Prince Charles tours Down Under amid Union flag debate

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Christchurch, Canterbury, NEW ZEALAND: (FILES) This file photo taken on November 16, 2012 shows Prince Charles (C) the Prince of Wales with his wife Camilla (L) arriving with Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key (R) for a welcome at the Christchurch City Council building in Christchurch. Britains Prince Charles launches a potentially awkward tour Down Under on November 4, 2015 with New Zealands leader keen to drop the Union Jack from the flag and Australias a staunch republican. Photo AFP/Files/Marty Melville

November 2, 2015
WELLINGTON (AFP) - Britain's Prince Charles Wednesday launches a potentially awkward tour Down Under, where New Zealand's premier is pushing to drop the Union Jack from the flag and Australia's new leader is a staunch republican.

Charles and wife Camilla arrive in Wellington to start the 12-day trip in which the heir to the throne will visit a dozen different cities and towns across the two countries including New Plymouth, Dunedin, Auckland, Sydney, Perth and Albany.

The prince's office said the tour had a strong emphasis on honouring the military, with this year marking the centenary of the Anzac landings in Gallipoli, Turkey, during World War I that helped forge the identities of both Australia and New Zealand.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has also sparked a debate on national symbols by calling a referendum on changing the flag, which features a Union Jack in the corner.

Key argues it is time to ditch the symbol of New Zealand's colonial past and later this month Kiwis will begin voting in a postal ballot to pick a potential alternative.

While Charles will likely avoid any controversy on the subject, he may take comfort from the fact that opinion polls predict the existing flag will be retained when the issue is put to a final vote in March.

If Charles becomes king in the future, as expected, he will become monarch of both Australia and New Zealand, which were once part of the British empire but are now independent.

The British crown's power in Australia and New Zealand is seen as largely symbolic, but while Queen Elizabeth II is hugely popular in both countries the monarchy is still viewed by some as a colonial relic.

While Key may support changing the flag, he remains an ardent monarchist, unlike Charles' host on the second leg of his tour, Australia's new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull, who recently ousted royal supporter Tony Abbott in a party coup, is a former head of the Australian Republican Movement and campaigned passionately, but unsuccessfully, to ditch the monarchy in a 1999 referendum on the issue.

"The republic will come back," Turnbull vowed at the time.

Since becoming prime minister, he has said that another republican referendum in Australia is unlikely while the Queen is still on the throne -- meaning the next one would likely be after Charles has assumed the crown.

Turnbull showed his republican fires still burn on Monday when he removed knights and dames from the national honours system, saying such titles were "not appropriate" in modern times.

Other republic-supporting Australian prime ministers have courted controversy by bending protocol in meetings with the British monarchy, with Julia Gillard criticised for failing to curtsy to the Queen in Canberra in 2011.

Former leader Paul Keating was dubbed the "Lizard of Oz" by the British press when he touched the Queen's back while guiding her through a crowd in the nation's capital in 1992.