Referendums and Plebiscites

Fact Sheet – Referendums and Plebiscites [PDF 206kb, 2 pages]


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 federal 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 no sooner than two months and no later than six 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 established 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 must be implemented.


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 sufficient support from the people 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 two national plebiscites, in 1916 and 1917, relating to the introduction of conscription during the First World War; both were defeated. No specific rules exist about the running of a plebiscite. In the event that another plebiscite was conducted, it may be that the Parliament will decide on the rules of operation.


Since 1901 there have been 19 referendums, proposing 44 changes to the Constitution; only eight changes have been agreed to.

Senate Elections 12 December 1906 Passed
Finance 13 April 1910 Not passed
State Debts 13 April 1910 Passed
Legislative Powers, Monopolies 26 April 1911 Not Passed
Trade and Commerce, Corporations, Industrial Matters, Railway Disputes, Trusts, Nationalisation of Monopolies 31 May 1913 Not Passed
Legislative Powers, Nationalisation of Monopolies 13 December 1919 Not Passed
Industry and Commerce, Essential Services 4 September 1926 Not Passed
State Debts 17 November 1928 Passed
Aviation, Marketing 6 March 1937 Not Passed
Post-war Reconstruction and Democratic Rights 19 August 1944 Not Passed
Social Services 28 September 1946 Passed
Organised Marketing of Primary Products, Industrial Employment 28 September 1946 Not Passed
Rent and Prices 29 May 1948 Not Passed
Powers to Deal with Communists and Communism 22 September 1951 Not Passed
Parliament 27 May 1967 Not Passed
Aboriginals 27 May 1967 Passed
Prices, Incomes 8 December 1973 Not Passed
Simultaneous Elections, Mode of Altering the Constitution, Democratic Elections, Local Government Bodies 18 May 1974 Not Passed
Simultaneous Elections 21 May 1977 Not Passed
Senate Casual Vacancies, Referendums – Territories, Retirement of Judges 21 May 1977 Passed
Terms of Senators, Interchange of Powers 1 December 1984 Not Passed
Parliamentary Terms, Fair Elections, Local Government, Rights and Freedoms 3 September 1988 Not Passed
Republic, Preamble 6 November 1999 Not Passed

Source: Australian Electoral Commission website

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