Queen melts the stoutest republican hearts

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The Independent Online

Australia's most successful businesswoman and a leading light in the republican movement, Janet Holmes à Court, looked scandalised. "Absolutely not," she said, when asked whether she had broached the subject of last year's constitutional referendum during a meeting with the Queen this week. "It would not have been good manners."

A slightly curious answer, given that the monarch had addressed the issue herself in a keynote speech in Sydney three days earlier. But as Her Majesty begins the second week of her 13th state visit to Australia, it is becoming more clear that a face-to-face encounter with royalty can make even the most die-hard republican weak at the knees.

It is not, in itself, surprising that the Queen has been hosted at every stop on her tour by eminent republicans whose earnest wish is to consign her to the dustbin of history; they run all but one of Australia's eight states and territories as well as holding many leading positions in public life. What has raised eyebrows is the immoderate enthusiasm with which they have greeted her. "They're all over her like a cheap perfume," said one journalist in Canberra, watching Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales, grinning from ear to ear as he shepherded the Queen around the country town of Bourke on Wednesday.

In Victoria, the heartland of Australian republicanism and the state with the highest "yes" vote in November's narrowly defeated referendum, she had a similar effect on the premier, Steve Bracks.

Even before she arrived in Melbourne, the Victorian capital, her virtues were being extolled by Mr Bracks, who boasted a couple of weeks ago that he would be "upfront" with her about his republican aspirations. "I have an enormous esteem and admiration for the Queen," he said on Thursday. "She's done a great job, with distinction."

Mrs Holmes à Court, who as chairwoman of the Australian Children's Television Foundation met the Queen in Melbourne, said afterwards: "My republicanism has got nothing to do with the Queen. She's our head of state, so it's only right that Australians are polite and welcome her properly. She's an outstanding woman and it was a privilege to meet her."

Perhaps the most piquant encounter was the Queen's introduction to Lucy Turnbull, the deputy mayor of Sydney and wife of Malcolm Turnbull - the lawyer who has run the republican campaign for nearly a decade - during a visit to a children's hospital. Mrs Turnbull's only gesture of defiance was declining to curtsey.

The Queen, it seems, needs only to smile and make small talk to melt the stoutest republican heart. But she has been cannier - or better advised - than that.

She has avoided any hint of triumphalism; indeed, she has taken the sting out of the republican issue by making clear, in the Sydney speech, that she accepts her days as head of state are numbered. She has spoken up for Aborigines and impoverished rural dwellers, and she has expressed in lyrical terms her love for a country she first visited nearly 50 years ago.

Thus has a tour that was expected to be conducted in an atmosphere of division and sourness, so soon after the referendum, turned into something of a charm offensive.

But not all republicans have succumbed. Greg Barns, the former director of the Australian Republican Movement, said: "It's all very well for her to champion the cause of indigenous Australians, but it serves no useful purpose since she only comes here once every 10 years."