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.
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.
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.
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 plebiscites have occurred as of 2010. 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.
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:
- In the years leading up to the Federation of Australia in 1901, all six colonies (as the States then were) passed referendums in favour of Federation.
- In 1933, voters in Western Australia voted for their state to leave the Commonwealth of Australia with the aim of leaving to the British Empire as an autonomous territory. The Western Australian Government sent a delegation to Westminster, however the United Kingdom House of Commons refused to intervene, declaring it had no power to grant secession, and therefore no action was taken to implement this decision.
- In 1967, voters in north-east New South Wales were asked if they favoured creating a new state in their region. The no vote won, with 54.1% of the formal vote.
- In 1968, Tasmanian voters took part in a referendum to approve the granting of Australia's first casino licence to the Federal Group to operate the Wrest Point Hotel Casino in Hobart. The referendum passed with 53% of the formal vote.
- In 1975, voters in Western Australia voted against permanent daylight saving/summer time.
- In 1978, the Australian Capital Territory voted at a referendum on whether the ACT should be granted self-government. Voters were given the choice of becoming a self-governing territory, a local government or continuing with the Legislative Assembly being an advisory body to the Department of the Capital Territory. 63.75% voted to continue with the then current arrangement. Despite the outcome of the referendum, the Parliament of Australia passed the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act in 1988 and the ACT became a self-governing territory in 1989.
- In 1981, the Tasmanian government held a controversial referendum to decide the location of a hydro-electric dam on the Franklin River. With the electorate simply given a choice of two different dams, approximately 33% of the electorate voted informal by writing "No Dams" on their ballot paper.
- In 1984, voters in Western Australia voted against permanent daylight saving/summer time for a second time.
- In 1992, after trialling Daylight Saving in Queensland for a total of three years, a referendum was held, with 54.5% of Queenslanders voting against daylight saving. Regional and rural areas strongly opposed daylight saving, while those in the metropolitan south-east voted in favour of it. (Formally this was a 'plebiscite', since time zones can be amended at any time by state parliaments).
- In 1992, a referendum to amend constitutional law in Queensland to extend the maximum parliamentary term from three to four years was defeated by 51.1% to 48.9%.
- In 1993, voters in Western Australia voted against permanent daylight saving/summer time for a third time.
- In 1995, voters in New South Wales voted for a fixed four-year term for the state parliament.
- In 2009, after a three-year trial, voters in Western Australia voted against permanent daylight saving/summer time for a fourth time in four decades.
- In 2016, voters in Queensland voted for a fixed four-year term for the state unicameral parliament.
- Australian Parliamentary Handbook on Referendums and Plebiscites results of all referendums presented.
- History of Australian Referendums, Part 2 (pdf file) An Australian Parliament report, summarising the background, "yes" and "no" cases, and results, for each referendum up to 1988.
State and Territory Referendums