Electoral Newsfile 84: Referendum 1999 Information Guide

Updated: 5 December 2007

On November 6 1999, Australian voters will vote in a constitutional referendum on whether Australia should become a republic and whether to insert a preamble to the Constitution.

On 12 August 1999 the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the legislation which will form the basis of the referendum. The following two questions will be put to referendum on two separate ballot papers:

A Proposed Law

To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament (buff coloured ballot paper).

A Proposed Law

To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble (mauve coloured ballot paper).

The two questions are independent and the result of one does not affect the other.

Internet Web Site

Note:from 27 September referendum information should be accessed from referendum.aec.gov.au.


Official Announcement: 12 August 1999

Joint media release issued by the Attorney General and the Special Minister of State.

Issue of Writ

The issue of the writ triggers the referendum process. It is a document directing that a referendum be held and contains dates for the close of rolls, the day of voting (which must be a Saturday) and the return of the Writ.
The Writ must also contain :

  • the text of the proposed laws to alter the Constitution
  • the original text of the Constitution that is to be altered
  • the proposed alterations/additions to that text.

The Writ will be issued by the Governor General.

Close of rolls

Electors have until 8pm, seven days after the Writ is issued to enrol or to update their details on the Commonwealth electoral roll.

Polling day: Expected Saturday 6 November

The day on which the majority of electors cast their vote at a polling place. It must be not less than 33 days and not more than 58 days after the issue of the Writ.

Return of the Writ

The Writ, with the results of the referendum, is returned to the Governor General.

A full timetable will be included in the next edition of Electoral Newsfile.


The Australian Electoral Commission's role at the referendum is to provide voting services to the electors of Australia to enable them to have their say on the proposed laws to alter the Constitution.

Procedures for voting at the referendum are substantially similar to those which operate at federal elections except that electors vote by writing either 'Yes' or 'No' opposite the question on the ballot paper. Voting is compulsory for eligible electors.


The AEC is required under section 11 of the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 to deliver to every elector in Australia a pamphlet for the upcoming referendum. The pamphlet must set out the arguments in favour of, and the arguments against, the proposed laws to change the Constitution (the Yes/No cases) and the relevant sections of the Constitution with the proposed amendments.

The arguments are authorised by the Members of Parliament who voted for or against the respective Bills and must be given to the Electoral Commissioner four weeks after the passage of the legislation. The legislation for the two proposed laws to alter the Constitution were passed by Parliament on 12 August 1999.

Therefore the Electoral Commissioner must receive the Yes/No cases by Thursday 9 September 1999. The pamphlet must be posted no later than 14 days before polling day.

The Yes/No cases will be available on the AEC's web site from 20 September 1999. The cases will also be available in various formats (audio cassette, braille, ASCII disk and large print) for electors with a print disability.


Referendum materials which will be available on the AEC web site include:

  • the questions
  • Yes/No cases in English plus 15 other languages
  • the Constitution showing the textual alterations if the referendums were passed
  • election timetable
  • enrolment forms
  • enrolment statistics (as at close of rolls)
  • postal vote application forms
  • pre poll facilities
  • electorate search incorporating polling place locations
  • AEC contact numbers including TTY and interpreting services
  • links to Referendum Taskforce site
  • overseas voters enrolment form
  • overseas posts which have voting facilities
  • what happens at a polling place
  • results from the Constitutional Convention election
  • Scrutineer's Handbook
  • Newsfiles
  • Electoral Atlas (1998)
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • video and audio of advertising campaign


There will not be a tally room for referendum 1999. Referendum Night and Post Referendum Results will be available on the AEC's website. The address will be referendum.aec.gov.au. Note this address will be active from 27 September 1999.

There will be a direct feed to the web site from the AEC Referendum Night Results System and a post referendum update approximately every hour.


Voting in constitutional referendums is compulsory for all people listed on the Commonwealth electoral roll at the close of rolls for the referendum.

To be eligible to enrol a person must be an Australian citizen, aged 18 years or over. British subjects who were on the Commonwealth electoral roll immediately before 26 January 1984 maintain their enrolment and voting entitlements. People who are 17 may provisionally enrol and will be able to vote if their 18th birthday falls on or before polling day.

Special enrolment is available for certain electors. People with a physical disability, illness, or their carers, are able to apply to become general postal voters; people going overseas can register as overseas electors; people with no fixed address may enrol as itinerant electors; people working in Antarctica can register as Antarctic voters; and people can apply for silent enrolment if they believe that publication of their address on the roll would put them at risk.

New South Wales 4 076 081
Victoria 3 081 632
Queensland 2 188 024
Western Australia 1 149 619
South Australia 1 013 989
Tasmania 330 121
Australian Capital Territory 209 536
Northern Territory 105 048
AUSTRALIA 12 154 050


Broadcasters and Publishers must lodge returns disclosing details of advertisements relating to the referendum. These returns must be lodged with the AEC no later than Monday 3 January 2000.

Unlike an election, no other participant in a referendum campaign has any disclosure obligations with the AEC.

The AEC will provide the following voting services for the 1999 referendum:

  • printing ballot papers
  • setting up and staffing polling booths
  • pre-poll voting
  • postal voting
  • mobile polling
  • overseas voting
  • Antarctic voting
  • counting votes
  • releasing results

Ordinary votes

Most electors will cast a vote in their home Division on polling day. This is called an ordinary vote.

Not all voters will be able to attend their local polling place on polling day. To enable every eligible voter to cast a vote the AEC will provide a number of alternative arrangements.

