Some notable passed and failed referenda in Australia’s history

‘How to vote’ cards from the 1967 referendum – despite only having two choices, referenda can be deceptively difficult to get across the line. Photo: Courtesy National Archives of Australia.

BEFORE the ‘Voice’ referendum date is set, News Of The Area presents a glimpse at some successful, and not-so-successful, attempts to change our Federal Constitution, as per the records of the Australian Electoral Commission.

Since Federation in 1901, only eight referenda have been successfully carried, the details of the process outlined previously.

The first successful referenda occurred soon after Federation, in 1906 and 1910, concerning the timing of elections and the Commonwealth’s power to take over State debts, serving as de facto amendments to the still-new Constitution.

A 1928 referendum undid the changes made in 1910, while a 1946 referendum allowed a wider range of post-WWII social services.

The famous 1967 referendum allowed the Commonwealth to effectively recognise Australian Aboriginals as people, including them in all future census and population counts, and allowing the enactment of laws for that demographic.

The last three successful referendum changes were all held in 1977, when three of four simultaneous questions were carried, concerning the filling of casual Senate vacancies, allowing the Territories to also vote in future referenda, and setting a retiring age for Federal Court judges.

Several notable failures occurred before and after WWI, including attempts across 1911, 1913, 1919, 1926, 1946 and 1948 to give the Commonwealth significant powers over trade, commerce, labour and employment, as well as to nationalise monopolies.

The repeated attempts at such sweeping powers were mainly in the context of post-war reconstruction, however, the 1951 referendum actually attempted to outlaw the Communist party, and failed by a razor-thin margin.

The 1988 Bicentenary saw another raft of attempted changes, with another four-question referendum asking some startlingly prescient questions of the Australian public, including the official recognition of ‘local government’, four-year term limits, and an effective Bill of Rights.

All the 1988 questions, however, failed by wide margins.

The most recent referendum of 1999, asked Australians about becoming a Republic, preceded by much talk and spirited campaigning for and against, ultimately failing, too.

Details can be found at

By Thomas O’KEEFE

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