Referendums in Australia

Referendums in Australia

In Australia, "referendums" are binding polls usually used to alter the constitution of the Commonwealth or a state or territory. Non-binding polls are usually referred to as plebiscites.

Federal Referendums

In Australia, national referendums are polls held to approve government-proposed changes to the Australian constitution. Voting in a referendum is compulsory, in the same way that it is compulsory to vote in an Australian general election. 44 referendums have been held in Australia as of 2007, of which only 8 have been carried.

The constitution specifies (Section 128) that amendments to itself must be approved by 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 then decide whether or not to submit the referendum to the people (this is done on the advice of the Prime Minister). If approved, it is then submitted to a referendum. If the bill is approved by an absolute majority of both houses, the constitution provides that it must be submitted to the electors within 2 to 6 months of passage.

In order to pass a referendum, the bill must ordinarily achieve a "double majority": a majority of those voting throughout the country, as well as separate majorities in each of a majority of states (4 of 6). Where any state or states are affected by a referendum then a majority of voters in those states must also agree to the change. This is often referred to as the "triple majority" rule. Prior to the 1977 referendum residents within the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) did not vote at referendums. Since 1977, voters in the ACT and the NT must vote in referendums, however their votes are only counted towards the national total and not against the totals of any of the states. Considering the fact, as noted below, that the effective requirement for approval is a majority in at least four states, allowing the territories a vote in referendums can be regarded as political window-dressing.

Residents of Australia's external territories do not vote in referendums as they currently do not have separate representation in the House of Representatives.

When a referendum question is carried, it is presented for the Royal Assent, given in the monarch's name by the Governor-General.

Similar to a referendum is a plebiscite, which is conducted by the government to decide a matter relating to ordinary statute law, or an advisory question of policy, 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 2005. Unlike in referendums, voting in a plebiscite is optional.

In 1998 the Howard government amended the Flags Act, requiring 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 in most instances voted "No" to referendum questions: only 8 out of 44 referendums since 1906 have been carried. In Sir Robert Menzies' words, "to get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is one of the labours of Hercules".

Many attribute this to the difficulty of getting the double majority necessary for a referendum to be approved. There have been five instances, in 1937, twice in 1946, 1977 and 1984, where a national "Yes" vote has been overridden by failing to win a majority of states. In three of these instances, the referendum would have been passed if the requirement was for a majority, plus at least three out of six states agreeing. The converse situation, where there is a majority of states but not a majority of the population, has not occurred.

Apart from 1937, these cases have followed a consistent pattern: a "yes" vote in the two most populous states (NSW and Victoria), and a "no" vote in most or all of the other, less populous states. So the rejection of these referendums was at least partly due to the less populous states not wanting to lose autonomy or influence. This meant that the larger states could not completely overrule the smaller states and get their way all the time.

Similarly, a contributing factor to the predominance of the "No" vote likely comes from the unwillingness of the public to extend the powers of government. The majority of the referendum questions involved granting additional powers over commerce and industry to the government, and in no referendum were these questions carried.

Another factor could be that many of the referendum questions were repeats of questions that been rejected before or were only slightly modified. With the exception of the 1977 (Referendums) question (which lacked the 1974 proposal for only three of the six states to pass a referendum), all such repeat questions were again rejected.

Referendums and plebiscites by year

"(Bold entries denote proposals that were carried)"
* 1906 Senate Elections
* 1910 State Debts, Surplus Revenue
* 1911 Trade and Commerce, Monopolies
* 1913 Trade and Commerce, Corporations, Industrial Matters, Trusts, Monopolies, Railway Disputes
* 1916 Military Service "(plebiscite)"
* 1917 Military Service "(plebiscite)"
* 1919 Legislative Powers, Monopolies
* 1926 Industry and Commerce, Essential Services
* 1928 State Debts
* 1937 Aviation, Marketing
* 1944 Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights
* 1946 Social Services, Marketing, Industrial Employment
* 1948 Rents and Prices
* 1951 Communists and Communism
* 1967 Parliament, Aborigines
* 1973 Prices, Incomes
* 1974 Simultaneous Elections, Mode of Altering the Constitution, Democratic Elections, Local Government Bodies
* 1977 Simultaneous Elections, Senate Casual Vacancies, Referendums, Retirement of Judges, National Song "(plebiscite)"
* 1984 Terms of Senators, Interchange of Powers
* 1988 Parliamentary Terms, Fair Elections, Local Government, Rights and Freedoms
* 1999 Establishment of Republic, Preamble

tate 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 were then called) passed referendums in favour of Federation.

* In a referendum in April 1933, 68% of Western Australian voters voted for their state to leave the Commonwealth of Australia with the aim of returning to the British Empire as an autonomous territory. The State Government sent a delegation to Westminster, however the British Government refused to intervene 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 55% of the formal vote [] .

* 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 1995, voters in New South Wales voted for a fixed four year term for the state parliament.

External links

Federal Referendums

* [ Australian Parliamentary Handbook on Referendums and Plebiscites] results of all referendums presented.
* [ Constitutional Referenda in Australia] this is a very interesting document which discusses the various referendums at length.
* [ 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

* [ New South Wales Referendums]
* [ Queensland Referendums]
* [ South Australian Referenda] (pdf file)
* [ Referendum Results in Western Australia]
* [ Referendums in Tasmania]
* [ ACT Referendums]

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