PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am

Sydney laid on a warm welcome for a pair of American visitors this week. The Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth 2 passenger liners may bear the names of British royals and evoke a lost era of aristocratic elegance, but they are both US-owned.

Thousands of people armed with cameras lined the shores of the harbour, while a flotilla of yachts bobbed about on the water.

There will be a rather less effusive welcome today for another arrival from the States. Dick Cheney, regarded as the most powerful vice-president in US history, is flying in for a four-day visit.

He's almost guaranteed to encounter noisy anti-war protests and growing disquiet over the fate of Australia's lone Guantanamo Bay detainee, David Hicks.

The vice-president will be the most senior American visitor to Australia since President George W. Bush addressed the joint houses of Parliament in Canberra in 2003.

Mr Cheney is due to be met by a big rally outside Sydney's Town Hall, organised by the Stop the War Coalition. There will be another protest tomorrow outside the Shangri-La Hotel, where he will give a speech on US-Australian relations. On Saturday, he will hold talks with Prime Minister John Howard on the US administration's decision to send a new 'surge' of 21,000 combat troops to Iraq.

Australia remains a staunch US ally, but the visit comes at an awkward time for Mr Howard, who has slumped to his lowest opinion poll rating in six years.

That has been fuelled in part by public opposition to the war in Iraq and anger over the fate of alleged terrorist Hicks, who was captured with the Taleban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Mr Howard's discomfort will only intensify after Tony Blair's announcement yesterday that he will start withdrawing British forces from the war-ravaged country.

'For Mr Howard, there are risks to this visit because the Bush administration is unpopular in Australia,' said Michael Fullilove, director of the global issues programme at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank.

'About two-thirds of Australians believe we pay too much attention to America's views when it comes to formulating our own policies.'

Under siege at home and with his power waning, Mr Cheney, whose trip also includes Japan, may be glad to get out of Washington. But his reception in Australia may provide scant comfort.

'Cheney is unpopular here. He is perceived as a rather dour and private man,' said Gerard Henderson, executive director of the conservative Sydney Institute think-tank.

'Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice [who visited Australia last March] has sex appeal, she's got glamour. You couldn't say the same of Dick Cheney. I doubt whether John Howard phoned him up and said, 'Now is a great time for you to visit'.

'But Howard is tribal - he stands by his mates' ... even if that loyalty reinforces the view that he is a star-struck pro-Washington lapdog; a junior partner in a relationship whose rewards appear to diminish by the day.

The visit also comes as no small inconvenience - the tight security arrangements for Mr Cheney and his entourage are expected to cause traffic gridlock.

At least when the Queen Mary 2 left for Hong Kong on Tuesday night, it was to a fond farewell and wishes that she'd be back soon. Mr Cheney should be so lucky.