Role for Charles as interim King of Oz?: It is not simply through his coolness in the face of Kang's assault that the Prince of Wales has made an impact in Australia

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AT 6.30 last Wednesday evening, two beefy bomb squad officials were checking rubbish bins at Darling Harbour in Sydney, just before the Prince of Wales was due to arrive. A journalist was complaining about the tedium of the Prince's itinerary. 'Boring,' he said. 'Unless someone takes a pot-shot at him.' Two days earlier, Lord St John of Fawsley caused ripples of mirth when he said on Australian radio that, if Prince Charles was confronted by the republican issue on his tour, 'he should march his troops towards the sound of gunfire'.

All this talk of shooting in the Prince's presence was a presentiment. At 7.08pm David Kang, a 23 year-old Cambodian- Australian student, sprinted towards Prince Charles, firing blank shots from a starter's pistol, before being stopped on the stage almost at the Prince's feet. The Australia Day Assault may ultimately do more for Prince Charles's fortunes as future king than for Kang's intended beneficiaries: detained Cambodian boat people in Australia. The Prince is even being talked of as a potential interim monarch in residence, who would live in the country while it sorted out its constitution.

Yesterday, Prince Charles was back in tour mode on the west coast of Tasmania. And again he caused headaches for security staff when he accepted the offer of a publican in the little town of Strahan (pop 600) to step inside for a drink on the house. 'I sang out to him from the balcony, 'Come in and have a drink,' ' said Alan Hooper, the bar manager. Charles ordered a large Scotch.

The drink, and the remote setting, may have helped him to contemplate the decisive impact of events in Sydney. What began as a routine royal tour has rescued the Prince's bid to win back public approval in Britain, and has injected new life into the republican debate in Australia. His remarkable coolness in the face of Kang's assault was just a curtain-raiser. Soon afterwards, he carried on with his speech to mark Australia Day, the anniversary of British settlement on 26 January 1788. It was his carefully chosen reference to republicanism and his endorsement of the debate, without actually mentioning the word, which took everyone by surprise. 'Maybe I'm wrong,' he began, 'but I suspect that a feeling of not knowing quite where we are is fairly widespread in human societies today. It is, therefore, 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 are right.'

Whether he intended it or not, those last five words have largely cut the ground from under Australia's monarchists. The Australian press uniformly hailed the speech. The Australian, Rupert Murdoch's national flagship, described it as 'a decisive royal assent to the republican debate . . . which will become a milestone in our evolution to a republic'. The Sydney Morning Herald said: 'In his remarks on this important question for Australians, Prince Charles has conducted himself scrupulously.' The Age, of Melbourne, concluded that Charles had 'undermined the argument of those who contend that to debate the question of a republic is to . . . insult the Queen'.

From all accounts, Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, who started the republican campaign, was beside himself with satisfaction at the Prince's remarks. Next day, in a speech in Melbourne to British and Australian business leaders and politicians, including Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, Mr Keating figuratively placed an approving hand on Prince Charles's shoulder.

He said the Prince's statement 'should not surprise us, because few Englishmen have taken such a close interest in Australia for such a long time, and few, I suspect, have such a sympathetic understanding of the issues which concern us'.

Mr Keating was cannily correct. More than any other royal, Prince Charles is adept at playing his cards in Australia. He quotes from A B 'Banjo' Paterson, the poet, dons Akubra bush hats, pops into pubs for drinks and occasionally goes surfing at Bondi Beach. His soft spot for the place, ever since he spent a term as an 18-year-old schoolboy at Geelong Grammar in Victoria, has burgeoned through friendships with prominent Australians, both there and in Britain, who report that Prince Charles finds the informality of Australia a relief from the rigid world he has known since birth.

When an Australian magazine a year ago became the first anywhere to publish the full transcript of the Camillagate tape, the infamous alleged telephone conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, it scarcely caused a flutter Down Under. As the Prince said last Wednesday: 'Whatever (constitutional course) you ultimately decide upon, I can only say that I will always have an enormous affection for this country. I can't help it really. I wasn't sure what to expect when I first came out here in 1966 . . . but you gave me the kind of welcome and education it is hard to forget.'

He is possibly more popular personally in Australia than in Britain, and that popularity is seen by some as the one thing standing between Mr Keating and the republic. Prince Charles and Mr Keating had several private discussions in Sydney last week, at which they talked about more than their mutual interest in architecture and urban design. In some respects, they have become constitutional soulmates, recognising the momentum for change.

What of Prince Charles's role in all this? Some speculation in the past few days has focused on the prospect of a divided monarchy, of Prince Charles taking up residence in Australia as an interim king, or at least as a penultimate vice- regal figure. This arrangement, the argument goes, would solve everyone's problems: it would put the Prince's personal misfortunes in Britain behind him, and allow the monarchy's tarnished image to restore itself; and it would give Australians a breathing space while they work out how to introduce a watertight republican constitution.

It may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Much has changed since the Prince's last visit to Australia in 1988. The oath of allegiance for new citizens has been cleansed of reference to the Queen. Asian immigration, legal and illegal, has flourished. And more than anything, Australians have questioned the validity of an indivisible monarchy representing two modern countries at once. Prince Charles last week may have done more than anyone to hasten the end of such a system.