'Close friend' Australia hails royals' happy day

SYDNEY, New South Wales (AFP) - Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hailed the birth of Britain's future king Tuesday as a happy day for all in the Commonwealth, saying Prince William holds a special place in Australian hearts.

The prince's wife Kate gave birth to a healthy male heir weighing 3.8kg in London on Monday, providing Britain - and Australia - with a future monarch.

The as-yet unnamed baby is third in line to the throne and in the direct line of succession after Queen Elizabeth II's eldest son and heir Prince Charles, and then his eldest son William.

"We share in the joy of the Royal Family, particularly Prince Charles on the birth of his grandson, and Queen Elizabeth II on the birth of her great-grandchild," Mr Rudd said in a statement "This is a happy day for our close friends in Britain and the Commonwealth."

He added that "Prince William holds a special place in the hearts of many Australians", given he first visited Down Under as a nine-month-old baby more than 30 years ago, with Charles and wife Princess Diana.

"In more recent times, Prince William demonstrated deep compassion when he met with families in Victoria who had lost everything during the Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009," said Mr Rudd.

Support for the royals in former British colony Australia remains strong, although debate flares periodically about whether ties to the monarchy should be cut and the nation become a republic.

A similar debate comes and goes in New Zealand, with Prime Minister John Key saying the royal birth would renew interest in the royals.

He welcomed the birth as "wonderful news" and acknowledged some people wanted the country to become a republic, but said: "I think that's quite a long way away."

New Zealand is sending the baby a shawl made from fine New Zealand wool, while a 21-gun salute will take place in the capital Wellington to mark the occasion.