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Republican dreams a distant memory as Queen begins tour

Little more than a decade ago, Australia seemed poised to reject the British monarchy in favour of a home-grown head of state. But as the Queen embarks on her 16th visit to one of the farthest-flung members of the Commonwealth, the prospect of an Australian republic seems more distant than ever.

A recent poll found that only 34 per cent of Australians support constitutional change, the lowest figure for 20 years, while 55 per cent favour the status quo. That is a near reversal of the situation in 1999 when, in the run-up to a referendum on becoming a republic, 54 per cent of Australians said they wanted reform and just 38 per cent backed retaining the monarchy.

The failure of that referendum, attributed to a split in the republican camp, marked the start of a downturn in the fortunes of the anti-monarchists. Australians lost interest and the republican movement's leaders fell silent. Public affection for the Queen means that there is little prospect of change until her reign ends. Displays of republican sentiment will, therefore, be muted during her 10-day visit, which began last night in Canberra. Julia Gillard, Australia's Prime Minister, preferred to bow her head rather than curtsey on greeting the Queen at RAAF Fairbairn airfield. But she has made clear that the monarch and Duke of Edinburgh are welcome. "Visits by the Queen are etched into the collective memory," she said. "Many Australians can recall Her Majesty's previous visits as landmarks in their own lives."

Any protests are likely to be small in scale. Activists from Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which objects to the bearskin hats used by the British Army, gathered at Canberra Airport but were dispersed by police. In Melbourne demonstrators claiming to be inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests have threatened to disrupt the visit.

The public's fondness for the Queen is not the only obstacle facing republicans. The younger royals, particularly Prince William and his new, photogenic wife, Kate Middleton, have boosted the monarchy's popularity. The Prince's visit to flood-affected areas of Queensland earlier this year endeared him to many Australians. Melbourne's The Age newspaper said that it "may have done more to set back the republican cause than anything since the 1999 referendum".

Mike Keating, chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, acknowledged the interest surrounding the Queen's trip. He said: "Hopefully, while she is here, people will pause to consider that we have absolutely no say in who our head of state is, and ask themselves whether a constitutional monarchy is appropriate for Australia in 2011."