How Do Referendums Work? | AUSPOL EXPLAINED


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people should be aware that this video contains the name of a person who has
passed away – specifically around the 17:20 mark. Hello and welcome. My name is
David and I am here with another thrilling episode of Auspol Explained
where I explained Australian politics to you, the person who wants to learn. Today
we will be talking about referendums. Referendum? More like referend-fun! (awkward pause) let’s
begin. So first off: what is a referendum? In short a referendum is where the
country comes together to vote on changes to the wording of the
Constitution. In Australia the wording of the Constitution cannot be simply
changed by the Parliament. It must have a majority approval by the voting public.
Voting in a referendum, just like a federal election, is compulsory. The
Constitution lays down the foundation of how a government works and what its
legal powers are aaaaand that’s it thanks for watching. That’s all you really need
to know. No please come back I’ve got more. I spent a lot of time researching
this please watch more. Many of you are actually probably too young to remember
a referendum but you do know of the word plebiscite. Let’s quickly go into the
difference between those two things. A plebiscite is similar to a referendum
but different. A plebiscite is a non-compulsory vote on a non-constitutional
matter and is much much rarer. You may be thinking about the time that we asked the
whole country whether or not marriage equality should be a thing back in 2017.
That wasn’t a plebiscite. It was intended to be a plebiscite but a
plebiscite requires legislation to pass. Multiple plebiscite bills actually
failed to pass in Parliament and so the government was really sneaky and they
were like “hey, what if instead of like people “voting” we just get the ABS or
Australian Bureau of Statistics to sort of like have a “postal survey” and
just ask everyone’s opinion in a yes/no fashion much like say a plebiscite
would.” It was a non-compulsory postal survey.
You know, like a plebiscite but slow and inefficient and just actually
technically legally different but the same thing. Historical federal
plebiscites have been on whether or not we should have conscription – which is
where people are forced to fight in wars – in 1916 and then another one in 1917
because Billy Hughes couldn’t take no for an answer, and then also we voted
again on the national anthem in 1977. So there’s varying degrees of importance
there. Plebiscites are actually also
non-binding and the introduction of a bill for a plebiscite doesn’t actually
have to specify what the government would do once the plebiscite passes
whereas with a referendum the exact change a government wants to make has to
be detailed in that bill. There was a little bit of a controversy with that with
the marriage equality “postal survey” because it was seen as an expensive
opinion poll that the government could then just ignore because it wasn’t
binding. Thankfully though they didn’t. There have been many plebiscites on the
state level like whether or not to have daylight savings or you know trading
hours for bars and shopping centers. They are far more common than federal
plebiscites. So how do referendums actually happen? Well the rules regarding
referendums are outlined in Section 128 of the Australian Constitution. That’s so
many sections! There are two ways in which a referendum starts. First: the
House of Representatives and the Senate both pass an identical bill outlining
the change in the wording of the Constitution that they want to put to a
referendum. The next is called the “deadlock provision.” This is where the
House of Representatives passes a bill but then the Senate rejects it and then
the House of Representatives passes the same bill three months later and then
they ask the Governor General to intervene and just sort of give it royal
assent anyway. In 1914 the Governor General declined to submit bills
passed in the Senate to the people because they conventionally act on the
advice of the Prime Minister. Legally they don’t have to though that’s just
what they do. Hypothetically
I guess the Senate could initiate a referendum because the Governor-General
doesn’t always have to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Hypothetically
speaking a multimillionaire could be watching this and be like “wow! I’m so
impressed with how well you educate people about politics, David. Thank you for
reading through all those dense and really boring Australian Parliament
House website pages and summarizing things so well. Here, have a million
dollars so you can finally afford a house!” You know, hypothetically. Really
though we all know that it’s never actually going to happen… unless? The
Governor-General also doesn’t have to approve a referendum even if it passes
in both houses. In 1965 and in 1983 despite a bill passing in both houses
the government advised the Governor-General not to take it to a
referendum. I don’t know why it’s actually kind of hard to find
information about that. The Governor-General actually has quite a
few powers and I’ve made a video about that so please check that out and then
also subscribe if you haven’t already. So once the Governor-General approves
the referendum is then brought to the public to vote on. They must have at
least two months between when the bill is passed
and when they vote happens, but it can also be no longer than six months to
hold the vote. This gives the different sides to come up with different arguments
for or against. So the public is voting on them. How do they get won? With swords!
No. Here’s the thing: it’s not just a majority vote across all of Australia
it’s a majority vote of the population and States. This is to avoid more
populous states holding more sway than smaller ones. This can result in some
referendums that get more than 50% or even more than 60% of the yes
vote to still fail because it requires at least four out of six of the states
to have a majority yes vote. We actually had a referendum about this specific
thing in 1974 where we asked everyone “hey, should we change it so it only needs
50% of the states instead of four out of six?”
