Referendums in Australia

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In Australia, referendums (also spelt referenda)[1] are public votes held on important issues where the electorate may approve or reject a certain proposal. In contemporary usage, polls conducted on non-constitutional issues are known as plebiscites, with the term referendum being reserved solely for votes on constitutional changes, which is legally required to make a change to the Constitution of Australia.[2][3][4][5]

In the past, however the terms were used interchangeably,[6][7][8] with the non-constitutional 1916 Australian conscription referendum and the 2009 Western Australian daylight saving referendum being examples.

Voting in a referendum is compulsory for those on the electoral roll, in the same way that it is compulsory to vote in a general election. As of 2023, 45 nationwide referendums have been held, only eight of which have been carried. Of those eight, all but one had bi-partisan support.[9][10] Since multiple referendum questions are often asked on the same ballot, there have only been 20 separate occasions that the Australian people have gone to the polls to vote on constitutional amendments—of which 8 have been concurrent with a federal election.[11] There have also been three nationwide non-constitutional plebiscites (two on conscription and one on the national song), and one postal survey (on same-sex marriage).

Federal referendums[edit]

Constitutional provisions[edit]

Section 128 of the Constitution specifies that alterations to the Constitution cannot be made without a public vote.[3][12] A bill containing the amendment must first be passed by both houses of parliament or, in certain limited circumstances, by only one house of parliament. If the bill has only been passed in one house, the governor-general must, under the deadlock provision of section 128, then decide whether or not to submit the referendum to the people. By convention, this is done on the advice of the prime minister. Since the prime minister normally controls the House of Representatives, the effect of this convention is to make it virtually impossible for a referendum to be put to the people if approved by the Senate, but not the House.[13]

If the bill to alter the Constitution is approved by both houses or satisfies the deadlock provision, the bill is submitted to the electors for approval. The referendum is conducted according to the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.[14] If the bill is approved by an absolute majority of both houses, the Constitution provides that it must be submitted to the electors no less than two months but no later than six months after passage.[15] However, this requirement has not always been complied with, with a proposed amendment in 2013 not proceeding to a vote despite the passage of legislation.[16] There is no similar time limitation if the bill is approved by one House of the Commonwealth Parliament only.[13]

To pass a referendum, the bill must ordinarily achieve a double majority: a majority of those voting nationwide, as well as separate majorities in a majority of states (i.e., 4 out of 6 states). This provision, which gives the small Australian states effectively a built-in veto, was one of those constitutional provisions accepted in order for the smaller colonies to agree to Federation.[15] In circumstances where a state is significantly affected by a referendum (such as through an alteration of its borders or through a reduction of its representation), a majority of voters in that state must also agree to the change.[17]

When a referendum question is carried, the amending bill is presented for royal assent by the governor-general.[18]

Territories[edit]

Prior to the 1977 referendum, only electors in the six states could vote at a referendum. Since the 1977 amendment was carried, voters of the territories have been eligible to vote in referendums. Territory votes are now counted towards the national total but the territories do not count as states for the purpose of the requirement for a majority of states.[19]

Other aspects[edit]

Voting has been compulsory in Australia since 1924.[20]

Non-constitutional plebiscites, are conducted by the government to decide a matter relating to ordinary statute law, an advisory question of policy, or as a prelude to the submission of a formal referendum question, rather than a binding and entrenched alteration (amendment) to the Constitution. Plebiscites can offer a variety of options, rather than a simple yes/no question. Four national plebiscites have been held as of 2017. Unlike in constitutional referendums, voting in previous plebiscites has been optional.[21]

In 1998, the Howard government amended the Flags Act 1953 to require a plebiscite to change the Flag of Australia.[22] There is some debate over whether such legislation is legally enforceable, and a new parliament could simply amend or repeal the legislation at any time.[23][24]

Success rate[edit]

Australians have rejected most proposals for constitutional amendments, approving only 8 out of 45 referendums submitted to them since federation. Noting the difficulty of the referendum process, then prime minister Robert Menzies said in 1951: "The truth of the matter is that to get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is one of the labours of Hercules."[25]

Of forty-five referendums, there have been five instances – in 1937, twice in 1946, and once each in 1977 and 1984 – where a national Yes vote has been achieved but failed to win a majority of states. In three of these instances, the referendum received a majority in three states. The converse situation, where there is a majority of states but not an overall majority, has not yet occurred.[19]

Apart from 1937, in which Victoria and Queensland were the only two states in favour, only these cases have followed a consistent pattern: a Yes vote in the two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, and a No vote in most or all of the other states. The rejection of these referendums was due to the less populous states voting contrary to the most populous states.[19]

