Constitutional referendums in Australia: a quick guide

Updated 8 May 2023

PDF Version [356KB]

Dr Damon Muller
Politics and Public Administration

In the Australia federal political context, the word ‘referendum’ is used to describe a vote to change the Australian Constitution. Conversely, the word ‘plebiscite’ is used to describe a non-constitutional, non-binding or advisory vote. Internationally the terms are used much more interchangeably, and the distinction between them in Australia is something of a local quirk.

The Macquarie Dictionary accepts either ‘referendums’ or ‘referenda’ as plurals for a referendum, however Australian legislation uses ‘referendums’.

The rules relating to referendums

Section 128 of the Constitution provides for the ‘mode of altering the Constitution’.

Specifically, it requires:

  • A law be passed by an absolute majority of each House of the Parliament (that is, half or more of all the members of each chamber), or under certain conditions, a law be passed by a majority of either House twice within three months.
  • The proposal be put to the electors qualified to vote in elections for the House of Representatives between two and six months after the passage of the law.
  • A majority of Australians vote to approve the change, as a total and in a majority of the six states (this is referred to as the ‘double majority’).[1]

The Constitution leaves the details of the voting process to ‘such manner as the Parliament prescribes’. Accordingly, the Parliament prescribed this via the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 (the Act).[2]

The Act looks much like the legislation that governs federal elections, and provides for many similar features, such as pre-poll, telephone and postal voting, authorisation of advertisements, and a process for appealing results.


Timing of a referendum under the Act (section 9) is very similar to an election. The Governor-General will issue a writ, specifying the date the electoral rolls close, polling day (which must be a Saturday) and the date writs must be returned (section 8).[3] After the writ is issued:

  • The rolls close (after 7 days)
  • Polling day occurs (between 33 and 58 days later)
  • Pre-poll voting commences 12 days before voting day
  • The writ is returned (after no more than 100 days).

The Act also requires the Electoral Commissioner to certify the total number of votes in favour, not in favour, and rejected as informal, including for each state and territory (section 98). Accordingly, all votes must be counted before the Electoral Commissioner returns the writ to the Governor-General. However, the election can be declared once the margin exceeds the number of votes left to count.

Recent amendments to the Act specify that that, for a referendum that is not being held in conjunction with a federal election, mobile polling may commence 19 days before voting day. For a referendum held on the same day as a federal election, remote polling may commence 12 days before voting day.[4]

The Yes and No cases

Section 11 of the Act requires the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to distribute a pamphlet with a written argument for and against the passage of the referendum. This pamphlet should be received by each household with an enrolled elector not later than 14 days before polling day.

These written arguments (no more than 2,000 words each) are to be authorised by a majority of parliamentary members who voted for or against the Referendum Bill, respectively.

The Act allows the Commonwealth to only spend money in relation to preparing and distributing the pamphlets and prohibits any Government-funded referendum education campaign or advertising. However, in 1999 the Government legislated to allow additional expenditure, such as for advertising, in relation to that specific referendum, and the recent history of public funding of referendum campaigns has been relatively ad hoc.

The Government recently amended the Act to clarify that the Government is not prevented from ‘expending money in relation to neutral public civics education and awareness activities’ (subsection 11(6)) but that campaign ‘must not address the arguments for or against a proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution’ (subsection 11(7)).

Ballot paper and formality

The ballot paper presents the referendum question(s) and requires the voter to write ‘Yes‘ or ’No‘. The AEC’s formality guidelines allow for some minor variations, provided the voter’s intent is clear. Recent amendments to the Referendum Act clarified that a ‘Y’ or an ‘N’ are sufficient to establish formality.

An image of a sample ballot paper is included in the Appendix, below.

Political finance requirements

The 2023 referendum will be the first to include the regulation of political finance in relation to referendum spending. In general, the requirements are similar to those for federal elections, however without the centrality of political parties inherent in Part XX of the Electoral Act.

The AEC has information online that outlines the financial disclosure requirements. In general, however, a referendum entity is any entity that incurs referendum expenditure in excess of the disclosure threshold ($15,200) within the referendum expenditure period, and referendum expenditure is expenditure for the dominant purpose of communicating referendum matter. Referendum matter is material with a dominant purpose of influencing the way electors vote at a referendum.[5]

The referendum expenditure period commences six months prior to the issue of the writ for the referendum. The AEC has taken the position that the Government’s flagged timing of the referendum means that the referendum expenditure period should be treated as having already commenced.

This means that any entity that expends more than $15,200 between now and the referendum on material to convince people to vote one way or another will have disclosure and reporting obligations, including the details of their referendum expenditure, the total value of donations received, and the total number of donors. Any donors who donate more than $15,200 to one of these entities must also disclose their donations. The returns are due 15 weeks after the referendum.

Foreign campaigners are prohibited from spending more than $1,000 in referendum expenditure, and foreign donors may not donate more than $100 to be used for referendum expenditure.

Plebiscites (advisory or non-binding referendums)

Australia has only ever had two ‘plebiscites’ (referred to at the time as ‘referendums’) in 1916 and 1917. Both related to conscription for military service and were unsuccessful. As compulsory voting was not yet introduced, these plebiscites were voluntary.

In 1977 there was also a national song poll, which is sometimes grouped in with the conscription plebiscites. However, unlike a contemporary referendum, voting was not compulsory and the ballot was not for a yes or no question.

Referendum Results

Since Federation, only 8 of the 44 proposals for constitutional change have been approved. The most recent successful referendums were in 1977.

The Parliamentary Library’s online Parliamentary Handbook provides a searchable list of referendum and plebiscite questions and detailed results.

Further reading


Appendix: Referendum ballot paper

Appendix: Referendum ballot paper

Source: AEC

[1].    Votes in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory count against the national total, but the territories do not count against the majority of states.

[2].    This replaced the Referendum (Constitution Alteration) Act 1906.

[3].    Section 10 allows the Governor-General to postpone the date of either polling day or the date for the return of the writ by publishing a notice in the Gazette.

[4].    Ballot papers cannot be printed until after the close of nominations at a federal election, whereas the form of the ballot paper for a referendum is known from the point at which the Constitution Alteration Bill is passed.

[5].    The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Act 2023 contains a transitional provision requiring that the disclosure threshold for referendums not be updated to a new indexed value until the next general federal election.


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