Referendums in Australia

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Referendums have been held in Australia to approve parliament-proposed changes to the Constitution of Australia or to the constitutions of states and territories.

Polls conducted on non-constitutional issues are sometimes but not always referred to as plebiscites.[1] Not all federal referendums have been on constitutional matters (such as the 1916 Australian conscription referendum), and state votes that likewise do not affect the constitution are frequently said to be referendums (such as the 2009 Western Australian daylight saving referendum). Historically, they are used by Australians interchangeably and a plebiscite was considered another name for a referendum.[2][3][4]

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 2020, 44 nationwide referendums have been held, only eight of which have been carried. However, 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.[5] There have also been three nationwide 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 direct public vote.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] There is no similar time limitation if the bill is approved by one House of the Commonwealth Parliament only.[7]

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.[9] In circumstances where a state is affected by a referendum, a majority of voters in that state must also agree to the change.[citation needed]

When a referendum question is carried, the amending bill is presented for royal assent, given in the monarch's name by the Governor-General.[10]


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.[11]

Other aspects[edit]

Voting has been compulsory in Australia since 1924.[12]

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. Four national plebiscites have been held as of 2017. Unlike in referendums, as of 2018 voting in a plebiscite has remained optional.[13]

In 1998, the Howard Government amended the Flags Act 1953 to require a plebiscite to change the Flag of Australia.[14] 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.[15][16]

The No vote[edit]

Australians have rejected most proposals for constitutional amendments, approving only 8 out of 44 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."[17]

Of forty-four 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.[11]

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.[11]

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 Aboriginal Australians. The government hoped that support for the aboriginal law 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.[18][19] This second law was not approved by the electors.[11]

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.[20]

Results of referendums [21]
Year No. Name States Voters Carried
1906 1 Senate Elections 6:0 82.65% Yes
1910 2 State Debts 5:1 54.95% Yes
3 Surplus Revenue 3:3 49.04% No
1911 4 Trade and Commerce 1:5 39.42% No
5 Monopolies 1:5 39.89% No
1913 6 Trade and Commerce 3:3 49.38% No
7 Corporations 3:3 49.33% No
8 Industrial Matters 3:3 49.33% No
9 Trusts 3:3 49.78% No
10 Monopolies 3:3 49.33% No
11 Railway Disputes 3:3 49.13% No
1919 12 Legislative Powers 3:3 49.65% No
13 Monopolies 3:3 48.64% No
1926 14 Industry and Commerce 2:4 43.50% No
15 Essential Services 2:4 42.80% No
1928 16 State Debts 6:0 74.30% Yes
1937 17 Aviation 2:4 53.56% No
18 Marketing 0:6 36.26% No
1944 19 Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights 2:4 45.99% No
1946 20 Social Services 6:0 54.39% Yes
21 Marketing 3:3 50.57% No
22 Industrial Employment 3:3 50.30% No
1948 23 Rents and Prices 0:6 40.66% No
1951 24 Communists and Communism 3:3 49.44% No
1967 25 Parliament 1:5 40.25% No
26 Aboriginals 6:0 90.77% Yes
1973 27 Prices 0:6 43.81% No
28 Incomes 0:6 34.42% No
1974 29 Simultaneous Elections 1:5 48.30% No
30 Mode of Altering the Constitution 1:5 47.99% No
31 Democratic Elections 1:5 47.20% No
32 Local Government Bodies 1:5 46.85% No
1977 33 Simultaneous Elections 3:3 62.22% No
34 Senate Casual Vacancies 6:0 73.32% Yes
35 Referendums 6:0 77.72% Yes
36 Retirement of Judges 6:0 80.10% Yes
1984 37 Terms of Senators 2:4 50.64% No
38 Interchange of Powers 0:6 47.06% No
1988 39 Parliamentary Terms 0:6 32.92% No
40 Fair Elections 0:6 37.60% No
41 Local Government 0:6 33.62% No
42 Rights and Freedoms 0:6 30.79% No
1999 43 Establishment of Republic 0:6 45.13% No
44 Preamble 0:6 39.34% No
Results of plebiscites [20]
Year No. Name States Voters Carried
1916 Military Service 3:3 [22] 48.39% No
1917 Military Service 2:4 [22] 46.21% No
1977 National Song[23] 5:1 [22] 43.29% Yes
2017 Australian Marriage Law 6:0 [24] 61.60% Yes

