Prince enters debate on monarchy: Australia's constitutional future is for the people to decide, says the heir to the throne. Robert Milliken reports from Sydney

THE Prince of Wales broke with royal precedent yesterday by publicly discussing Australia's republican movement in a speech overshadowed by the drama when a man sprang from a Sydney crowd and fired shots near him.

The Prince delivered a scheduled speech before shaken guests and VIPs. He remained calm as he spoke about the debate over Australia's future constitutional arrangements without mentioning the word 'republicanism' once. He appeared to avoid taking sides, reflecting the Queen's view that she will accept whatever decision Australia makes.

Prince Charles said: 'It is perhaps not surprising that there are those who would wish to see such a rapidly changing world reflected by a change in Australia's institutions. And perhaps they're right. By the very nature of things it is also not surprising that there are differing views: some people will doubtless prefer the stability of a system that has been reasonably well-tried and tested over the years, while others will see real advantages in doing things differently.

'The point I want to make here, and for everyone to be perfectly clear about, is that this is something which only you - the Australian people - can decide.'

The Prince said that it was the sign of a mature and self-confident nation to debate these issues and to use democratic processes to re-examine the way in which Australians wanted to face the future. 'Whatever course you ultimately decide upon, I can only say that I will always have an enormous affection for this country.' He added that 'if things change in this country' he might be able to do things he had not been able to do in the last 25 years 'like spending a bit more time in the surf - although I have a dreadful feeling I may be too old to survive the result'.

Meanwhile, 'all the members of my family will continue to take a close personal interest in the welfare and fortunes of this country'.

The Prince's remarks were interpreted in some quarters as a subtle plea to think hard before ditching the monarchy. Others were too overwhelmed by yesterday's events to see the speech as anything more than the Prince wanting to clear the air over where he stood. His 12-day visit is to continue as planned.

Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, carefully avoided reiterating his pro-republican views in his Australia Day speech earlier yesterday.

However, there was plenty elsewhere to keep the issue was alive elsewhere. Yesterday was the first Australia Day at which immigrants taking Australian citizenship did so according to an official oath which has been cleansed of any reference to the Queen.

The influential Sydney Morning Herald, which has previously sat on the republican fence, produced an editorial saying: 'Australia, quite simply, has outgrown the monarchy as a child outgrows its clothes . . . for an increasing number of people there unavoidably must be a very unAustralianness about the values the monarchy represents.'

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