CANBERRA - The Queen has made a late entry into the Australian election campaign as the nation's leaders scramble for votes in what has become one of the tightest contests in decades.
Both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott expressed the respect Australians held for Queen Elizabeth - but differed on the future of the British royal family as head of state.
Gillard said the Queen should be Australia's final monarch, despite the nation's deep affection for her, and that the appropriate time to move to a republic was at the end of her reign.
"Obviously I'm hoping for Queen Elizabeth that she lives a long and happy life, and having watched her mother I think there's every chance that she will," Gillard said.
Abbott said the issue of republicanism had been around since the 1850s, but that despite significant pressure the monarchy had been retained by a people who had "demonstrated themselves to be remarkably attached to institutions that work".
"While there may very well be further episodes of republicanism in this country, I am far from certain that, at least in our lifetimes, there's likely to be any significant change," he said.
Regardless of who wins on Saturday, republicanism is unlikely to surface soon with the passion that forced former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard to put the future of the monarchy to a referendum a decade ago.
After the nation voted to stay with the Queen, support in opinion polls fell from a peak of more than 50 per cent to 45 per cent in the most recent Newspoll - January 2007 - with 36 per cent opposing a republic and 19 per cent undecided.
And there is little chance of the monarchy forcing its way to any real significance in the final five days of a campaign that grows more uncertain every day, with the volatility of the nation shown in conflicting national and state polling, and in a sudden shift in gambling odds.
While most polls show Labor heading nationally for a narrow victory, backed by an anticipated record flow of Greens preferences, detailed polling in key marginals in Queensland and New South Wales suggests the Coalition could pick up the extra 17 seats it needs to win.
And the internet gambling agency Centrebet said that after Labor's official launch in Brisbane on Monday, betting swung heavily against the Government in western Sydney, where Gillard's bid to pick up support in crucial marginals by announcing a A$2.6 billion ($3.18 billion) commuter rail link backfired.
Betting now favoured the Coalition in seven of the 12 most marginal NSW seats, despite punters still backing an ultimate Labor victory by odds of A$1.92 to A$3.80.
Betting at rival agency Sportsbet showed the Coalition ahead in 22 of 41 marginal seats nationwide, with the Government suffering heavily in Queensland and NSW.
One ray of hope for Gillard came from the odds on Eden-Monaro, a volatile seat that has for decades gone with whichever party has won power: betting at both agencies favoured a Government win.
Abbott dominated the campaign yesterday with his final speech of the campaign to the National Press Club, attacking Labor again on the dumping of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, debt and waste, mining taxes, its "shameless fudge" on climate change, and its policies on asylum seekers.
He repeated his promise to re-open the "Pacific solution" detention centre on Nauru, said international law was on his side in turning boats back at sea, and promised to personally order them to turn back as Howard did with the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa in 2001.
Abbott said the election should not turn on "comparative trivia" such the leaders' performances in debates or community forums, but on the ability of a party to govern for the next three years.
And he warned against sentimentality and the 79-year-old tradition of returning first-term governments: "This election is about you, your families and the country's future - you don't owe this Government anything, so don't be taken in by the plea to give it a second chance."
Meanwhile, both leaders have finally agreed to a second televised debate focusing on the economy, but not the time, place or format.
Abbott urged Gillard to meet him at another "town hall" forum of undecided voters in Brisbane tonight, saying he would be there and challenging the Prime Minister to "face the wrath of Queensland and deal with it as best you can".