State and territory referendums[edit]

States and territories of Australia may also hold referendums. Some of the most important ones were:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Antony Green (12 August 2015). "Plebiscite or Referendum – What's the Difference". ABC News. Retrieved 27 August 2015.
  2. ^ "The referendum". Evening News. 21 September 1897. p. 4. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via Trove.
  3. ^ "Government by plebiscite". The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser. 29 January 1898. p. 217. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via Trove.
  4. ^ "The plebiscite or referendum". The Bendigo Independent. 3 December 1910. p. 4. Retrieved 26 August 2020 – via Trove.
  5. ^ "Referendum dates and results". Australian Electoral Commission.
  6. ^ Constitution (Cth) s 128 Mode of altering the Constitution.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984"
  9. ^ a b "Referendums and Plebiscites". Parliamentary Education Office. Commonwealth of Australia. 3 July 2020. Retrieved 16 September 2020.
  10. ^ Bennett, Scott (2003). "The Politics of Constitutional Amendment". Research Paper No. 11 2002–03. Australian Department of the Parliamentary Library. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  11. ^ a b c d Handbook of the 44th Parliament (2014) "Part 5 - Referendums and Plebiscites - Constitutional referendums". Parliamentary Library of Australia.
  12. ^ "Electoral Backgrounder: Compulsory voting". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  13. ^ "Is it compulsory to vote in a plebiscite?". Parliamentary Education Office. Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  14. ^ Flags Amendment Act 1998 (Cth) s 3
  15. ^ Laurie Fergusson (22 August 1996). "Flags Amendment Bill 1996". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Commonwealth of Australia: House of Representatives. p. 3562.
  16. ^ Evans, S. "Why is the Constitution Binding? Authority, Obligation and the Role of the People". (2004) 25 Adelaide Law Review 103 at p. 121.
  17. ^ Craig, John (1993). Australian Politics: A Source Book. Harcourt Brace. p. 39. ISBN 9780729513272.
  18. ^ "The 1967 Referendum—history and myths" (PDF). Parliamentary Library. 2 May 2007. p. 8. Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  19. ^ "Cabinet decision, 1967". Collaborating for Indigenous Rights. Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  20. ^ a b c Handbook of the 44th Parliament (2014) "Part 5 - Referendums and Plebiscites - Plebiscite results". Parliamentary Library of Australia.
  21. ^ Handbook of the 44th Parliament (2014) "Part 5 – Referendums and Plebiscites – Referendum results". Parliamentary Library of Australia..
  22. ^ a b c As this was a plebiscite not a referendum, there was no requirement for a majority of states.
  23. ^ Choice of four songs. The song with the most votes was "Advance Australia Fair".[20]
  24. ^ As this was a survey not a referendum, there was no requirement for a majority of states.
  25. ^ "Federation Fact Sheet 1 – The Referendums 1898–1900". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  26. ^ Musgrave, Thomas. "The Western Australian Secessionist Movement" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 August 2006. (2003) 3 Macquarie Law Journal 95.
  27. ^ "Referendum 29 April 1967". NSW Electoral Commission. Archived from the original on 18 February 2011.
  28. ^ "Referendums in Tasmania". Parliament of Tasmania. 5 August 2002.
  29. ^ "1975 - First Daylight Savings Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  30. ^ "1978 Referendum". Elections ACT.
  31. ^ Tasmanian Referendums
  32. ^ "1984 - Second Daylight Savings Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  33. ^ a b "Election events: Referendums". Electoral Commission of Queensland. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  34. ^ "1992 - Third Daylight Savings Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  35. ^ "Result of referendums (60)". Government Gazette of the State of New South Wales. 20 June 1991. p. 2672. Retrieved 11 October 2021 – via Trove.
  36. ^ "2005 Retail Trading Hours Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  37. ^ "2009 Daylight Saving Referendum". Western Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  38. ^ "2016 State Referendum - Summary". Electoral Commission of Queensland. Retrieved 5 April 2016.

External links[edit]

Federal Referendums

State and Territory Referendums