Referendums and why they often fail

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Photo: (Ed: this is not Peter Dutton, says She who says Yes (in this instance)

You’d have to give the Internet prize this week to the wag who posted a photo of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton (against a background of jubilant Australian soccer players).

“Peter Dutton needs more details before he will support the Matildas,” the satirical headline read.

The Matildas meme most accurately portrays the intransigence of the Opposition Leader’s approach to the Voice referendum, saying No because he doesn’t have enough ‘detail’.

Mr Dutton, perhaps unfairly, has been tagged the poster boy for the No vote. There are many others and some far more to the right than the LNP Leader and that’s saying something. But as a friend said during a discussion last week, those who say they are going to vote No cannot mount any form of rational argument as to why.

The Voice is a national vote to change the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia. The advisory body would give advice to the Australian Parliament and Government on matters that affect the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

On the face of it, you’d have to wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, in 1967, 91% of Australians voted to change the Constitution so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be counted as part of the population. As such, the Commonwealth would be able to make laws for them. At the time, the thinking was that if Australians did not pass this referendum, we would be viewed as a Pariah state, as South Africa was at the time.

As of 2023, 44 nationwide referendums have been held, only eight of which have been carried. Since multiple referendum questions are often asked on the same ballot, there have only been 19 separate occasions that the Australian people have gone to the polls to vote on constitutional amendments, eight of which of which were concurrent with a federal election. There have also been three plebiscites (two on conscription and one on the national song), and one postal survey (on same-sex marriage). Australians have rejected most proposals for constitutional amendments. As Prime Minister Robertt Menzies said in 1951, “The truth of the matter is that to get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is one of the labours of Hercules.”

The sticking point with referendums is that to be passed they need to return a majority in each State, not just a majority nationally.  (Votes from those in the ACT and Northern Territory count as part of the national vote.)

Of the 44 referendums which have been held, there have been five instances where a ‘yes’ vote was achieved on a national basis but failed to win because some States voted against. Some issues arise again and again.

Votes on whether or not to adopt daylight saving time have been held in three States. Daylight saving (where clocks are wound back one hour for the summer months) is now observed in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory. Daylight saving is not observed in Queensland, the Northern Territory or Western Australia.

In WA a referendum was held on 16 May 2009, the fourth such proposal put to Western Australian voters. The 2009 vote followed a three-year trial period.

After trialing daylight saving in Queensland for three years, a referendum in 1992 resulted in a 54.5% ‘no’ vote. Popular myth is that the referendum failed because ‘people out west’ feared it would fade their curtains.

In 1977, a plebiscite was held to vote for a national song. The choices included Waltzing Matilda, Song of Australia and God Save the Queen (the latter garnered only 18.78% of the vote). The dirge we now call our National Anthem topped the poll with 43.29% of the popular vote and was enshrined as the anthem.

After the Voice referendum is run and won or lost, Australians may not have an appetite for another. But surely at some stage we will be allowed to vote for I Am, You Are, We are Australian, which was not a choice in 1977, primarily because Bruce Woodley and Dobe Newton had not written it yet.

And, although Prime Minister Albanese says now is not an appropriate time to revive the Republic debate,  we do note the appointment in May 2022 of Matt Thistlewaite as Assistant Minister for the Republic, among his several ministerial appointments.

On the latest Voice polls, six of 11 are showing a ‘No’ result. This is being widely construed as a sign the referendum will fail. What the polling does not take into account is that nobody under 42 has ever voted in a referendum (the last one being the failed Republican vote in 1999). Are we game to take a gamble on which way Australia’s 4.6 million Generation Zers might vote? And how many of them are voting for the first time?

The outcome of referendums has been notoriously difficult. In the lead up to the 1999 Republican referendum, the proposition was looking like a shoo-in. But there was too much difference of opinion amongst Republican factions about how a president would be elected.

In 1916, then Prime Minister Billy Hughes was reportedly ‘devastated’ when the government’s push for conscription failed. Despite Australians not being obliged to vote in those days, the turnout was high and the vote was narrowly defeated. Perhaps it was due to the complexity of the question, which did not explicitly mention conscription.

Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this war, outside the Commonwealth, as it has now with regard to military service within the Commonwealth?

The reference to existing military service meant the requirement for compulsory military service within Australia for all men aged between 18 and 60 (in existence since 1911).

No-one seems to be overly worried about the cost of the referendum, a figure for which has been reported as high as $169 million. If you’ll forgive a rather loose calculation, on that basis Australia has spent more than $7.5 billion on referendums, only eight of which have been won.

We both decided this weekend to throw our hat into the ring, so to speak, posting selfies wearing a Yes cap from the 1999 campaign. If you are going to vote Yes it is obvious why – you have empathy for indigenous people and the hand they have been dealt and want to stop future governments from undoing all the good work that has previously been done.

The Australian Financial Review summarised the reasons why people may vote No.

“…understanding and awareness of the Voice remains poor as the Yes campaign struggles to convince undecided voters to vote for the Voice. Polling shows many Australians still don’t understand what the Voice means, or they are concerned that it risks dividing Australians or giving Indigenous people special rights.”

After they helped write the constitution at the end of the 19th century, Sir John Quick and Sir Robert Garran sought to make sure future generations understood safeguards that would allow the document to be changed only in precise circumstances. Referendums were designed with a double majority needed, in order “to prevent change being made in haste or by stealth”.

If you are still confused about what those ‘special rights’ might be or not be, here’s some intelligent thoughts on what Albanese hopes to achieve:

And (to be fair), here’s both sides of the legal debate, including a belief it will erode a fundamental principle of democracy – equality of citizenship.

(Ed: I’m constrained to say I completely disagree with the implied notion that Indigenous people already have ‘equality of citizenship’.)

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