We'll still be friends after the divorce

Midway through the Queen's tour, it is clear that a confident Australia will soon go its own way
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The Independent Online

In the Tribute Garden of Australia's newly opened Im-migration Museum, where the Queen strolled during a visit to Melbourne last week, are 4,000 granite tablets engraved with the names of people who have settled in Victoria over the past two centuries.

In the Tribute Garden of Australia's newly opened Im-migration Museum, where the Queen strolled during a visit to Melbourne last week, are 4,000 granite tablets engraved with the names of people who have settled in Victoria over the past two centuries.

Guiseppe Interligi, Andreas Kouremenos, Ivanka Kontelj, Mai Ho - the names reflect the ethnic diversity of modern Australia, once populated almost exclusively by Anglo-Celts, now home to immigrants from every corner of the planet, particularly, in recent years, South-east Asia.

Australia is no longer a British outpost, but a mosaic of cultures and communities, many of which have no connection with Britain. This pluralism is one of the most compelling arguments for the country to sever its links with the British Crown and become a republic.

And it will continue to fuel the clamour for change, which has not diminished, despite the result of last year's referendum. The referendum failed, but mainly because of a split in republican ranks, and, in time, the issue will be voted on again, with a different outcome.

Australians may be as yet unable to agree on the small print, but the country - self-confident, politically mature and robustly independent - has evolved to the stage where the break appears inevitable.

The relaxed fashion in which they have greeted the Queen, half-way through her 16-day State visit, is further confirmation that Australia has grown up.

No huge crowds of royalists, but no big, noisy protests either. Australians are simply not that bothered. For most people, the Queen is a curiosity, an exotic, faintly comical creature who evokes, at best, a stirring of nostalgia.

For the Australian media, the tour has been a low-key affair, relegated to the inside pages of newspapers and to a lowly ranking in television bulletins. Buckingham Palace aides are irritated by the frequent comparisons drawn with the Queen's first visit to Australia in 1954, when millions of loyal subjects gave her a tumultuous welcome. The temptation is difficult to resist, so striking is the contrast between the country then and now.

In the 1950s, many Australians referred to Britain as "home" and regarded Asia as a frightening, inscrutable place. The White Australia immigration policy was still in force; drinking in pubs was banned after six o'clock and schoolchildren sang "God Save The Queen" every morning.

The country was ultra-conservative and culturally sterile; little wonder that the likes of Clive James and Germaine Greer fled to London at the first opportunity.

Donald Horne, who wrote about the Australia of that era in his best-seller The Lucky Country, told the Independent on Sunday: "I was born into an Australia in which the two great things that united you were that you were Anglo-Saxon and you were white - and you were better at being white than anyone else."

In the 1970s the country began to reinvent itself. The Labour government of Gough Whitlam implemented liberal social policies, encouraged Asian immigration and created institutions that helped the arts to flourish. The "cultural cringe", the habit of looking to Britain as the source of cultural legitimation, began to fade, and Asian countries became Australia's principal trading partners.

Sydney's successful bid for the 2000 Olympic Games fed the national pride, and Australia's leadership of the international peacekeeping force in East Timor enhanced its conviction that the country can stand on its own two feet.

Far from bolstering the standing of the monarchy in Australia in the wake of the referendum, the royal tour is serving to highlight the absurdity of having as head of state a foreigner who lives on the other side of the world and visits once a decade.

Among the royal crowds - small in the cities, a little larger in country towns - are numerous republicans, who say they feel affection for the Queen as a person, if not for the institution that she represents. This is, perhaps, another sign of maturity, the capacity of Australians to value their heritage while aspiring to fully-fledged independence.

As the Queen made clear last week, she reciprocates that affection. Prince Charles, who was at a school in Victoria, also has a great fondness for the country. They and other members of the Royal Family are said to enjoy being among people who speak their minds, and maybe egalitarian Australia appeals to a deep-seated yearning in them to be ordinary.

The new, vibrant Australia is not without frictions, as it tries to come to terms with its treatment of Aborigines and with a growing polarity between city and country dwellers.

But it is a nation that is fundamentally at ease with itself, in a way that Britain - shackled by centuries of tradition and class - is not. It has a strong sense of identity and, belatedly, of its place on the map, in the middle of the Asia-Pacific region.

No longer do Australians see themselves as transplanted Britons, and successive decades of multicultural policies are generally deemed a success. The flirtation with Pauline Hanson's anti-immigration One Nation party was brief; most of her supporters deserted her. The "temper" of the country, as one senior politician has said, is republican.

Australia wants to disengage itself from the monarchy, and the Queen, as she has indicated, wishes the divorce to be amicable. As one news headline put it: "Advance Australia Fair, with or without me." Only the details of the settlement have still to be worked out.

Peter FitzSimons, a columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald and a prominent republican, says: "Nothing can change the fact that every day our obituary columns are full to the brim with monarchists, and our birth columns are full to the brim with future republicans. That's the reality."