Last g'day for the Queen in Australia

John Howard, the Australian prime minister, is a man without irony, and a monarchist to boot, so it must be assumed there was no intentional symbolism in his choice of gift to the Queen yesterday - the third and final volume of a set of illustrated books on an Australian native flower, to add to the two she was given on previous state visits.

"This completes the series," said Mr Howard, handing over The Banksias, Volume 3, after a 35-minute audience with the Queen at Government House in Canberra. "It's wonderful," she replied, adding: "This will join its friends at Windsor."

If the Queen or her Australian hosts have any other unfinished business, now may be the time to address it. Her 13th visit to the country, and her first since 1992, already has the feel of a final hurrah. The republican momentum, unstoppable despite the recent referendum, combined with her age - nearly 74 - and the arduous journey, means this will probably be the last of her old-style tours of Australia.

Even Mr Howard, frequently accused by his detractors of being stuck in a Fifties timewarp, acknowledged times had changed. "It is a different world from what it was in 1954, or even 1963," he said, referring to the dates of earlier royal tours, when the Queen received a rapturous welcome from millions of Australians.

"The world has moved on, and I am certain she (the Queen) understands that probably better than people who raise those issues," he said.

The Queen is under no illusions about the mood of Australia. As she made clear after last November's referendum, she is aware that although 55 per cent of voters opted to retain her as head of state, many did so because they feared that the alternative - a republic headed by a president appointed by parliament - would hand too much power to politicians.

Yesterday, less than 24 hours after her arrival, she was already growing accustomed to a spectacle that appears likely to accompany her throughout her two-week sojourn. Outside Government House, residence of the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, her representative in Australia, a band of good-natured protesters waved a yellow banner with a republican slogan, echoing the demonstration that greeted her when she landed at RAF Fairbairn on Friday.

The visit, which will take the monarch to four state capitals - Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Perth - as well as to rural towns that are the bedrock of her support, has got off to a low-key start, with private meetings yesterday and today's engagements limited to a church service in Canberra.

The Queen declared herself well-rested yesterday, despite the efforts of a noisy family of cockatoos that roost in a tall Himalayan deodar tree outside her bedroom window at Government House.

Nor was her sleep disrupted by the nocturnal activities of 70 kangaroos who live in the spacious grounds. All have been neutered to prevent their numbers swelling, although they do exercise their own form of population control - periodically a couple are found drowned in the swimming pool.

Tomorrow the Queen goes to Sydney for the first real test of her post-referendum popularity. She can probably expect a mixed reception: a modestly-sized crowd, a sprinkling of protesters, but no rotten eggs. The day's events will be closely monitored for any hint of a snub by the public or the Australian authorities.

Historians are speculating on how this politically sensitive visit will be interpreted in later decades. Professor John Rickard, head of Australian Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, said: "I suspect that unless something dramatic occurs during the tour, it will be seen as a curious footnote to the whole post-colonial monarchical relationship."

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