A contributing factor to the predominance of the No vote comes from the unwillingness of the Australian voters to extend the powers of the federal government. Although none of the votes was over additional powers over commerce and industry granted to the government, at least two successful referendums can be characterised as giving the Commonwealth more powers: in 1946, the Commonwealth was given power to make laws with respect to a range of health and welfare services; and in 1967, the Commonwealth was given a power to make laws with respect to Indigenous Australians. The government hoped that support for this amendment would encourage electors to vote yes for the second referendum submitted at the same time, which would have abolished the nexus between the numbers of members in each House.[26][27] However, this second law was not approved by the electors.[19]

List of referendums and plebiscites[edit]

Each question asked electors to answer "Yes" or "No", except for the national song plebiscite where electors were asked to choose between four songs.[28]

Additionally, legislation authorising a referendum to allow the federal government to directly fund local councils passed in 2013, however the government decided not to proceed with a vote.[16]

Results of referendums[edit]

[29]
Year No. Name National voters States NSW VIC QLD [a] SA WA TAS [b] ACT [c] NT [c]
1906 1 Senate Elections 82.65% 6:0 83.85% 83.10% 76.84% 86.99% 78.93% 81.32%
1910 2 State Debts 54.95% 5:1 33.34% 64.59% 64.57% 73.18% 72.80% 80.97%
3 Surplus Revenue 49.04% 3:3 47.35% 45.26% 54.58% 49.06% 61.74% 59.99%
1911 4 Trade and Commerce 39.42% 1:5 36.11% 38.64% 43.75% 38.07% 54.86% 42.11%
5 Monopolies 39.89% 1:5 36.72% 38.95% 44.26% 38.42% 55.84% 42.43%
1913 6 Trade and Commerce 49.38% 3:3 46.93% 49.12% 54.34% 51.32% 52.86% 45.16%
7 Corporations 49.33% 3:3 46.79% 49.14% 54.31% 51.34% 52.84% 45.08%
8 Industrial Matters 49.33% 3:3 46.88% 49.02% 54.36% 51.40% 52.71% 45.20%
9 Trusts 49.78% 3:3 47.12% 49.71% 54.78% 51.67% 53.59% 45.38%
10 Monopolies 49.33% 3:3 46.85% 49.07% 54.17% 51.26% 53.19% 45.22%
11 Railway Disputes 49.13% 3:3 46.70% 48.79% 54.19% 51.28% 52.38% 45.01%
1919 12 Legislative Powers 49.65% 3:3 39.95% 64.65% 57.35% 25.28% 51.75% 33.43%
13 Monopolies 48.64% 3:3 38.31% 63.29% 56.92% 25.54% 53.99% 34.08%
1926 14 Industry and Commerce 43.50% 2:4 51.53% 36.23% 52.10% 29.32% 29.29% 44.86%
15 Essential Services 42.80% 2:4 50.39% 35.55% 50.56% 31.32% 25.90% 48.59%
1928 16 State Debts 74.30% 6:0 64.47% 87.78% 88.60% 62.68% 57.53% 66.89%
1937 17 Aviation 53.56% 2:4 47.25% 65.10% 61.87% 40.13% 47.58% 38.94%
18 Marketing 36.26% 0:6 33.76% 46.58% 38.78% 20.83% 27.77% 21.88%
1944 19 Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights 45.99% 2:4 45.44% 49.31% 36.52% 50.64% 52.25% 38.92%
