Australia  should drop its ties to the British monarchy after Queen Elizabeth II's reign, the prime minister said Tuesday, raising the contentious issue of a republic just days before tightly contested national elections.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose center-left Labor Party has long held that the country should dump the British monarch as its head of state and become a republic, said Australians have "deep affection" for Queen Elizabeth II but that she should be Australia's final monarch.

"What I would like to see as prime minister is that we work our way through to an agreement on a model for the republic," Gillard told reporters. "I think the appropriate time for this nation to move to be a republic is when we see the monarch change. 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."

The queen is 84, and her mother lived to age 101.

Many Australians are British immigrants or descendants who feel strong loyalty to Britain and the queen, but younger Australians especially view the idea of a foreign royal being the country's highest power as anachronistic.

The British monarch is formally Australia's head of state, and its representative, the governor general, swears in the government and signs legislation into law. Australian coins bear the queen's profile. Governing power, however, resides with the elected government.

Many members of the opposition Liberal Party are monarchists, and its leader, Tony Abbot, said he sees no need to change the status quo.

"I think that our existing constitutional arrangements have worked well in the past and I see no reason whatsoever why they can't continue to work well in the future," Abbott told the National Press Club.

"So while there may very well be future episodes of republicanism in this country, I am far from certain — at least in our lifetimes — that there is likely to be any significant change."

Opinion polls indicate Saturday's election may be Australia's closest in decades, and both sides are focussing their campaigns on a handful of districts held by small margins. The comments by Gillard and Abbott are likely to influence some voters.

Gillard's party wants to replace the governor general with a president. Parliament would retain its power to rule, with the president a largely symbolic figure.

During national debates in the 1990s, the issue divided Australians. Replacing the monarchy with a president elected by Parliament was voted down in a 1999 referendum.

Some critics accused then-Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch monarchist, of ensuring victory for the "no" side by including the method of the president's election in the question. Many republicans wanted the president chosen by popular vote instead of by Parliament.

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