Spoilers: it didn’t pass. You could argue that removing the state majority clause
wouldn’t actually affect the outcome of many referendums and so isn’t that
important to remove, or you could say I don’t want the government to change
things too easily. Furthermore there’s even extra provisions that if a state is
specifically affected by that referendum then that state must also have a
majority yes if the referendum is to pass. Section 128 of the Constitution
gives some examples of when this is relevant. So this involves things like: if
the result involves reducing the proportional representation of the state
in Parliament, or if it reduces the minimum number of Representatives that
that state has in the House of Representatives, or it changes the
boundaries of that state, or it changes the provisions of the Constitution
specifically in relation to that state. So hypothetically a referendum can have
a majority YES on the national vote as well as five out of six of the states
voting in a majority yes and it can still be blocked. But that requires
extremely specific circumstances and it’s not really relevant. But it’s like
if we wanted to vote that New South Wales was now half the size. You can’t just do
that like Victoria and Queensland can’t just like gang up on it and be like
“you’re tiny now!” *grumbles* pincer move *grumbles* That is just an extra precaution and honestly is
not really relevant but now you know a fun fact that you probably didn’t know
before! Bust that one out at a trivia night sometime. Impress your friends and
family by starting conversations with “hey did you know about the triple
majority provision in constitutional referendums in regarding to state
boundaries?” They’ll love it. I guarantee everyone is going to be
super interested in… in that. They’re just gonna be – they’ll be super interested in
that. And they’ll ask you to explain further. After all that criteria it’s actually then down to wining it.
And actually the likelihood of that is pretty low. There have been 44
referendums as of this video. As I film this there has actually been mention
of introducing a referendum about recognition of Indigenous and Torres
Strait Islander people in the Constitution so we’ll see where that
goes in the future. But out of those 44 only eight have succeeded in the past a
hundred and eighteen years so that’s not the best odds. Since 1912 most
referendums have been usually accompanied by informative pamphlets
that are approved by a majority of the parliament who voted either yes or no on
the bill. These pamphlets have arguments for or against the proposed changes.
These arguments are to be no longer than 2,000 words. Note that I said
usually but not always because there was no “No” pamphlet for the 1967 Aboriginal
referendum and thank goodness because why would you say no to that? If multiple
referendums are on the same day an argument for a side maybe longer than
2,000 words as long as the average for all the different arguments is no more
than 2,000. There are some criticisms of this pamphlet process. Professor Howard,
former dean of Melbourne law school, wrote in his book “Australia’s
Constitution” that the yes vote is often presented simply and is similar to the
words of what is being proposed whereas the no vote the pamphlet is designed
merely to confuse and is a totally unreliable guide to what the amendment
is about. An ill-informed no campaign that manipulates people and voters into
not understanding the importance of a yes vote? …Wow. That’s just so hard – that’s
just – that – I can’t. Could you imagine? *cough* same-sex marriage *cough* postal survey. What? Uhh…. Historically, people haven’t been in
favor of changes of increasing government power. All 17 attempts by the
Commonwealth to increase its economic powers have been rejected and two
referendums involving local government also been rejected. There have been
referendums of social powers which have passed like the 1946 referendum on
Social Services and of course the historic 1967 referendum on Aboriginal
Australians – both of which were successful. I’ll get into successful
referendums in just a moment. One argument as to why referendums often
fail is that the average person hasn’t got a very good understanding of what
constitutional law is and so therefore they don’t really understand what
effects that a change could have. Potentially then, voters could “play it
safe” and leave things as it were. I mean after all, how can you agree to change
something if you don’t have a complex understanding of it or really a strong
opinion? If only there was some sort of like, accessible online and kind of funny
YouTube resource that could help people understand Australian politics… Huh.
Of course because this is politics there is a counter-argument. The Australian public
has shown that it is capable of distinguishing between the requests of
different referendums and therefore having strongly different opinions about
different questions. Multiple referendums are often actually held on the same day
and show different levels of support. For example: the government in 1967 wanted to
piggyback off the support for the Aboriginal constitutional change and
decided to tack on another referendum where they wanted to make it so they
could increase the amount of seats in the House of Representatives without
necessarily increasing the amount of seats in the Senate. Mmm. Which, by the way,
constitutionally needs to be as practical as possible half the amount of
the House of Representatives. It didn’t work and that referendum failed with
only one state scraping by with a past 50% for a yes majority. Well you may be
thinking “what about people in territories though? They’re not mentioned.
Are they? You never mentioned them at all thus far.” Before 1977 they didn’t count!
They didn’t matter. Screw em. Whatever They’re not that important. The 1977
referendum was a referendum on referendums.
it asked: “Should territories be allowed to vote
in referendums?” Which is nice and meta. It allowed those in the Northern Territory,
Australian Capital Territory, and external territories, to vote in
referendums – and thankfully a majority of ALL states decided “yes. Of course.
duh!” They’re Australians why shouldn’t they vote in referendums? Obviously!
