SYDNEY (Reuters) - When Britain’s Queen Elizabeth arrives in Australia next week, protocol says she should be addressed as Queen of Australia -- something that will grate with republicans who want to sever ties with Britain and appoint an Australian president.
The royal tour, possibly the queen’s last to Australia given her 85 years and the long distance from Buckingham Palace, will reignite debate on whether the nation should become a republic.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy, with the British monarch its head of state who acts in predominately a ceremonial manner but has the power to approve the abolition of parliament, which happened in 1975 toppling the then government.
But republicans concede any debate will be short lived and their dream of an Australian republic and president will remain just that -- for many years to come.
Time, politics and apathy have all conspired against Australia’s republicans. And republicans know there is no appetite to put the issue back on the national agenda.
An opinion poll this week revealed support for the monarchy had risen to 55 percent of the population, while support for a republic was at its lowest level in 23 years at 34 percent.
“Politicians on both sides say they believe in a republic but none of them is confident of its electoral appeal to bring it forward,” said Mike Keating, chairman of the Australian Republic Movement.
“It makes me feel personally, and the republican movement generally, a bit despondent about the state of Australian politics.”
In contrast, Australia’s monarchists, who defeated a national vote to become a republic in 1999, are giddy with excitement about Queen Elizabeth’s 16th “Down Under” royal tour.
“The magic of monarchy still has a place and we saw that at the royal wedding and we will see it during the royal visit. There is great affection for the queen,” said Professor David Flint, head of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM).
After their 1999 defeat, republicans thought they were given a second chance when Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007, promising another plebiscite on a republic.
But Rudd was toppled in a 2010 party room coup by current Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and although a republican, she heads a minority government struggling to survive and has no desire to raise the divisive republican issue.
Gillard, like many republicans, now says Australia will not become a republic until Queen Elizabeth dies, such is the affection for the queen in Australia.
Keating says “it’s essentially just putting the issue off,” while monarchists say no future government would dare raise the issue in the wake of a royal funeral or coronation.
“It is completely off the public agenda,” said Flint. “The republican politicians say they want a plebiscite. They won’t get it.”
If opinion polls are correct, then Gillard will be ousted at the next election in 2013 in favor of conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott, a staunch monarchist. If that is the case, the earliest republicans can expect another vote would be after the 2016 election, and only if a republican is prime minister.
Australians have fought alongside Britain in every major war, but there has always been an anti-British streak running through the country.
Gold miners staged the failed Eureka stockade rebellion against British taxation in 1854. During a royal visit in 1868, Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, was shot in an assassination attempt as he picnicked on Bondi Beach.
Twenty years ago, a small band of Australians met in Sydney to form the Australian Republican Movement. On a wet and miserable night in Sydney in July, many of the same people held a 20th anniversary dinner.
It was a “sodden night when only fools and fanatics would venture out, 150 rusted-on believers in an Australian republic gathered for an evening of warm reminiscence,” founding member Mark Day wrote of the event.
“But the warmth could not hide the bleak reality. We held a party, few came and fewer noticed,” said Day.
Day recalled the black humor talk of treason and sedition when the movement was formed, the optimism in the 1990s that a republic would be formed, and how the nation’s “heart was broken” when the republic vote was lost.
“Twenty years on from the original push and a dozen on from the referendum, when will the time be right to have another go? Certainly not now. There is a toxic mood in public affairs at present,” said Day.
“The Gillard government has its back to the wall and it appears the voters have stopped listening.”
AUSTRALIA‘S ROYAL LOVE AFFAIR
During Queen Elizabeth’s 1963 Australian royal tour, then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies said: “I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die.”
For most, Queen Elizabeth is the only monarch they have known and the emotional connection resonates with many, especially older, Australians.
Monarchist Jai Martinkovits, 24, says many young Australians also have a soft spot for the queen, just like they would their grandmother, and now a growing affinity with the young royals, like Prince William, Kate and Harry.
“The young royals are huge in raising awareness about what this institution is and why it is relevant. I think with that will flow further support for the monarchy,” he said.
Martinkovits is the youngest executive director of the ACM and reflects a push to attract young Australians to the cause. ACM’s Facebook has 22,000 fans and its website 12 million hits.
But it is apathy toward politics amongst young Australians that is the main reason they do not support a republic, said Martinkovits, who admits he became involved by accident when he dated the ACM secretary.
“If we look at the polls, there are two categories of people who have very, very little support for a republic. The elderly are passionate monarchists and young people are apathetic and generally conservative to change,” he said.
Flint said support for the monarchy was support for Australia’s stable political system and not directly driven by a desire to have a queen or king as head of state.
“I think there is strong support for the existing system which incorporates the crown,” he said. “They don’t completely understand the precise role of the crown, but they have a sense that this is something that is not political and understand that you need checks and balances on power.”
Australia is a nation of immigrants with one in four people born overseas and Flint believes many migrant Australians oppose a republic because of past experiences in countries where presidential power was abused.
The zenith of the republic debate in the 1990s was wrapped around the issue of national identity as it coincided with a time of reflection as Australia neared the 2000 Sydney Olympics and its centenary as a nation in 2001.
The past decade has seen the national focus shift to more pragmatic issues, bracketed by global economic woes.
Some republicans hope that from 2014, Australians will enter another period of self-examination and rekindle the republican dream. The ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) centenaries starting in 2014 will mark Australia’s greatest military battles, especially the defeat under British command at Gallipoli during World War One.
“In the years ahead we will surely reflect on the critical elements that contributed to the Australian psyche,” said Day. “Republicanism and the ANZAC image -- laconic self-reliance and insolence toward the British generals -- are easy bedfellows.”
Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Nick Macfie