A Royal Dives Down Under

On a visit to Sydney, the Prince of Wales shows regal bearing as he calmly reacts to pistol shots

GRACE under pressure is a job requirement for anyone in the British monarchy.

The Prince of Wales showed he had it yesterday at the Australia Day festivities here, when a man dashed out of the crowd just as the prince was being introduced and fired what was first thought to be a gun.

While the man made it to the stage, he was quickly subdued, and the gun was in fact a starter's pistol.

As it turned out, the man, an Asian student, had previously written to the prince regarding the plight of Indochinese boat people in Australia. A spokesman for the prince said that a reply had been sent saying the prince could not comment on the situation. The incident frightened watchers, particularly the Royal and government security forces who had to wonder how an armed man managed to get so close to the prince.

But Charles was calm throughout and moments later joked, ``This would be so much easier if I could sing.'' Later he went ``walkabout'' through the crowds shaking hands.

Some Royal watchers say this two-week trip around Australia is designed as damage control for his image problem and that he is trying to refocus the spotlight, which has shone on his estranged wife Princess Diana for so long, back on himself.

If Prince Charles was looking for such a boost, he probably got several notches' worth in his handling of the incident.

But the trip so far reveals a prince much different from the stodgy, eccentric loner the British press portrays him to be. He's shown himself to be a graceful and humorous speaker and one who seems to enjoy meeting people - not to mention indefatigable.

This was his schedule for Australia Day, the anniversary of the day the first fleet of British convicts dropped anchor in Sydney Cove in 1788: He congratulated winners of the Qantas Oz Wheelchair Race; sounded a gong at the Phuoc Hue Buddhist Temple for wisdom, happiness, and compassion; visited ethnic community stalls at an Australia Day celebration, checked out the site of the 2000 Olympics - and all that before 3 p.m.

He'll be going on to several other states in this two-week visit.

The day before, in the dark-paneled chambers of the state parliament, he exhorted business leaders to play their part in helping to secure the sustainable progress of the Asia-Pacific region. And, after offering encouragement to street kids at the Sydney City Mission, he told a young woman how much he admired her tattoo. Others speculated that in addition to the prince improving his image, his trip was designed to keep Australia in the fold of the Commonwealth.

This former colony, independent since 1901, has been making noises about cutting the last filaments of the official relationship with England and becoming a republic.

Prime Minister Paul Keating has been strongly pushing the issue: He wants an Australian to replace the English monarch as head of state by 2001.

The polls, however, have showed public opinion shifting away from the republican idea. And, Mr. Keating, who gave a speech during a separate Australia Day celebration, did not mention the ``R-word'' (republic).

In the lead-up to the visit, Queen Elizabeth II has been saying it is up to the Australians to decide what they want to do.

And the prince clearly confirmed that in his speech shortly after the attack, adding, ``Whatever course you ultimately decide upon, I can only say that I will always have an enormous affection for this country.''

As the audience burst into applause, a flash of sadness passed over his face. But like the Royal that he is, the Prince of Wales smiled and carried on with his speech.

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