australians' "lasting affection and our very deep respect".
Australia became independent in 1901 but the 1999 referendum on whether to sever links with the British monarchy and become a republic with an Australian head of state failed after most people voted against it.
The issue was raised again Friday as ex-prime minister Paul Keating recounted how he told the queen in a September 1993 meeting that Australians felt the monarchy was outdated.
Keating, who once so outraged the British press by placing his hand on the queen's back during a visit to Canberra in 1992 that they dubbed him "The Lizard of Oz", said he admired the queen meeting with him at Balmoral.
"I told the queen as politely and gently as I could that I believed the majority of Australians felt the monarchy was now an anachronism; that it had gently drifted into obsolescence," he said.
"Not for any reason associated with the queen personally, but for the simple reason she was not in a position to represent their aspirations. They were Australian, she was British."
Keating said the queen sat through his remarks, before commenting: "You know my family have always tried to do their best by Australia." To which he replied: "Yes, I know that ma'am."
Most of the queen's 10-day Australia trip is focused on Canberra, with outings to Melbourne and Brisbane, before she leaves for Perth.
© 2011 AFP