By Michelle Nichols
SYDNEY, March 13 (Reuters) Hundreds of Australians politely welcomed Britain's Queen Elizabeth to Sydney's Opera House today as her 15th visit to Australia revived a bubbling debate over whether the country should become a republic.
Excited locals and bemused tourists waved paper Australian flags as the 79-year-old monarch opened a new section of the landmark Opera House, her first official duty of a five-day visit.
But her presence has added heat to the debate over whether Australia should replace her with a home-grown head of state. A poll of more than 147,000 people taken by www.ninemsn.com.au showed that 57 per cent wanted the country to become a republic.
''We're here more because of the hype and the celebrity factor rather than because she's queen of our country,'' said Karen Nitch, who was at the Opera House with her young daughter.
Others admitted to even more superficial reasons to see Queen Elizabeth, who wore a lime green outfit, pearls and matching hat.
''She's got hot grandkids,'' said 20-year-old Alice Murray.
''She's very short,'' Murray said.
Australia remains a constitutional monarchy 218 years after British settlers first arrived, with Britain's monarch as its head of state, represented in Canberra by a governor-general.
The queen has the right to veto any Australian law, a power which has never been used in the 105 years since Australia was federated as a nation independent of Britain.
''DISTANT FAMILY FRIEND'' The issue of whether to dump the monarchy has been simmering since a referendum in 1999 narrowly rejected a republic. While in that vote Australians were offered a president appointed by parliament, polls have consistently shown that most want a popularly elected head of state.
''If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'' said Sean Andrew, who was visiting Sydney from Melbourne with his three young daughters.
But middle-aged Margaret McNamara believed Australia should definitely become a republic, saying: ''It's time we grew up.'' The republic issue hit headlines earlier this month when a row erupted after Commonwealth Games organisers said they would not play ''God Save the Queen'' when the monarch opens the event in Melbourne on Wednesday.
''I think it shows a bit of general confusion about Australian national identity,'' John Warhust, former head of the Australian Republican Movement, told Reuters.
''I think bubbling under the surface there is still a lot of interest in the republican debate. Public opinion polls show that the majority of Australians are still republicans.'' An editorial in the Australian newspaper today described the queen as an ''old, warmly regarded but now distant family friend'' and that Australia would one day be a republic.
''There's great enthusiasm for her, certainly not as it was when she first came to Australia,'' David Flint, head of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, told Reuters. ''I think she's been received in Sydney with great respect.'' Around 50 construction workers protested near the Opera House against labour market reforms by Prime Minister John Howard's government, but did not disrupt Queen Elizabeth.
REUTERS PV BS1021