When The Plebs Have Their Say


On Monday, Tony Abbott proposed that a plebiscite be held on the federal Government’s proposed carbon tax. The plan didn’t go far, with outgoing Family First senator Steve Fielding rejecting the idea. With Labor and the Greens opposing the proposal, it could only become law if passed through the Senate this week, before the Greens take the balance of power on 1 July.

Abbott’s proposal is unusual in the Australian context, but while direct votes on legislation are uncommon in Australia, they are a regular occurrence in some Western democracies.

In the Australian context, a referendum is a vote held specifically to change the Australian Constitution, while a plebiscite is any other popular vote. In other national contexts, the two words are interchangeable.

Plebiscites are rare in Australian federal politics. While there have been 44 constitutional referendums, only three plebiscites have been held. Two plebiscites were held during World War I on the question of conscription, which led to a major split in the ALP with prime minister Billy Hughes switching to the conservative parties over the issue.

The third plebiscite was held simultaneously with four referendums in 1977 to determine Australia’s national anthem. Advance Australia Fair defeated Waltzing Matilda and two other rivals with 43.3 per cent of the vote.

In Australian states, there have been more examples of plebiscites. Some states require referendums to make changes to the state constitution, and many plebiscites have concerned major changes to the system of government. All six Australian colonies held referendums agreeing to Federation in 1899 and 1900.

In 1933, Western Australian voters agreed to secede from the Commonwealth of Australia, but the result was never implemented. In 1967 a referendum was held on the creation of a new state named "New England" in northeastern New South Wales. It was narrowly defeated due to a large "no" vote in the lower Hunter. The result would have been different if Newcastle had not been included in the new state’s boundaries.

In 1978, voters in the ACT rejected a proposal to become a self-governing territory, but 10 years later this policy was implemented, without a second referendum.

Some issues of electoral and constitutional change have been taken to referendums, while others have been implemented without popular agreement. Changes to the electoral redistribution laws were put to referendum in South Australia in 1990 but not in Western Australia in 2005. Fixed terms have been introduced in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia over the last two decades, but only in New South Wales were the voters consulted.

Voters in New South Wales defeated a proposal in 1961 to abolish the state’s Legislative Council. Queensland’s Legislative Council had been abolished in 1922 without the trouble of a referendum after an earlier one had failed in 1917.

In a system of representative democracy, most decisions are made by elected representatives, making decisions on behalf of the people who elected them. Despite this general principle, there have been occasional cases where state governments have referred policy questions to plebiscites.

Australia’s first legal casino was approved by Tasmanian voters in 1968, passing with 53 per cent of the vote. Voters in Western Australia have rejected daylight savings at four referendums between 1975 and 2009. NSW voted for daylight savings overwhelmingly in 1976.

Many states have held referendums on liquor laws, either on closing times for hotels, or on the question of whether hotels could open on Sunday. Generally these policy issues all had a common element: they were all issues which directly affected people’s lives and could have alienated part of a government’s support base if they were to make the decision themselves. You could see plebiscites on daylight savings or hotel closing hours as a way for governments to cop out of making controversial decisions that divide the community.

There is a history of governments using non-binding plebiscites to push their own agenda. In 1981 the Tasmanian state government held a referendum in the middle of the battle over the future of the Franklin River. The government gave two different options for locations of the dam, but did not allow for a "no dams" vote. Over 35 per cent of votes cast were informal, with 33 per cent of ballots (including 9.4 per cent which were formal) specifically having the words "No Dams" written on them.

The occurrence of referendums varies dramatically between different Western democratic countries. In other Westminster system countries, referendums are generally restricted to questions of constitutional and electoral reform.

New Zealand held a non-binding plebiscite and then a binding referendum in 1992-93 on the electoral system, which resulted in a proportional electoral system being implemented in 1996. The UK held a similar referendum in May this year, when voters rejected a proposal to implement preferential voting.

Referendums in the UK usually concern the creation of devolved legislatures. The first proposal to create a Scottish Assembly failed in 1979. Similar proposals for a devolved Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Assembly were successful after Tony Blair and Labour won government in 1997, but plans to create regional assemblies in England were shelved after a referendum in North East England was defeated in a landslide.

The current Scottish Nationalist Party government in Scotland is now planning to hold a referendum on Scottish independence after winning a majority at the recent election.

In Canada, federal referendums are rare. A federal referendum failed in 1992 over the Charlottetown Accord which changed the balance of powers between the federal government and the provinces and attempted to head off the issue of Quebec independence.

Two referendums have been held in Quebec on the question of independence, in 1980 and 1995. The first was easily defeated, but the second came very close to passing. Provincial referendums in Ontario and British Columbia have considered and rejected electoral reform proposals, all in the last decade.

Many European Union member states require referendums to ratify new EU treaties. Norway has twice voted "no" to joining the European Union at referendum. The proposed European Constitution was rejected in 2005 by voters in France and the Netherlands. While two other nations passed referendums, six others cancelled their own referendums after the French and Dutch votes.

On two occasions, Irish voters rejected EU reform treaties: the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008. On both occasions the treaty was unable to take effect until all EU member states had ratified, so Ireland returned to the polls the next year and on both occasions voted "yes".

While most English-speaking countries have little experience of referendums, they are quite common in many American states. 27 US states allow some form of popular initiative, where a petition of voters can force a referendum to enact legislation, amend the constitution or repeal legislation. This process is often used for various policy areas. In California dozens of initiatives are sometimes held simultaneously. California’s initiative system has been blamed for California’s budget crisis, with citizens initiated referendums setting extremely high barriers to raising taxes and passing budgets.


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.