Though… Queensland for some reason had like the least amount of support. Only
fifty nine point fifty-eight percent of people were like “yeah”. Which is weird
because why shouldn’t people in the Northern Territory and ACT be allowed
to vote? Does Queensland have some beef with Darwin? Is there like some historical
feud that I am like missing out on? Am I unaware here? Look let’s – let’s not dwell
on it. Now people in the territories count towards the national vote but
don’t affect the state majority. It’s still down to the states whether
things will pass or not. Soooo Hey territories! Weeee kind of care about
you… So let’s talk about the successful referendums. So what has changed since
1901 and what has the majority of the public actually cared enough to be like
“yeah I’ll allow that”? Okay so the following referendums have been
successful: in 1906 senator terms were allowed to commence in July instead of
January. It’s not to give them a nice long holiday. It’s because before that
the House of Representatives and the Senate elections didn’t occur
simultaneously. Technically they still don’t need to, we just do it sometimes
out of convenience. In 1910 the federal government decided that it should be
able to take over state debts. Beforehand it could only take over pre-existing
debts now it could take them over whenever. In 1928 Australia then
revisited state debts and adds more amendments I guess. Thrilling. I know.
Please don’t get me to explain the state finance amendments like this… please. In
1946 the government was given the power to legislate on a wide range of social
services. Previously, section 51 of the Constitution said that the Australian
Government could legislate in terms of invalid or
old-age pensions. Like maternity allowances, widows pensions, child
endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness, and hospital benefits, medical
and dental services, and benefits for students and family allowances. Things we
appreciate and benefit from to this day in one way or another. The government had
actually sneakily tried to legislate on some of these things before that
referendum like widows pensions in 1942 and child endowment payments in 1941.
Child endowment, by the way if you’re wondering what that means, was a non
means-tested allowance to mothers for each child after the first under the age
of 16. It was replaced in 1976 by the family allowance. And in 1967 we passed
the most famous referendum in Australian history. It’s that one on the Aboriginal
Australians. While many referendums fail this one had a whopping record-breaking
90.77% yes! It allowed Indigenous Australians to be
counted in the population and it allowed the government to make specific laws
regarding them. Because of the restrictions until 1977 only states were
allowed to vote for referendums so all the Aboriginal people in the Northern
Territory weren’t allowed to vote on this referendum that affected them
directly. This is seen of having a large historical significance as it has
allowed for greater participation in policy, higher levels of government
spending in Indigenous affairs, and has enabled future legislation such as the
Native Title Act of 1993 which was the result of Eddie Koiki Mabo’s
historic court case establishing Native Title. If you don’t know who that is he’s
an incredibly important Torres Strait Islander person and I recommend either
reading his biography or at very least his Wikipedia article. And in 1977 this
was the year for passing referendums. We had four referendums and a plebiscite
and Australia was all like “and you get a majority vote! and you get a majority
vote! and you get a majority vote! Aaaand making simultaneous elections of the
Senate and House of Representatives? Uhhhhhh Nah, let’s keep that optional. Mmm let’s-
let’s not go there. But then hey! They did also change the national anthem to what
we know it now as Advance Australia Fair. Like I said: in 1977 we passed the
referendum on referendums that allowed territories to vote. We also allowed
parties to fill casual vacancies in the Senate by another member of that party.
If a Senate seat is made vacant through either disqualification, resignation, or
death we usually now just pick the next candidate down the party ticket for the
Senate ballot. Before that the government didn’t actually need to have someone
replace that seat and if they did have a replacement it didn’t actually have to
be from that party at all. And the term ended whenever the next general election
was even if that term was originally meant to go on for another three years.
This old system meant that you know potentially the balance of power could
shift midterm. So we fixed that basically, And the third referendum that passed was
about the retiring ages of federal judges. Now they retire at age 70 – before
this they had tenure for life which unfortunately meant that we had to
forcibly retire them due to, like, ill health. Making them retire at 70 fix this
issue but it also only applied to those after 1977
so some judges were allowed to continue serving late into their 80s. And that was
the last time we had a successful referendum. Yes that was over 40 years
ago. Referendums don’t actually happen that often and when they do sometimes
they are lumped together. In 1984 we had two referendums, in 1988 we had four, and
in 1999 we had two. We asked Australia if we wanted to become a republic and leave
the Commonwealth and we also wanted to change the preamble of the Constitution.
Both were rejected and in 99 was the last time we even had a referendum. Fun
fact: John Howard actually wanted the word “mateship” to be included in the
Constitutional preamble because he loves that word. We could have had the
word mateship enshrined in the highest legal document of Australia! Strewth mat!e
that would have been bloody grouse aye? Alas, it didn’t come to be. Well there you
have it! To recap: referendums are the legal way
in which our country democratically tells the government whether or not to
change parts of the Constitution. So thank you very much for watching yet
another episode of Auspol Explained. As always there are resources in the
description which could help you for any further reading you would like to do or
if you want resources and citations for any assignments you are doing. Please
share this video so others can learn. Don’t forget to comment down below what
you would like to learn about next and also subscribe, and if you’re feeling
extra generous there is a Patreon link in the description where you can support
free educational content. *clicks* Good bye!

2 Replies to “How Do Referendums Work? | AUSPOL EXPLAINED”

  1. I somehow wouldn't be surprised if you actually brought up the triple majority provision at a party while researching for this video XD
    Interesting video, as always!

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