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Sunday March 12, 2006

Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Australia on state visit

CANBERRA, Australia (AP): Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Australia on Sunday for a five-day state visit that has reignited the simmering debate over whether she should remain the country's head of state. 

The queen smiled broadly as she stepped from the British Airways Boeing 777 to cheers from a crowd of around 400 well-wishers. 

Accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip, she was greeted by Prime Minister John Howard and Governor General Michael Jeffrey, the British monarch's representative in Australia. 

The royal couple accepted bunches of flowers and chatted with the crowd gathered at Fairbairn airport, near the nation's capital, Canberra, before being driven away in a black Rolls Royce. 

They had no officials engagements on Sunday, but are to receive a 21-gun salute in Sydney on Monday and meet Aboriginal leaders at the city's Opera House. She is to officially open the Commonwealth Games in the southern city of Melbourne on Wednesday. 

Although greeted warmly, with some of the crowd bursting into an impromptu rendition of "God Save the Queen,'' republican campaigners said the visit was an opportunity to reopen the debate about replacing the queen with a homegrown president. 

"While the queen is held in great affection by the Australian people, many Australians recognize that it is no longer sensible for us to have a citizen of another country, who visits Australia only occasionally, as our head of state,'' said Allison Henry, national director of the Australian Republican Movement. 

Eleanor Goodwin, who stood in the crowd to greet the queen, held different sentiments. 

"She is the queen of Australia, I mean there's not just the English connection,'' said Goodwin, wearing socks in the red, white and blue of the British flag. "There's just an intrinsic respect for her as a person and it's also a whole lot of fun to come out and wave flags as well.'' 

Australia became an independent state in 1901, but, like many former outposts of the British Empire such as Canada, it still recognizes the queen as head of state. 

The nation overwhelmingly voted against changing the country's constitutional monarchy into a republic in 1999. But republicans insist that Howard, a staunch monarchist, ensured the referendum would fail by turning it into a confusing debate over how to elect a president. 

Polls at the time suggested the republicans would have won if it had been a clear choice between a queen or a directly elected head of state, but Howard only offered the option of a president appointed by Parliament. 

The queen's visit has reawakened the debate. 

Both sides have argued passionately in recent weeks about what national anthem to play when the queen officially opens the games on March 15. Monarchists were outraged when organizers announced that "Advance Australia Fair'' _ the country's national anthem since 1984 _ would be played in the opening ceremony instead of "God Save the Queen.'' 

Reaching for a compromise, they announced last week that opera star Dame Kiri Te Kanawa would sing eight bars of the royal anthem. 


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