The last stand

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The Independent Online

On Friday, the Queen arrives in Australia for her 13th - and oddest - tour of a far-flung colony that, for the most part, no longer wants her. It's all a far cry from her first visit, 46 years ago. Then, millions lined the streets to greet her. These days, they're more likely to ask: 'Elizabeth who?'

Scenes of near hysteria greeted Queen Elizabeth II when she last visited Ballarat, in rural Victoria, in 1954. More than 150,000 besotted Australian subjects lined the streets and cheered their fresh-faced young Queen until they were hoarse. "We shared in an elevating experience from which we should all emerge better citizens and better Britishers," the next day's Ballarat Courier declared.

The sentiments were echoed in every town and city graced by the newly crowned Queen during her first triumphal tour of Australia. An estimated 70 per cent of the population, then 10 million, saw her in person; in Sydney, 2,000 people fainted in the crush outside the town hall; in Lismore, in northern New South Wales, women and children were trampled underfoot.

The monarch may yearn for some old-fashioned adulation when she returns to Ballarat, a prosperous former goldrush town, next week. Forty-six years on, her reception will be decidedly muted. There will be a crowd, no doubt, but it will number no more than a few thousand, and some onlookers will be waving an unfamiliar flag: dark blue, with a white cross and five white stars - the Southern Cross, once a symbol of republican sedition.

Tomorrow the Queen will arrive in Canberra to begin a tour of Australia that will be one of the most politically sensitive trips of her long reign. It follows a referendum four months ago in which Australia narrowly voted against becoming a republic, but only because of disagreement about how a president should be elected, and it comes six months before the Sydney Olympic Games, which the Queen, despite being head of state, has not been invited to open.

Given that background, it seems foolhardy on the part of the organisers of her 16-day schedule to include a stop in Ballarat, a town also famous as the scene of Australia's only armed uprising against the British Crown. In 1854 miners on the Eureka goldfield, angry about unfair taxes levied by their colonial rulers, built a stockade and raised the Southern Cross. In the subsequent battle, 22 "diggers" were killed. The events, which occupy an iconic place in the history of the Australian nation, are said to have lit the fuse of the country's republicanism.

In Ballarat, Eureka was long regarded as a shameful episode best forgotten. It is now celebrated as part of the town's rich heritage. A museum has been erected on the site of the stockade, remnants of the flag are preserved in the Fine Art Gallery and a nightly sound and light show re-enacts the confrontation between miners and government troops.

The royal itinerary, however, has been carefully contrived to avoid all reference to Eureka. Thus the Queen will be taken to Sovereign Hill, a recreation of the 1850s goldfields township, but only for a lunch with tourism officials, and her motorcade will emphatically not ascend Eureka Street to the field where the fateful battle took place. "We're not focusing on that side of things," explains John McLean, chief executive of Ballarat City Council. "It's part of our history, but we're not going to push it down the Queen's throat. It doesn't really suit the tone of the visit."

However, short of blindfolding the Queen, there will be no missing the enormous replica of the Southern Cross that greets people as they drive into Ballarat, situated about 70 miles west of Melbourne, nor the two that flutter above the town hall in Sturt Street, the broad main boulevard, nor the sea of navy and white flags that local republicans have pledged to brandish as a gesture of defiance.

And so it will be as the British monarch criss-crosses the country, from Sydney to Tasmania, Alice Springs, Perth and back, on her 13th and oddest tour of a far-flung former colony that, for the most part, no longer wants her as Queen. The crowds - made up largely of dragooned schoolchildren and blue-rinsed matrons - will be a fraction of the size of those that hailed her in 1954, despite an itinerary with a heavy bias towards Australia's rural monarchist heartlands. Efforts to shield her from the r-word are likely to prove futile; republican demonstrations are planned for, at the least, Sydney and Melbourne. Worst of all, perhaps, will be the colossal indifference of much of the population; as one magazine editorial put it recently: "Elizabeth who?"

You cannot help but feel for the monarch. She has stayed away from Australia for eight years, steering clear of the constitutional debate that culminated in the referendum last November. Against protocol, she has not been asked to open the Olympic Games; even the prime minister, John Howard, a diehard monarchist, realised that the Australian public would not countenance a foreigner presiding over the country's proudest moment. This could have been the Queen's farewell tour if the referendum had gone the other way; instead, it will be a study in awkward moments.

As the Queen made plain in a frank statement after the referendum, she knows that the outcome was not a vote of confidence in the monarchy. Fifty five per cent of Australians voted to retain the status quo, but substantial numbers did so only because they wanted a president to be elected by popular vote, rather than by parliament, as was proposed. A recent opinion poll found that 74 per cent of people favour an Australian head of state.

For republicans, who are starting to regroup after spending four months licking their wounds, the royal visit offers a perfect opportunity to highlight the fact that while the Queen is personally liked and respected, the institution that she represents has no relevance to a modern Australia. Greg Barns, former director of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), says: "It will remind Australians that our head of state is a person who lives 12,000 miles away, visits rarely and never represents our interests abroad."

Leading proponents of constitutional change include many prominent politicians, and so the next fortnight promises the entertaining spectacle of the Queen being fêted by a succession of committed republicans, including the premiers of all but one of the six states and territories through which she will travel.

Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales, will host a luncheon for the Queen in Sydney; in Victoria, she will be the guest of Steve Bracks, who has pledged to be "upfront" about his desire to see Australia cast off the final shackles of Empire. In Canberra, she will meet the federal treasurer, Peter Costello, who declared in a television interview last week that "the temper of the Australian public is now republican".

No doubt politicians, including Mr Bracks, will bite their tongues in the interests of diplomacy, but no such restraints apply to ordinary citizens. Malcolm Reid, former director of the Victorian branch of ARM, says the Queen can expect polite but pointed protests in Melbourne. "We don't want her here," says a Sydney republican who, because of his job as a government spokesman, prefers not to be named. "The way I feel is, no disrespect, she's a nice old bag, but I wish she'd piss off and not come back."

The spirit of independence behind the miners' uprising - which led to universal suffrage in the fledgling colony of Victoria - is still strong in Ballarat. Just over half of the residents supported a republic in November's referendum, an unusually high "yes" vote for a country town. The Southern Cross, adopted over the years by radical trade unions, remains a standard of resistance and protest; Dr Jan Penney, director of the Eureka Stockade Centre and a noted local republican, wants to see the flags "lining every road, on every house and factory" during the Queen's visit.

Not everyone will heed the call. Ninety-year-old Jessie Scott, an MBE and former mayor of Ballarat who has fond memories of meeting the Queen in 1954, shudders at the prospect of a republican demonstration. "What do they want to do nasty things like that for? She's never done us any harm," says Mrs Scott, waving an invitation to lunch with the Queen at Sovereign Hill, which has just landed on her doormat. Later that day, inspecting a display of prize-winning begonias at Ballarat's Botanical Gardens, she sniffs in disapproval on spying a new variety named Eureka - a striking red bloom whose "soft crimson signifies the blood spilt at the Eureka Rebellion", according to its label.

Ballarat's famed annual begonia festival is a major tourist attraction, second only to Eureka. During her last visit, which took place at the same time of year, the Queen made a foray into the glasshouse to admire the exhibits, to gasps of delight from townsfolk assembled outside. This time, although she will return to the Botanical Gardens, the begonias are definitely not on the agenda, Buckingham Palace has warned. No matter; the burghers of Ballarat can console themselves with the thought that, with an Australian republic inevitable in the next decade or so, the festival - inaugurated in 1953, the year of the Coronation - will be drawing in the crowds long after the monarchy has withered and died.