SYDNEY — Shortly after being named Australian of the Year in January, Nobel Prize-winner Peter Doherty made more headlines: He said it was time for Australia to become a republic and drop the British monarch as head of state.
The statement embarrassed Prime Minister John Howard, who favors keeping Queen Elizabeth II as the nation's sovereign, a remnant of Australia's days as a British colony.
In winning election last year, Mr. Howard did promise to convene a convention to address the issue, which has long simmered at the periphery of political debate.
Howard's opponent, former Prime Minister Paul Keating, had spoken out strongly for a republic. Dr. Doherty added another prominent voice to the chorus calling for the change. A recent poll showed more than half of Australians now favor becoming a republic. Young Australians in particular are increasingly nationalistic and more focused on Asia than Europe.
On Tuesday, Howard confirmed that the convention would be held later this year. It will comprise equal numbers of appointed and elected members. A voluntary ballot by mail would determine the elected delegates.
Opposition parties are not happy. They prefer a direct election of all delegates at the polls. They argue that the voluntary mail-in ballot will result in a convention that is predisposed against change.
Officeholders will not be eligible to be elected as delegates. The political parties will be represented through the 50 percent of delegates to be appointed by federal, state, and local parliaments. Aborigines will be specially represented. And 10 percent of the appointed delegates must be between 18 and 25 years of age.
Determining which office is head of state lies at the heart of the issue. Those favoring a republic say Queen Elizabeth is now Australia's head of state, and she should be replaced with an Australian. Monarchists argue that, for all practical purposes, the head of state is the governor-general, the monarch's representative, who is already an Australian.
Helen Irving, a lecturer in politics at the University of Technology in Sydney and a republican, supports a convention because it will move debate "outside the arena of the major parties, beyond the predictable football game where the government kicks in one direction and the opposition kicks in the other."
Surprisingly, the executive director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, Kerry Jones, also supports the idea of a convention. But her organization opposes popular election of delegates, she says, because it might result in the election of "football stars and movie actors." She argues popular support for a republic has been fueled by "a supportive media" that does not present the issue fairly.
But another monarchist, Christopher Pearson, a former speechwriter for Howard and a newspaper publisher, says "the convention is a terrible idea that will solve nothing. They should just pass an act declaring the governor-general, who is Australian by definition because he is part of the Australian polity, as head of state."
The convention's role will be to determine whether and how to proceed toward a republic.
But any change is still a long way off. Australians would have vote in favor of the change, including a majority of voters in a majority of the nation's six states.