Australian Electoral Commission

Referendums Overview

Updated: 6 June 2011

Constitutional Referendums

The Australian Constitution can be amended only with the approval of Australian electors. Therefore, any proposed alteration must be put to the vote of all electors at a referendum.

Section 128 of the Constitution provides that any proposed law to alter the Constitution must be passed by an absolute majority in both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament. If passed by both Houses, it is submitted to a referendum at least two months, but less than six months, after it has been passed by Parliament. In certain circumstances, a proposed amendment can be submitted to a referendum if it is passed on two separate occasions by only one House of the Parliament.

At the referendum the proposed alteration must be approved by a 'double majority'. That is:

  • a national majority of electors in the states and territories
  • a majority of electors in a majority of the states (i.e. at least four out of six states).

Since Federation, only eight out of 44 proposals to amend the Constitution have been approved (see Referendum dates and results).

Voting in referendums is compulsory for enrolled electors. In referendums voters have to write either 'Yes' or 'No' in the box opposite each question on the ballot paper.

Rules governing referendums are contained in the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.

Double majority

Any alteration to the Consitution must be approved by a 'double majority', that is:

  • a national majority of electors (more than half the voters in Australia must vote YES); and
  • a majority of electors in a majority of the States (i.e. at least four of the six) (more than half the voters in more than half the States must vote YES)

The 'double majority' provision makes alterations to the Constitution difficult. Since Federation, only eight out of 44 proposals to amend the Constitution have been approved.

The main stages

A referendum must be held no sooner than two and no later than six months after the proposal is passed by Parliament. The main stages are:

  • A Bill setting out the proposed alteration to the Constitution is passed by both Houses of Parliament; or
  • If passed by one House but rejected, or altered in the other (and the alterations are unacceptable to the first House) and this is repeated in the next session of the Parliament, the Governor-General may put the proposal to the electors as last proposed by the first House with or without any amendments agreed by both Houses.

In the four weeks after the passage of the Bill a majority of those Members and Senators who voted for the proposal and a majority of those who voted against it prepare YES and NO cases and lodge them with the Electoral Commissioner. When a proposal is passed unanimously by Parliament, a NO case is not prepared.

The Governor-General issues a Writ for the referendum. The date set for the close of rolls is seven days after the issue of the writ; and polling day, which must be on a Saturday, is not less than 33 days or more than 58 days after the issue of the writ.

The Electoral Commissioner has the YES and NO cases printed together with a statement showing the proposed alterations. This must be posted to every elector on the roll, as nearly as practicable no later than 14 days before polling day.

Voting procedures are similar to those for elections except that electors vote by writing either 'Yes' or 'No' in the box opposite each question on the ballot paper.

If the referendum is carried, the proposed law is given Royal Assent by the Governor-General.