1946 20 Social Services 54.39% 6:0 54.00% 55.98% 51.26% 51.73% 62.26% 50.58%
21 Marketing 50.57% 3:3 51.83% 52.37% 45.74% 48.74% 56.21% 42.55%
22 Industrial Employment 50.30% 3:3 51.72% 52.08% 43.42% 48.20% 55.74% 41.37%
1948 23 Rents and Prices 40.66% 0:6 41.66% 44.63% 30.80% 42.15% 38.59% 35.45%
1951 24 Communists and Communism 49.44% 3:3 47.17% 48.71% 55.76% 47.29% 55.09% 50.26%
1967 25 Parliament 40.25% 1:5 51.01% 30.87% 44.13% 33.91% 29.05% 23.06%
26 Aboriginals 90.77% 6:0 91.46% 94.68% 89.21% 86.26% 80.95% 90.21%
1973 27 Prices 43.81% 0:6 48.55% 45.18% 38.47% 41.16% 31.90% 38.22%
28 Incomes 34.42% 0:6 40.31% 33.44% 31.70% 28.25% 25.21% 28.31%
1974 29 Simultaneous Elections 48.30% 1:5 51.06% 49.19% 44.32% 47.14% 44.07% 41.37%
30 Mode of Altering the Constitution 47.99% 1:5 51.35% 49.22% 44.29% 44.26% 42.53% 40.72%
31 Democratic Elections 47.20% 1:5 50.55% 47.71% 43.70% 44.11% 42.86% 40.81%
32 Local Government Bodies 46.85% 1:5 50.79% 47.38% 43.68% 42.52% 40.67% 40.03%
1977 33 Simultaneous Elections 62.22% 3:3 70.71% 65.00% 47.51% 65.99% 48.47% 34.26%
34 Senate Casual Vacancies 73.32% 6:0 81.62% 76.13% 58.86% 76.59% 57.11% 53.78%
35 Referendums 77.72% 6:0 83.92% 80.78% 59.58% 83.29% 72.62% 62.25%
36 Retirement of Judges 80.10% 6:0 84.84% 81.43% 65.24% 85.57% 78.37% 72.46%
1984 37 Terms of Senators 50.64% 2:4 52.86% 53.20% 45.65% 49.98% 46.47% 39.29% 56.68% 51.87%
38 Interchange of Powers 47.06% 0:6 49.04% 49.86% 41.69% 45.94% 44.28% 34.65% 56.10% 47.78%
1988 39 Parliamentary Terms 32.92% 0:6 31.66% 36.20% 35.15% 26.76% 30.67% 25.34% 43.62% 38.13%
40 Fair Elections 37.60% 0:6 35.57% 40.12% 44.83% 30.61% 32.02% 28.89% 51.99% 42.99%
41 Local Government 33.62% 0:6 31.70% 36.06% 38.31% 29.85% 29.76% 27.50% 39.78% 38.80%
42 Rights and Freedoms 30.79% 0:6 29.65% 33.42% 32.90% 26.01% 28.14% 25.49% 40.71% 37.14%
1999 43 Establishment of Republic 45.13% 0:6 46.43% 49.84% 37.44% 43.57% 41.48% 40.37% 63.27% 48.77%
44 Preamble 39.34% 0:6 42.14% 42.46% 32.81% 38.10% 34.73% 35.67% 43.61% 38.52%
2023 45 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice 39.94% 0:6 41.04% 45.85% 31.79% 35.83% 36.73% 41.06% 61.29% 39.70%
  1. ^ Queensland is the easiest state to gain majority assent in, with residents assenting to 29 constitutional amendments (the mean state assents to 17 amendments).
  2. ^ Tasmania is the hardest state to gain majority assent in, with residents assenting to 10 constitutional amendments (the mean state assents to 17 amendments).
  3. ^ a b Residents of the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory could not vote in referendums until the passing of the 1977 Referendums Constitutional Amendment. The votes of those territories are counted in the national total, but not toward the count of states which have received a majority.

