Referendums in Australia

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Referendums in Australia are polls held in Australia to approve Parliament-proposed changes to the Australian Constitution or a state or territory. Non-binding polls are usually referred to as plebiscites.[1]

Voting in a referendum is compulsory for those on the electoral roll, in the same way that it is compulsory to vote in an Australian general election. As of 2012, 44 referendums have been held, of which only 8 have been carried. Although there have been 44 referendums, there have only been 19 times the Australian people have gone to the polls to vote on constitutional amendments, as it is common to have multiple questions on the ballot.[2]

Federal referendums

Constitutional provisions

Section 128 and section 51 of the Constitution specifies that alterations to itself cannot be made without a referendum. 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. In 1974, four proposals were put to the people by the Whitlam government without the support of the Senate. Two of the four proposals had been twice rejected by the Senate, a third had been rejected once and failed to pass a second time, the fourth had been twice amended by the Senate.

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. 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. Despite this, the Hawke government in 1984 failed to submit a proposed referendum that had been passed by both houses, claiming that they had a legal opinion supporting their action. There is no similar time limitation if the bill is approved by one House of the Commonwealth Parliament only.

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). In circumstances where a state is affected by a referendum then a majority of voters in that state must also agree to the change. This is often referred to as a "triple majority".

When a referendum question is carried, the amending bill is presented for royal assent, given in the monarch's name by the Governor-General.


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 Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory 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.

Since voting at referendums in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory has been allowed in 1977, compulsory voting has also applied there.

Residents of Australia's external territories do not vote in referendums.

Other aspects

Voting has been compulsory in Australia since 1924.

Similar to a referendum is a plebiscite, which is 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. Three national plebiscites have been held as of 2016. Unlike in referendums, voting in a plebiscite has traditionally been optional.

In 1998 the Howard government amended the Flags Act 1953 to require a referendum to change the Flag of Australia. There is some debate over the constitutional validity of this legislation, since it involves Parliament acting to bind its own legislative power.

The No vote

Australians have rejected most proposals for constitutional amendments, approving only 8 out of 44 referendums submitted to them since federation.

Many attribute this to the double majority requirement for a referendum to be carried. There have been five instances – in 1937, twice in 1946, 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.

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.

The primary cause of No votes has been committed opposition, which has been successful if the Commonwealth opposition has opposed it. Opposition by state political parties, or by powerful interest groups, has also contributed to referendum failure. In 1937, opposition by the states played an important role in the failure of the Aviation referendum. Similarly, many commentators pointed to the strong opposition of church groups as a reason for the failure of the 1988 Rights and Freedoms referendum.

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. None of the votes was over additional powers over commerce and industry granted to the government, however, 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 Aboriginal Australians. However, in this case the aboriginal law was seen as a "bait" for the second referendum submitted at the same time, which would have abolished the nexus between the numbers of members in each House. This second law was not approved by the electors.

The impact of the compulsory vote has not been analysed.

List of referendums and plebiscites

Except for the song plebiscite, referendums asked electors to answer "Yes" or "No" to a proposed amendment to the Australian Constitution.

Year No. Name Carried
1906 1 Senate Elections Yes
1910 2 State Debts Yes
3 Surplus Revenue No
1911 4 Trade and Commerce No
5 Monopolies No
1913 6 Trade and Commerce No
7 Corporations No
8 Industrial Matters No
9 Trusts No
10 Monopolies No
11 Railway Disputes No
1916 xx Military Service (plebiscite) No
1917 xx Military Service (plebiscite) No
1919 12 Legislative Powers No
13 Monopolies No
1926 14 Industry and Commerce No
15 Essential Services No
1928 16 State Debts Yes
1937 17 Aviation No
18 Marketing No
1944 19 Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights No
1946 20 Social Services Yes
21 Marketing No
22 Industrial Employment No
1948 23 Rents and Prices No
1951 24 Communists and Communism No
1967 25 Parliament No
26 Aboriginals Yes
1973 27 Prices No
28 Incomes No
1974 29 Simultaneous Elections No
30 Mode of Altering the Constitution No
31 Democratic Elections No
32 Local Government Bodies No
1977 33 Simultaneous Elections No
34 Senate Casual Vacancies Yes
35 Referendums Yes
36 Retirement of Judges Yes
xx National Song (plebiscite) (choice of 4 using preferential voting) Yes
1984 37 Terms of Senators No
38 Interchange of Powers No
1988 39 Parliamentary Terms No
40 Fair Elections No
41 Local Government No
42 Rights and Freedoms No
1999 43 Establishment of Republic No
44 Preamble No

State and territory referendums

States and Territories of Australia may also hold referendums. Most are detailed in the external links. Some of the most important ones were:

See also


  1. Antony Green (12 August 2015). "Plebiscite or Referendum – What's the Difference". ABC News. Retrieved 27 August 2015.
  2. "Referendum dates and results". Australian Electoral Commission.
  3. 29 April 1967, NSW Electoral Commission
  4. "1978 Referendum". Elections ACT.
  5. Tasmanian Referendums

Federal Referendums

State and Territory Referendums

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