People Power: The History and Future of the Referendum in Australia

People Power: The History and Future of the Referendum in Australia

by George Williams, David Hume

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A full history of constitutional change in Australia, this analysis examines the nation’s referendum record and explains why referendum approvals have been so rare. Including interviews with leading proponents for constitutional change as well as political cartoons and brochures from key campaigns, this account provides a thorough analysis of each referendum campaign, the public’s response, and the forces that shaped the outcome.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742240121
Publisher: UNSW Press
Publication date: 11/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

George Williams is a lawyer and the Anthony Mason Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including A Bill of Rights for Australia, A Charter of Rights for Australia, and The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia, and is a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald. David Hume is a solicitor at Freehills and a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales.

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People Power

The History and Future of the Referendum in Australia

By George Williams, David Hume

University of New South Wales Press Ltd

Copyright © 2010 George Williams and David Hume
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74224-012-1




The Australian Constitution has been central to the daily debates of Australian politics for more than a century. It continues to have a profound impact in all areas of policy, including economic management, environmental protection and the delivery of services such as health and education. In these and other fields, the Constitution can promote good governance, as well as impose important limits and major obstacles. It can also be invoked as a powerful symbol in long-standing national debates, such as those on Indigenous reconciliation and whether Australia should become a republic.

At issue is not only what the Constitution now says, but what it should say in the future. Should it state that the Commonwealth runs the nation's hospitals and bears full responsibility for the nation's rivers and the Murray–Darling basin? Should the Constitution outlaw racial discrimination? Should there be fixed four year terms for the federal Parliament? In Australia, these questions cannot be finally resolved by the government of the day, nor by any Parliament. They can only be answered by a direct vote of the Australian people cast at a referendum to change the Constitution.

The Australian nation itself was brought about in a special way. When the Constitution came into force on 1 January 1901, it had a unique claim to popular authority. In what for the time was a radical experiment in direct democracy, the Constitution was approved by the people of the colonies in a series of referendums. Australians voted to constitute the new nation and to empower its system of government. In doing so, they also brought about a fundamental change in how successive generations would view their Constitution. The people of the colonies not only ratified the new law, they also entrenched the idea that alterations to it must be approved by a popular vote. Today, the idea that the Constitution can only be changed by the people voting at a referendum is a bedrock principle of Australian democracy.

The struggle to unite the Australian colonies under a new constitution spanned most of the 1890s. After appointees and then popular representatives painstakingly debated and drafted the terms of the Constitution at conventions held in 1891 and over 1897–98, debate shifted to the public at large. Newspapers canvassed the arguments of supporters and opponents at length, and public figures travelled the coasts and the countryside to debate the issues. The people of the six colonies – soon to become the six states – then considered and voted on whether to approve the Constitution and, in doing so, to become one nation.

The draft Constitution was supported by a majority of voters in each colony at referendums held over 1899 and 1900, before finally being enacted for the new nation by the United Kingdom Parliament. Australia's political leaders felt it necessary to have the new Constitution passed by the United Kingdom Parliament because, although they supported the idea of a popular vote, they were not seeking full independence from their colonial parent. The local referendums were an assertion of local sovereignty, but only within a framework that recognised Australia's continuing status as a subordinate part of the British Empire.

In line with the beliefs and values of the time, most women and Indigenous people were ineligible to vote in the referendums. Nevertheless, compared to anything that had come before, in Australia and worldwide, the Australian Constitution was brought about in a remarkably democratic way. The framers of the Constitution had put a vision of the future of the continent to a popular vote and the people had said Yes. As the United Kingdom legislation that formally adopted the Constitution triumphantly declared: 'the people ... have agreed to unite in one indissoluble federal Commonwealth'.

If the way in which the Constitution came about was radical, the way in which it was to be altered was equally so. Only if Parliament, the Crown and, most importantly, the people of the new nation agreed would the Constitution be amended. What the people had made, only they could unmake. Just as 'the people' had agreed to unite in a Commonwealth, so the Constitution said that any changes to that Commonwealth would need to be 'submitted' to them for approval. As was said at the 1897–98 convention by Isaac Isaacs, who later became Chief Justice of the High Court and the nation's first Australian-born Governor-General, 'the Constitution is being made for the people, not the people for the Constitution'. This democratic principle was embodied in section 128 of the Constitution, the full text of which is set out in appendix 1. It states that Australia must hold a referendum to change its Constitution: change cannot be brought about by a government or Parliament acting alone.