Results of plebiscites[edit]

Note: as these votes were not referendums, a majority of states was not required.

[28]
Year No. Name States Voters Carried
1916 Military Service 3:3  48.39% No
1917 Military Service 2:4  46.21% No
1977 National Song[30] 5:1  43.29% Yes
2017 Australian Marriage Law 6:0  61.60% Yes

State and territory referendums[edit]

States and territories of Australia may also hold referendums. Certain examples are listed below.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Specific references[edit]

  1. ^ York, Barry (21 August 2015). "Referenda And Plebiscites: What's the Difference?". Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
  2. ^ "Plebiscites". Australian Electoral Commission. 3 April 2020. Retrieved 29 October 2023.
  3. ^ a b "Referendums and Plebiscites". Parliamentary Education Office. Retrieved 29 October 2023.
  4. ^ Holmes, Brenton (30 June 2011). "A quick guide to plebiscites in Australia". Parliament of Australia.
  5. ^ Antony Green (12 August 2015). "Plebiscite or Referendum – What's the Difference". ABC News. Archived from the original on 2 December 2016. Retrieved 27 August 2015.
  6. ^ "The referendum". Evening News. 21 September 1897. p. 4. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via Trove.
  7. ^ "Government by plebiscite". The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser. 29 January 1898. p. 217. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via Trove.
  8. ^ "The plebiscite or referendum". The Bendigo Independent. 3 December 1910. p. 4. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via Trove.
  9. ^ Casey, Briggs (29 October 2023). "With the Voice referendum resoundingly defeated, will Australia ever again change the constitution?". ABC News.
  10. ^ Menon, Praveen; Jackson, Lewis; Cole, Wayne; Menon, Praveen; Jackson, Lewis (14 October 2023). "Australia rejects Indigenous referendum in setback for reconciliation". Reuters. Retrieved 14 October 2023.
  11. ^ "Referendum dates and results". Australian Electoral Commission.
  12. ^ Constitution (Cth) s 128 Mode of altering the Constitution.
  13. ^ a b Saunders, Cheryl (15 August 2000). "The Parliament as Partner: A Century of Constitutional Review". Parliament of Australia Parliamentary Library. Archived from the original on 8 December 2006.
  14. ^ "Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984"
  15. ^ a b "Referendums and Plebiscites". Parliamentary Education Office. Commonwealth of Australia. 3 July 2020. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  16. ^ a b Brown, JA; Kildea, Paul (2016). "The Referendum that Wasn't: Constitutional Recognition of Local Government and the Australian Federal Reform Dilemma" (PDF). Federal Law Review. 44: 143–166. doi:10.1177/0067205X1604400106. hdl:10072/101051. S2CID 157713287.
  17. ^ Constitution (Cth) s 128 "No alteration diminishing the proportionate representation of any State in either House of the Parliament, or the minimum number of representatives of a State in the House of Representatives, or increasing, diminishing, or otherwise altering the limits of the State, or in any manner affecting the provisions of the Constitution in relation thereto, shall become law unless the majority of the electors voting in that State approve the proposed law".
  18. ^ Bennett, Scott (2003). "The Politics of Constitutional Amendment". Research Paper No. 11 2002–03. Australian Department of the Parliamentary Library. Archived from the original on 17 March 2017. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  19. ^ a b c d Handbook of the 44th Parliament (2014) "Part 5 - Referendums and Plebiscites - Constitutional referendums". Parliamentary Library of Australia.
  20. ^ "Electoral Backgrounder: Compulsory voting". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  21. ^ "Is it compulsory to vote in a plebiscite?". Parliamentary Education Office. Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  22. ^ Flags Amendment Act 1998 (Cth) s 3
  23. ^ Laurie Fergusson (22 August 1996). "Flags Amendment Bill 1996". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Commonwealth of Australia: House of Representatives. p. 3562.
  24. ^ Evans, S (2004). "Why is the Constitution Binding? Authority, Obligation and the Role of the People". Adelaide Law Review. (2004) 25 Adelaide Law Review 103 at p. 121.
  25. ^ Craig, John (1993). Australian Politics: A Source Book. Harcourt Brace. p. 39. ISBN 9780729513272.
  26. ^ "The 1967 Referendum—history and myths" (PDF). Parliamentary Library. 2 May 2007. p. 8. Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  27. ^ "Cabinet decision, 1967". Collaborating for Indigenous Rights. Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  28. ^ a b c Handbook of the 44th Parliament (2014) "Part 5 - Referendums and Plebiscites - Plebiscite results". Parliamentary Library of Australia.
  29. ^ Handbook of the 44th Parliament (2014) "Part 5 – Referendums and Plebiscites – Referendum results". Parliamentary Library of Australia..
  30. ^ Choice of four songs. The song with the most votes was "Advance Australia Fair".[28]
  31. ^ "Federation Fact Sheet 1 – The Referendums 1898–1900". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  32. ^ Musgrave, Thomas. "The Western Australian Secessionist Movement" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 August 2006. (2003) 3 Macquarie Law Journal 95.
  33. ^ "Referendum 29 April 1967". NSW Electoral Commission. Archived from the original on 18 February 2011.
  34. ^ "Referendums in Tasmania". Parliament of Tasmania. 5 August 2002.
  35. ^ "1975 - First Daylight Savings Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  36. ^ "1978 Referendum". Elections ACT. 6 January 2015.
  37. ^ Tasmanian Referendums
  38. ^ "1984 - Second Daylight Savings Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  39. ^ a b "Election events: Referendums". Electoral Commission of Queensland. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  40. ^ "1992 - Third Daylight Savings Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  41. ^ "Result of referendums (60)". Government Gazette of the State of New South Wales. 20 June 1991. p. 2672. Retrieved 11 October 2021 – via Trove.
  42. ^ "2005 Retail Trading Hours Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  43. ^ "2009 Daylight Saving Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  44. ^ "2016 State Referendum - Summary". Electoral Commission of Queensland. Retrieved 5 April 2016.

General references[edit]

Federal referendums

State and territory referendums