Referendums and plebiscites
A referendum is a vote of the Australian people to change the Australian Constitution. This fact sheet explores the process of referendums and plebiscites—national polls—in Australia.
In Australia, a referendum is a vote used to approve a change to the Australian Constitution. Section 128 of the Constitution sets out certain rules that must be followed in order for a change to be approved.
A proposed change to the Constitution must start as a bill—proposed law—presented to the Australian Parliament. If the bill is passed by the Parliament, the proposal must then be presented to Australian voters in a referendum. The referendum must take place between 2 and 6 months after the bill is passed.
Before the referendum is held, members of parliament prepare arguments for or against the proposed change. These are sent to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), which is in charge of running federal elections and referendums. The AEC arranges for the 'Yes' and 'No' cases, along with a statement of the proposed change, to be posted to every Australian on the electoral roll.
On polling day, the voting process is similar to that used for federal elections, in which polling places are set up at schools and other public buildings around the country. Each voter's name is marked off the electoral roll and they are given a ballot paper. Voters then write 'Yes' or 'No' in a box opposite the proposed change on their ballot paper.
A referendum is only passed if it is approved by a majority of voters across the nation and a majority of voters in a majority of states—this is known as a double majority. Territory voters are only counted in the national majority.
If a referendum is successful, the change is made to the Constitution.
In Australia, a plebiscite (also known as an advisory referendum) is used to decide a national question that does not affect the Constitution. It can be used to test whether the government has enough public to go ahead with a proposed action. Unlike a referendum, the decision reached in a plebiscite does not have any legal force.
Australia has held 2 national plebiscites, in 1916 and 1917, relating to the introduction of conscription during World War I. Both were defeated. No specific rules exist about the running of a plebiscite. If another plebiscite is conducted, the Parliament will decide on how it is run.
History of referendums in Australia
Since 1901 there have been 19 referendums, proposing 44 changes to the Constitution; only 8 changes have been agreed to. The AEC has more information about each of these referendums.
Changing the Australian Constitution – double majority.
Parliamentary Education Office (peo.gov.au)
This image shows how the Australian Constitution can only be changed with the support of the majority of Australian voters and the majority of voters in at least 4 states. The following scenarios are shown as examples.
Scenario ONE: change the Constitution: the majority of Australian voters have said yes; the majority voters in at least 4 states have said yes.
Scenario TWO: don't change the Constitution: the majority of Australian voters have said no; the majority voters in at least 4 states have said yes.
Scenario THREE: don't change the Constitution: the majority of Australian voters have said yes, the majority voters in at least 4 states have said no.