Oz not awed by Charles

A princely visit renews Australia's debate over its ties to the crown.

It must have seemed like a harmless idea at first: After touring tsunami-hit Sri Lanka, Prince Charles would pop over to Australia to visit another country in the Commonwealth of former British colonies.

After all, the prince who might one day become king of the Aussies had not set foot down under for more than a decade. And, truly, it is nice to catch some sun before your big wedding day.

But the trip has drawn lukewarm press coverage and may have inadvertently brought more people into the fold of the vocal anti-monarchist camp.

"Many people have been ringing to say that they have been closet republicans so far, or that they thought that they did not care enough about it. But now with the prospect of being face-to-face with their possible future king who they feel no affinity for, they realize that they want to become full members of the ARM," says Allison Henry, national director of the Australian Republican Movement, which currently has about 4,000 members. "So this visit by the prince has really done us a favor."

Following Charles on his five-day tour of desalination plants, hospital burn units, and even local toilets, the media have depicted him as slightly grumpy, and uncomfortable in the hot Australian sun.

"Let us extend a warm welcome to this bloke from foreign shores. In doing so, however, let us also look him squarely in the eye and say 'sorry mate, you just ain't one of us,' " writes the deputy chairman of the ARM, Ted O'Brien, in the Courier Mail newspaper.

A Galaxy Research poll last week in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper revealed that 53 percent are in favor of Australia becoming a republic, with 30 percent against and 17 uncommitted.

The findings are consistent with past polls, but republicans have so far not gotten the upper hand at the ballot box.

In 1999, the country voted to maintain the status quo of a constitutional monarchy with 55 percent voting for, 45 against.

Australians "were offered an opportunity to vote for a republic and they decided against it. That's all there is to it. The fact is that a majority of the people prefer the system as it is," says Philip Benwell, the head of the Australian Monarchist League in Sydney.

However, the republican movement was divided going into the 1999 vote.

"The referendum to change the constitution failed because Australians were divided over whether to have an indirectly chosen president by a two-thirds vote of parliament ... or one elected directly by the people - which was not on offer," says Leslie Zines, professor emeritus of constitutional law at the Australian National University.

"Almost half of those who voted against the republic at the time thought that a directly elected president would have been a better choice," Zines adds. "Monarchists would like to believe that the vote was against change, but really the vote was against change for its own sake."

Next time, preferably within five years, republicans say, all these problems will be sorted out before it comes to a vote.

But a coinciding visit by a princess this week shows that Aussies can be charmed by royalty.

Mary Donaldson, a 33-year-old former real estate agent from Tasmania who married into Denmark's royal family last year, has returned with her husband on her first official visit to her native land.

Smiling, slim, and poised, "our Mary," who never misses a royal step, has captured some of the good press and public attention missed by Prince Charles.

"She knows our history and culture, our sense of humor, our anxieties and our aspirations," writes Nicola Roxon, in an op-ed piece in The Australian newspaper. "She knows us because she is one of us. And, we identify with her because of this. The contrast [with Prince Charles] could not be stronger."

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