Hold a referendum

Explore how the Constitution can be changed through a referendum in this classroom activity. Investigate a potential change to the Constitution and then decide—as a nation—whether or not the change should be made.

Students
Years 5 to 12
Duration
2 to 3 Lessons
Related Resource
Create a new federation

Getting started

  1. Use the Referendums and plebiscites fact sheet and the Australian Electoral Commission’s Alteration process fact sheet to review the referendum process.
  2. Choose a question for your referendum. You may like to use one from a previous referendum—such as religious freedom or fixed parliamentary terms—or write your own question on a topical issue—such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition or press freedom. The Australian Law Reform Commission’s paper The Constitution of Australia: Revisiting Reform [PDF, 7 pages] includes a list of other potential referendum questions.

YES/NO cases

  1. Divide the class into an even number of small groups of 3 to 4 students and assign each group to research either the ‘YES’ or the ‘NO’ case for the question the class has chosen. Ensure you have the same number of ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ groups.
  2. Give the students time to research the question and put together their case.
  3. Combine each ‘YES’ group with a ‘NO’ group and ask them write a pamphlet that presents each case equally. You may like to use the 1999 Referendum YES/NO pamphlet [PDF, 38 pages] as an example. The length of the pamphlet will depend on the year level of the class and the time available.
  4. Share the pamphlets among the class so each student has a chance to understand the arguments and consider the question carefully.

Referendum

In a referendum, each vote is counted twice: once as part of the national count and once as part of their state count. Australia has 6 states but for this activity your class will have 3 and—just like the real states—each will have a different population.

  1. Divide the class into 3 state groups to vote, assigning each group a colour.
    • Yellow—more than half the students
    • Red—2 to 3 students
    • Blue—remaining students.
  2. Use the ballot paper template to make your own ballot papers or give each student a slip of coloured paper and write the question on the board.
  3. Students vote by writing either ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ on their ballot paper. Keep the ballot papers for each state group separate.
  4. Count the votes 1 state group at a time with 2 scrutineers checking the count.
  5. Using the voting table, tally the number of ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ votes for each state group.
  6. Determine the YES/NO result for each state group. A tied vote is a no.
  7. Did a majority of your students vote yes? Did at least 2 of your 3 state groups vote yes? If you answered yes to both questions, you have a double majority and have made a change to the Constitution. If not, no change to the Constitution has been made.

What happened?

  1. Discuss with the class what happened in your referendum. Has the constitution now been changed? Will the new system be adopted?
  2. Using the Changing the Australian Constitution – double majority graphic, explain that in Australia, a double majority is needed to change the constitution—that is, a majority of voters in a majority of states as well as a majority of all Australians.
  3. Explain that in Australia's history only 8 of 44 proposed changes to the Constitution have been agreed to.
  4. As a class discuss:
    • Why have most referendums been unsuccessful?
    • Should there be another way to change Australia's Constitution? If so, what should it be?