Canberra: Crowds of cheering children waving Australian flags welcomed Queen Elizabeth II as she and her husband Prince Philip landed at an Australian air force base Wednesday in the nation`s capital.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Governor General Quentin Bryce, the monarch`s representative in Australia, greeted the royal pair, who received a 21-gun salute as they emerged from their plane.
The warm welcome comes despite the ruling Labor Party`s desire for the British monarch to be replaced by a president as Australia`s head of state. Gillard has said Australia should become a republic after the queen`s reign.
But Gillard said she did not believe that debate would mar the monarch`s first visit since 2006, when she opened the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. The 85-year-old monarch will travel to four cities and open a meeting of leaders of mostly former British colonies during her 10-day visit.
"While the queen is here in Australia, what Australians will be doing is enjoying and celebrating her presence here," Gillard told reporters hours before the queen arrived.
"I believe she`s very well respected by Australians and I think she`s going to be tremendously warmly received from the moment that she sets foot on Australian soil," she added.
Australians rejected a proposal to make Australia a republic at a referendum in 1999.
Students from local schools lined up near the queen`s plane to present her with gifts, including bouquets of flowers, a paper crown and a stuffed Corgi — a nod to the monarch`s favorite dog breed. She grinned and chatted with a crowd of well-wishers before heading off to the Governor General`s official residence in Canberra, where she will spend most of her 10 nights in Australia.
Hundreds lined the drive leading to the residence to catch a glimpse of the royal couple as they drove by.
Flag-waving Emily Seseile, 9, said she had come to see the monarch because "she`s the queen and it could be the last time she comes."
Narelle Gibson, 69, held a sign that read "Australians for a constitutional monarchy," the name of a group that wants to maintain the current system. She said she last saw the queen during her 1970 visit.
"It may be the last visit for the Duke of Edinburgh, but she`s got plenty of energy," Gibson said, referring to the monarch and her 90-year-old husband.
The queen will visit Brisbane and Melbourne before opening next week`s meeting of the 54-nation Commonwealth in the western coastal city of Perth. Leaders of the nations linked to Britain`s former empire, who meet every two years, will consider a range of recommended reforms including lifting laws against homosexuality that exist in most Commonwealth countries.
Media commentators have speculated that this Australian visit — her 16th — could be the queen`s last given her advanced years and the 11,000-mile (18,000-kilometer) distance from Buckingham Palace in London to a country that was one of the British Empire`s most far removed outposts.
But her former press secretary Dickie Arbiter pointed to the example of the queen`s late mother, who visited Canada when she was aged in her 90s.
"With the queen, you should never say `last;` never say `never,`" Arbiter said in an interview published in The Canberra Times newspaper Wednesday.
The queen`s biographer, Hugo Vickers, said she made a point of attending every meeting of the 54-nation Commonwealth. Only 53 countries will be represented at the Perth summit because Fiji has been suspended since its army overthrew the government in 2006.
"She has not minded when Commonwealth countries have dropped her as head of state, but she does mind if they leave the Commonwealth," Vickers was quoted as saying by The Canberra Times.
In 1954, the queen became the first reigning British monarch to visit Australia.