Why republican Australia warms to Prince William

Prince William with crowds in Australia
Image caption Well received: Prince William during his 2010 Australia visit

As Prince William arrives in Australia, to visit areas ravaged by the recent cyclone and flooding, he finds a country that is hotly anticipating his forthcoming wedding to Kate Middleton, despite many Australians' republican sympathies, reports the BBC's Nick Bryant.

In a country still of majestic coinage, crown prosecutions, Royal commissions and Her Majesty's ships, prisons and war planes - where the Queen still adorns bank notes and a public holiday marks her birthday - the royal wedding is arguably the biggest event this year on Australia's national and media calendar.

Not since the wedding of the actress Nicole Kidman to the country singer Keith Urban in 2006 has a wedding been lavished with so much attention. Yet the Kidman bash was fairly small beer compared with the vintage Krug of the royal nuptials.

All the main television stations here are planning blanket, prime time coverage, even though the ceremony clashes with the regular Friday night rugby league and Aussie Rules matches. The leading Australian women's magazines are bringing out special commemorative issues, just as they did following the announcement of the royal engagement.

And Aussie jewellers have been rushing out celebratory rings, beads and pendants, seemingly regarding the royal couple as a kind of regal stimulus package at a time when retail here is experiencing the blues.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has also been invited to the wedding, though her confirmation was not immediately forthcoming. Admittedly, it was a tricky RSVP for the Welsh-born leader, a republican who believes that Australia should have a home-grown head of state though not during Queen Elizabeth's lifetime.

The wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 remains the third most-watched telecast in Australian history, beaten only by the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics, and the funeral of Diana, which ranks first. The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is sure to deliver another ratings bonanza, and likely to become the most-watched event of the past 10 years.

Monarchists are planning celebratory lunches and dinners on 29 April, and Professor David Flint of the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy believes the wedding is a blow for the republican movement. In a referendum held in 1999, Australians opted to preserve the status quo, with the Queen remaining as the head of state - although the republican movement was split between those who wanted an elected president and those who preferred a parliamentary appointee.

Honeymoon hopes

"We never campaigned on the magic of the monarchy," says Professor Flint, "but the wedding does have an effect. People here approve of William and he's very popular. It disadvantages the republican cause because people compare William with an Australian president."

Image caption Lèse majesté: A float at last year's the Sydney gay and lesbian mardi gras

At the beginning of 2010, Prince William made what was widely deemed to have been a successful visit to Australia where he met Aboriginal elders, visited survivors of the Victorian bush fires, raced across Sydney harbour in a speed boat, enjoyed a traditional Aussie barbecue and turned up in the VIP box at the Rod Laver Arena to watch a few sets of Australian Open tennis action.

Aussies seemed to warm to his down-to-earth style and he was thought to have had such a good time that it fuelled speculation that he might end up honeymooning in Australia.

He will also win points this week for visiting the victims of the Queensland floods, after his stop in New Zealand to meet residents hit by the Pike River Mine disaster and the Christchurch earthquake.

Professor Flint thinks the wedding of two regal twenty-somethings will buttress support for the monarchy among the young. "I think they'll identify with them," says Professor Flint. "But young people seem disinterested with the question of a republic."

Here there is a paradox. Australia is fiercely patriotic. It is strongly egalitarian. It rails against hereditary privilege. It is a country where everyone is a "commoner," to use a word that many Australians would find completely meaningless. And yet the monarchy survives, and will continue to do for at least the duration of Queen Elizabeth's reign and possibly even longer.

More than a decade after the failed referendum, the republican movement is in the doldrums. Prime Minister Gillard has ruled out a second referendum while Queen Elizabeth is still alive. The conservative opposition is also lead by Tony Abbott, an arch royalist who used to be the executive director of the Australians for constitutional monarchy.

Small 'r' republicans

He took over the leadership of the Liberal Party from Malcolm Turnbull, the former head of the republican movement. In a country long resistant to constitutional change, republicanism simply is not considered an urgent national priority.

Image caption He said yes, the people said no: Australian politician Malcolm Turnbull in 1999

The ranks of the monarchists are boosted by what might be called Australian Elizabethans: "small-r" republicans who think it is downright rude to make an 84-year-old monarch the subject of a divisive national debate.

In February, "The End of the Windsors?" was the cover story for the Monthly magazine, a journal of Australian politics, society and culture. But much to the chagrin of Australian republicans, the question is often met with public apathy and indifference.

"We take the long view," says David Donovan of the Australian Republican Movement. "Australia is heading in the direction of a republic and the royal wedding will have no effect on that.

"The focus in on William right now, but the reality is that we are going to get Charles. Charles is more relevant to Australia than William and our polling shows he is not that popular.

"And the idea that Australia has no one of the calibre of the Windsors to be head of state is anti-Australian," he says. "We utterly reject it."

If anything, the fact that the wedding is receiving so much attention says more about the ascendancy of celebrity culture in Australia rather than the endurance of a royal culture. Perhaps people here simply look on William and Kate as the hot celebrities of the moment rather than a future King and Queen of Australia.

Nick Bryant is the BBC's Sydney correspondent and author of the blog Nick Bryant's Australia.