When Bill Clinton raised his glass to toast "The Queen of Australia" during the final stop of his 1996 visit to Australia, he inadvertently stirred up a tidal wave of republican sentiment. For here was a well-liked American president quite innocently reminding a gathering of political and business leaders in Canberra that their head of state was Queen Elizabeth II - a foreign-born woman who rarely visits them.
Indeed, a hush fell over the room as Australia's movers and shakers contemplated the meaning behind Mr. Clinton's words.
They had wanted to show the president a nation exuding independence and maturity. But, with those four words, Clinton hit home to them the anomaly of their society - that after 210 years of white settlement in Australia,they still lacked their own head of state, says Gerard Henderson, head of the Sydney Institute, a private think tank. "What Bill Clinton did was quite proper. He followed protocol. But it [the toast] seemed to be an oddity. The ambience was all wrong."
Mr. Henderson explains, "There was no sort of ideological charge" for a republic after the reception, but "they thought, 'oh yeah, this seems a bit old-fashioned. Perhaps we ought to change it.' "
Pressure for change led Australia's monarchist prime minister, John Howard, to open a two-week convention in Canberra Feb. 2 to debate the nation's future.
While Australia's monarchists admire Clinton's faithful adherence to diplomatic protocol, their feelings for Mr. Howard are quite different. Colin Ross Munro, an Australian Monarchist League member and descendant of former US President James Munroe labels Howard a "turncoat" for telling journalists that Clinton's toast seemed "a bit odd."
The monarchists feel Howard further betrayed them during a recent speech, when he acknowledged the "anachronism" of the country sharing its head of state with other nations.
Howard, says Henderson, is the "last of the queen's men" in Australia. A republican himself, Henderson muses about future visits by US presidents toasting King William - Prince Charles's eldest son - calling the idea "just bizarre."