When section 128 was being drafted, the framers initially only gave Australians the power to 'amend' the Constitution. But, as the drafting process continued, they changed this word to 'alter'. The purpose of this slight change was to make clear that the people's control over the Constitution did not extend only to minor amendments and petty tinkering. Instead, the power was to alter the Constitution – and that meant being able to do everything, including the most fundamental of rewrites. It is in this way that successive generations have been trusted with everything from the overarching principles to the narrow technical details of the Constitution. This point was summed up in 1901 by Andrew Inglis Clark, a former Tasmanian Attorney-General and a convention member who assisted in drafting the basic framework for the Constitution. He said that the Constitution

must be read and construed, not as containing a declaration of the will and intentions of men long since dead, and who cannot have anticipated the problems that would arise for solution by future generations, but as declaring the will and intentions of the present inheritors and possessors of sovereign power, who maintain the Constitution and have the power to alter it, and who are in the immediate presence of the problems to be solved. It is they who enforce the provisions of the Constitution and make a living force of that which would otherwise be a silent and lifeless document.

More than a century later, referendums are the only means of changing the words of the original constitutional compact. But, as for most aspects of government, the text of the Constitution tells only part of the story. In these first three chapters, we outline the broad concepts and fine details of referendums in Australia. The story brings together many of the key themes of Australian democracy and government since 1901.

What are referendums?


A referendum is held when the people cast a vote to accept or reject a question of law or policy, such as whether to amend a constitution or a piece of legislation. This might produce a binding legal outcome or just an advisory opinion. An example of the latter was the referendum held in New Zealand in 2009 on whether to ban the smacking of children by their parents.

Switzerland was the first country to make wide use of referendums. From the 1830s at the cantonal (or state) level in Switzerland, a referendum could be held to change a constitution or to repeal a law. At the federal level, a referendum for the revision of the Constitution was introduced in 1848. By 1874, any ordinary law could be repealed by referendum; and, in 1891, the Swiss Constitution allowed citizens to initiate a referendum to make a new law.

Referendums are also common in other countries, including for altering a constitution, changing an ordinary law and to determine whether a region should be granted independence. For example, in 1980 and 1995, people in the Canadian province of Quebec voted in a referendum on whether to secede from Canada. On both occasions, the vote was No, though in 1995 it was a close-run thing, with 50.6 per cent for No and 49.4 per cent for Yes. Recently, referendums have been held in many countries in Europe on whether to approve a new constitution for the European Union.

The idea of having a popular vote to change a constitution was adopted in Australia in the 1890s as momentum built towards Federation. Even though the term 'referendum' is not used anywhere in the Constitution, it has nonetheless come to describe the popular vote required to change that document or, on occasion, a state constitution. Such referendums are a way of having people directly involved in the making of laws, in this case a constitution, outside of the regular political path which involves a Bill being drafted and voted on just by elected representatives in Parliament. Referendums bring all voters directly into the process.


In Australia, referendums to change a constitution are often distinguished from 'plebiscites'. The latter term can be used to describe non-binding votes of the people, or what are in effect giant opinion polls to test the public mood on an issue. An example is the Australian Republican Movement's proposal for a process to introduce a republic. It suggests holding a non-binding plebiscite on whether Australia should become a republic with an Australian head of state, followed by a second non-binding plebiscite on which model of a republic should be put to a referendum. These plebiscites could not change the law or require the government to act, but they could assist in building support for a republic and in determining what type of republic Australians would like to finally vote on when it comes to a referendum.

National plebiscites have been very rare in Australia, with only three held since 1901. Two were about whether to introduce conscription during wartime, and one was to choose a national anthem. The results are shown in table 1.1.

Even though voting was not compulsory in these plebiscites, the turnout was high. In fact, before voting in referendums became compulsory in 1924, the highest turnout in any Australian referendum or plebiscite was for the conscription plebiscite of 1916. The campaigns in the 1916 and 1917 plebiscites were fierce. In 1916, Prime Minister Billy Hughes issued a manifesto to all Australian soldiers in which he urged: 'Now is the hour when our race must prove itself worthy of its traditions and its heritage'. Hughes denigrated those advocating a No vote: 'they cover Australia with the mantle of eternal shame; the glorious name of Anzac becomes a tarnished and dishonoured thing'.


Referendums are not only a national event in Australia. They have also been held many times at the state and territory level. At this level, the distinction between the terms 'referendum' and 'plebiscite' is less clearly maintained, with many non-binding state and territory votes referred to as 'referendums'. The first example of putting a law to the people on the Australian continent was the South Australian plebiscite of 1896, which secured free, compulsory and secular education in public schools. This was also the first time that women were able to vote in Australia.

Unlike the Australian Constitution, the constitutions of the states can generally be changed through an ordinary Act of Parliament, without the need for a referendum. There are, however, exceptions, with some states requiring a referendum to change certain important parts of their constitution. For example, the New South Wales Constitution provides that the Upper House of its Parliament, the Legislative Council, can only be abolished by way of a referendum.

