Saturday, 12 April 2014 | MYT 8:16 AM
Right royal welcome awaits Kate, Will and George in Australia
SYDNEY, April 11, 2014 (AFP) - The welcome awaiting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their bonny Prince George when they arrive in Australia next week may well be warmer than ever before, or ever again.
That is certainly how Republicans see it, under a prime minister who wears his love of the British monarchy on his sleeve and has turned constitutional debate topsy-turvy Down Under.
The Australia that will greet the royals has just taken a surprise step back into its colonial past with Prime Minister Tony Abbott restoring knighthoods.
Renowned as an arch monarchist, he nonetheless shocked the nation when he announced on March 25 the restoration of titles which were scrapped in the former convict colony in 1986.
Without consulting his cabinet, Abbott declared his first new dame and sir had already been appointed by Her Majesty and added "a note of grace" to the civic landscape.
Quentin Bryce, the outgoing governor-general, was made a Dame, despite recently admitting she would like to see an Australian head of state, while Peter Cosgrove, who succeeded her, kept his counsel on becoming a knight.
Prince William and Kate might feel more at home among sirs and dames, but the move sparked a huge backlash which still rumbles on through social media with some arguing the highest Australian achievement is once again on British terms.
Sydney University historian James Current declared in The Age newspaper it was "one of the most pompous, pretentious, nostalgic and self-indulgent prime ministerial decisions in a generation."
Even Abbott's conservative mentor, ex-premier John Howard, who ruled out a return to the British honours system when he was in office, stood by his view of such a move as "somewhat anachronistic".
It was Howard who saw off the 1999 referendum when Australians voted 55 percent to 45 percent against a proposal for a republic. The issue has since remained largely dormant.
From Wednesday when the royal tourists land in Australia from New Zealand, Abbott will be able to play cheerleader-in-chief at a series of pomp and ceremony engagements.
But there are suggestions he may be going too far. Can the royal card really be a vote-puller in multi-cultural 21st century Australia where the percentage of the population with British links is dwindling?
David Norris, national director of the Australian Republican Movement, hopes Abbott's monarchist mindset will fire the debate needed to turn the country into a republic, and sooner rather than later.
"I predict that Abbott will be the last prime minister who will choose to swear allegiance to a monarch instead of to Australia and its people," Norris tweeted.
However, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation polled more than 1.4 million people before the September elections, only 38 percent were in favour of cutting ties to the British monarchy while 20 percent were neutral.
Norris claims Abbott, who swept to power on a conservative, pro-business ticket, has driven "thousands" to his movement, but the republican still recognises the broad popularity of the modern young couple and their first born.
"We can warmly welcome the royal visitors next week while also backing an Australian republic," he says.
"We look forward to the day when our friends in Britain warmly welcome the visit of an Australian head of state. It will be a powerful day indeed and will mark the end of colonial habits of mind."
The Australian Monarchist League told AFP they see only "huge enthusiasm" for the royal tour and pointed out that the restoration of knighthoods was "the prerogative of the prime minister".
"We do not feel that there will be any sort of backlash or revival of republicanism," said the League's national chair Philip Benwell.
The Cambridges arrive in Sydney on April 16, kicking off with a grand reception at the Opera House.
They travel to the Blue Mountains on April 17, Queensland capital Brisbane on April 19, Uluru, formerly Ayers Rock, in the red heart of the continent on April 22, Adelaide on April 23 and the capital Canberra on April 24 and 25, before flying home.