Australia congratulates royals as republic debate revives

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Australia's Welsh-born Prime Minister Julia Gillard congratulated Prince William on his engagement to girlfriend Kate Middleton Wednesday as debate flared anew on the country becoming a republic.

Gillard believes Australia, a former British colony, should become a republic when Queen Elizabeth II dies or abdicates. But she was fulsome in her praise of William, second-in-line to the throne, and his betrothed.

Gillard said William was known for his charity work and military service and had left a "strong impression on many Australians" during his January tour Down Under.

"Ms Middleton will no doubt strengthen this remarkable reputation and she has the nation's best wishes and support," said Gillard, Australia's first woman prime minister.

"The royal engagement is a time for celebration amongst the royal and Middleton families and (I) wish them all the very best at this happy time."

Australians voted against becoming a republic in a 1999 referendum but William's visit earlier this year proved wildly popular among the public, with some commentators seeing it as a boon for the royalist movement.

The Australian Monarchist League said the nuptials would "undoubtedly" set back the republican campaign, with "huge interest" among younger people.

"We saw this when Prince William visited Australia earlier this year -- young people came out enthusiastically to greet Prince William," said chairman Phillip Benwell.

"It's really bringing home to people that we have a royal family and it's our royal family as well," he added.

But the Australian Republican Movement argued that it would reignite serious debate on the emotive issue.

"What happens is whenever we get these British moments as far as the royal family is concerned, the debate about Australia becoming a republic warms up indeed," movement spokesman John Warhurst told ABC 24 TV.

"It will be in fact an ideal time, when attention is on a matrimonial event, to have a political and constitutional debate in Australia."

Governor-General Quentin Bryce, the queen's representative in Australia, said the betrothal had "warmed our nation's heart", with widespread fondness for the young prince.

"Australians look forward with anticipation and excitement to hearing of your wedding preparations as they unfold. It is a unifying time of much joy and celebration," said Bryce.

British convicts first arrived in Australia in 1788 and the territory's states united as a nation in 1901. But it was not until 1986 that Britain passed an act formally ending its right to make laws for the country.

The Australian flag includes the Union Jack in its design, and most of the population still traces its ancestry to Britain. But waves of immigration from elsewhere in Europe and more recently from Asia have weakened the links.

© 2010 AFP

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