Most state votes have been advisory ballots on non-constitutional issues. For example, four of the 16 referendums or plebiscites in New South Wales have been on opening and closing hours for licensed premises. Many such votes have dealt with matters of great state and national importance. In 1933, Western Australians overwhelmingly voted Yes to secede (or withdraw) from the Commonwealth. The state then sent a petition to the British Parliament requesting independence. It got nowhere after the petition was ruled out of order because convention dictated that it be made by the Commonwealth and not an individual state. The Commonwealth opposed secession, and the issue quickly fell away. The most recent state ballot (in what nationally would be called a 'plebiscite') occurred in June 2009 when Western Australians voted against introducing daylight saving time.

The practice of state referendums and plebiscites varies widely. Some states only ask Yes or No questions; others have sometimes given voters an array of options, with the most popular option being the winner. For example, when New South Wales voted on closing hours for hotels in 1916, voters could select 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 or 11 o'clock (6 o'clock won, with more than 62 per cent of the vote).

Territory and local governments can also hold referendums and plebiscites. For example, a majority of Northern Territory voters narrowly rejected statehood in 1998, while the people of the Australian Capital Territory chose to adopt a system of proportional voting for their local Legislative Assembly in a 1992 referendum. In New South Wales, local councils are required to hold a referendum to change the way the Mayor is appointed, to change the number of councillors or their method of appointment and to divide the council into wards or abolish existing wards.


In Switzerland, New Zealand and many parts of the United States, referendums can be initiated by the people. These citizen-initiated referendums (CIRs) can be advisory (as in New Zealand or the European Union) or binding on government (as in California).

Australia does not have CIRs at the national, state or territory level. Nationally, the people get to vote in a referendum to change the Constitution, but the decision of whether to hold that referendum in the first place lies solely with the federal Parliament and the government of the day. Australia has debated whether to introduce CIRs. In the early 1980s, the Australian Democrats introduced Bills into the Senate to allow for them, and the Constitutional Commission discussed, but rejected, the idea in the late 1980s. In 2003, a Constitutional Convention in South Australia endorsed CIRs, but was split between supporters of a binding or merely advisory vote.

Supporters of CIRs argue that it is not enough to give the people a vote at a referendum when the people have no say on when referendums are held and what subject matters they deal with. They argue for a form of direct democracy in which the people are able both to initiate change to laws and constitutions and then to vote to reject or approve these changes.

Opponents argue that CIRs can lead to amendments that hamstring good government. In California, CIRs have locked the government into popular expenditure on items like education (indeed, up to a third of all expenditure by the Californian budget has been outside government control) while prohibiting it from making cuts or raising taxes to fund that expenditure. CIRs can also be used against a minority group. Referendums, by definition, create a risk that the majority will support a law tailored to outlaw unpopular minority practices. In late 2009, for example, a CIR in Switzerland passed by 57 per cent of voters changed Swiss law to ban the building of minarets on Islamic mosques.

On other occasions, CIRs may be inappropriate because an informed vote is impossible unless the government releases confidential information. Opponents ask: could people really vote on something like national security policy when the government cannot fully disclose the information on which the policy is based?

Some of these risks can be mitigated by establishing good CIR processes. The threshold of public support for initiation could be set high and the referendum could be advisory only. Certain subject matters, such as foreign policy, could also be excluded from the CIR process. Nevertheless, even with such practices, real risks remain, such as the possibility that the opportunity to hold a CIR will be manipulated by the rich and powerful, including major corporate interests. In California, for example, signature-gathering firms can be engaged to collect the necessary signatures to initiate a referendum, whereas community groups without access to large sums of money can find it logistically impossible to get a CIR off the ground.

Referendums and the Constitution


In Australia, normal laws can be made or amended by a vote of both Houses of the federal Parliament and the assent of the Queen's representative, the Governor-General. The Constitution is not, however, a normal law. It sets the rules by which Australia is governed, and provides many of the most important checks and balances upon the exercise of public power by politicians, judges and other public office holders. To change the Constitution is to change the foundation stone of Australian government. It is not surprising, then, that a special, more difficult procedure must be followed if it is to be altered.


Excerpted from People Power by George Williams, David Hume. Copyright © 2010 George Williams and David Hume. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 The people's voice,
2 The path of constitutional change,
3 Referendum campaigns,
4 The record,
5 Eight referendums,
6 A labour of Hercules?,
7 Getting to Yes,
Appendix 1: Section 128 of the Australian Constitution,
Appendix 2: Referendum proposals,

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