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A quick guide to plebiscites in Australia


When Opposition Leader Tony Abbott proposed a plebiscite to test Australians’ support for a carbon tax, the proposal was variously described in the media as ‘junk politics’, a ‘stunt’, a ‘serious misjudgement’ and ‘an expensive, bad idea’. But what exactly is a plebiscite?

In Australia, a national plebiscite has quite a distinctive meaning. A plebiscite is a vote by citizens on a matter of national significance, but one which does not affect the Constitution. Moreover, plebiscites are normally advisory, and do not compel a government to act on the outcome. A plebiscite might be used to obtain electors’ views on, say, military conscription, or choosing a new Australian flag.

Only the Australian parliament can authorise the holding of a plebiscite. Unlike some countries, Australia has no mechanism by which citizens might initiate a plebiscite by, for example, petitioning Parliament with a threshold number of signatures calling for a matter to be put to a national vote. Such a plebiscite is commonly referred to as a ‘citizen initiated referendum’. Bills for citizens’ initiated referendums have been introduced occasionally into Australian state or territory legislatures but none have passed.

In Australia, we hear more about ‘referendums’ than ‘plebiscites’. While both entail a vote by Australia’s electors, a referendum concerns a change to Australia’s Constitution, and the outcome is binding. For a referendum proposal to succeed it must win the majority of votes nationally and also win in a majority of the states. This is called a ‘double majority’. Since Federation there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change put to Australian electors at referendums. Only eight have been approved. Plebiscites simply require a majority of electors’ votes.

There have only been three national plebiscites in Australia:
  • 1916: military service conscription (defeated)
  • 1917: reinforcement of the Australian Imperial Force overseas (defeated)
  • 1977: choice of Australia’s national anthem ('Advance Australia Fair' preferred.)
Before a national plebiscite can take place, an enabling bill proposing the plebiscite and setting out its purpose must be passed by parliament. The bill thereby becomes an Act enabling a vote to be conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. The enabling legislation may or may not specify any actions expected of the government as a result of the plebiscite.* In the case of a carbon tax plebiscite that simply asked whether electors are in favour of a carbon tax or not, the government could ignore the plebiscite result and pursue its own preferred outcome through the Parliament. Indeed, Mr Abbott himself said that if a plebiscite favoured a carbon tax he would ignore the result.

While the kind of direct democracy implied by a plebiscite has its merits, it may not necessarily be the best way to resolve an issue. We live in a representative democracy, and it is a feature of our system of government that laws and major policy proposals are determined by our elected representatives through debate and deliberation in the parliament. The prominent constitutional lawyer George Williams puts it this way:

‘Plebiscites are rare in Australia. They go against the grain of a system in which we elect parliamentarians to make decisions on our behalf’.
Nevertheless, plebiscites have been used by Australian state governments from time to time, especially to deal with social or environmental issues:
  • The drinking of alcoholic beverages was once a controversial issue that was dealt with in a number of plebiscites—6 p.m. closing (NSW 1916), open bars on Sundays (NSW 1969), 10 p.m. closing (Vic 1956), prohibition of liquor sales (WA 1925, 1950).
  • In 1904 Victoria held three simultaneous plebiscites involving religion and schools.
  • Daylight saving has been the subject of plebiscites in Western Australia (1975, 1984, 1992), New South Wales (1976), South Australia (1982) and Queensland (1992).
  • There was a plebiscite in Tasmania on the establishment of the Wrest Point casino (1968).
  • In 1992 voters in the ACT endorsed the Hare-Clark electoral system.
  • In 2005 Western Australians rejected an extended shopping hours proposal.
  • In Queensland in 2007 plebiscites on local government amalgamation were held in 85 council areas. A planned plebiscite on the use of recycled water was cancelled.
The use of plebiscites and referendums (the more widely-used term) seems to be increasingly common among democratic countries—although practices vary as to whether outcomes are binding or advisory, or whether citizens or only governments can initiate them. Earlier this year the UK held a referendum on whether to change its voting system (defeated), and a referendum in Wales gave increased legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly. In 2007, the Canadian province of Ontario held its first referendum in 80 years, with a proposal for electoral reform. British Columbia did likewise in 2009. The proposals were defeated. British Columbia is currently in the middle of a postal ballot referendum about ‘harmonised sales tax’.

Switzerland has a longstanding tradition of referendums, the use of which is thoroughly integrated into its political processes. Ireland has held referendums on matters as diverse as the ratification of EU treaties, abolition of the death penalty and the recognition of local government.

Many US states conduct referendums or allow citizen-initiated ‘ballot initiatives’, and these have been used for a wide range of purposes, including to veto legislation. On occasions, the outcome of such initiatives can prove counter-productive. For example, the consequences for California of the citizen-initiated Proposition 13—which reduced property taxes and limited the legislature’s capacity to raise taxes—have been much lamented. There has never been a referendum at national level in the USA.

* The Plebiscite for an Australian Republic Bill 1997—which appeared as separate versions in the House and the Senate—expressly provided that: ‘The results of the national plebiscite are intended to be indicative only’. The House version of the bill was removed from the Notice paper in March 1998, and the Senate version lapsed at the end of the 39th Parliament. By contrast, the Flags Amendment Bill 1996 expressly provided that the plebiscite outcome would be acted upon if ‘the new flag, or one of the new flags, is chosen by a majority of all the electors voting’. The bill was eventually passed and became the Flags Amendment Act 1998, No. 2.

(Image sourced from: http://www.ngshire.vic.gov.au/)
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