Absent voting

Electors out of their enrolled Division but still within their home State or Territory on polling day will be able to cast an absent vote.

Pre-poll and postal voting

Electors unable to get to a polling place on polling day will be able to cast a vote before that day at a pre-poll voting centre or by post. Approximately 300 pre-poll centres will be set up in key locations around Australia. Pre-poll voting will commence at AEC Divisional Offices around Australia on 20 September 1999.

Australians living or travelling overseas will be able to vote at approximately 100 different overseas locations including Australian embassies, consulates and high commissions or they will be able to vote by post.

Mobile polling

Mobile polling teams bring the polling place to the voter. During the 12 days up to and including polling day mobile teams will visit approximately 2000 locations including special hospitals, remote outback areas and prisons to ensure people who cannot attend a polling place will still be able to vote.


(All figures detailed below are estimates based on the 1998 Federal Election)

Referendum logistics
Polling facilities  
Ordinary polling places
No. of ordinary polling places:
7 775
Mobile polling teams
No. of mobile polling teams visiting special hospitals:
No. of mobile polling teams visiting remote locations: 48
No. of mobile polling teams visiting prisons: 13
No. of prison locations being visited: 42
Pre-poll centres
No. of pre-poll voting centres:
Overseas polling places
No. of overseas polling places:
Casual staff
Estimated number of casual staff employed to assist in the conduct of the 1999 Referendum:
67 600
Polling equipment required  
Ballot boxes  
No. of large ballot boxes: 19 900
No. of small ballot boxes: 18 090
Voting screens  
No. of large voting screens: 118 364
No. of tabletop voting screens: 15 079
No. of litter bins: 12 273
No. of tables: 5 919

Most cardboard equipment contains recycled materials and will be recycled after the referendum.


Double majority

For the referendum to produce constitutional change there must be a double majority. This means that a majority of Australian voters and a majority of voters in a majority of the states must agree to the changes.


The Divisional Returning Officer (DRO) is the AEC officer responsible for conducting the referendum in each Division and maintaining the roll.


A ballot paper is considered informal if it is not filled out in accordance with the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984.


A proposal to alter the Constitution put to the vote. The Constitution can only be altered by a majority of electors and a majority of electors in a majority of states passing the proposed amendment.

Referendum period

Means the period commencing the day the writ is issued for the referendum and ending a the latest time on polling day at which an elector in Australia could enter a polling booth for the purposes of voting in the referendum.


The list of electors eligible to vote at the referendum.


To be a scrutineer you must be appointed by either the Governor General, the Governor of any state, the Chief Minister of the ACT, the Administrator of the Northern Territory or persons duly authorised by them or the registered officer of a registered political party. Scrutineers have the right to be present when the ballot boxes are sealed and opened and when the votes are sorted and counted so that they may check any possible irregularities, but they may not touch any ballot papers. (See the Scrutineer's Handbook for further details.)


The counting of votes which leads to the referendum result.

Voter turnout

The percentage of enrolled electors who vote in the referendum.


Altering the Australian Constitution

The process for altering the Australian Constitution is set out in section 128 of the Constitution, which provides, broadly, that a proposed law to alter the Constitution must first be passed by an absolute majority of each House of the Federal Parliament. The proposed law is then put to a referendum for approval by the electorate. The referendum is carried only if it is approved by a majority of voters overall and a majority of voters in a majority of States, i.e. in at least 4 of Australia's 6 States. The votes of people living in any of Australia's internal or external territories only count towards the overall majority.

This requirement for a special majority has proved difficult to meet. Since the Australian Constitution was adopted at Federation on 1 January 1901, Australians have voted in referendums on 18 occasions which have included 42 separate proposals for change. Only 8 proposals have received the special majority needed in order to be passed; a further 5 proposals have received the overall majority of votes, but not a majority in a majority of States. (See historical referendum results on pages 6–7).

The Constitutional Convention

In February 1998, the Government met an election commitment to provide a public forum for debate on the issue of whether Australia should become a republic and held a Constitutional Convention. Half of the 152 delegates to the Convention were appointed by the Government, including delegates from every State and Territory, community, government, indigenous and youth representatives. The other half were elected by the Australian voters in a voluntary postal ballot conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, in which 46.93% of eligible voters returned ballot papers.

The Prime Minister, the Hon John Howard MP, invited the Convention to consider three questions:

  • whether or not Australia should become a republic;
  • which republic model should be put to voters to consider against the current system of government; and
  • in what timeframe and under what circumstances might any change be considered.

Delegates met for two weeks in Old Parliament House in Canberra, and their deliberations attracted a considerable degree of interest around Australia. The delegates considered a number of different models for choosing a head of state including direct election, appointment by a Constitutional Council, and election by Parliament. Delegates also considered issues such as the powers, title and tenure of a new head of state, and proposals for a new preamble to the Australian Constitution.

The proposed republican model

The Convention supported an in-principle resolution that Australia should become a republic, and recommended that the 'bi-partisan appointment of the President' model, and other related changes supported by the Convention, be put to the Australian people at a referendum. The Government agreed to hold this referendum in 1999 and indicated that, in drafting the referendum legislation, it would follow closely the Convention's model. The main features of the model are as follows.

The President would become Australia's head of state, replacing the Queen and the Governor-General. The President would have the same powers as the Governor-General now has. Like the Governor-General, in almost all cases, the President would act on the advice of Ministers.

The Parliament would establish a broadly representative nominations committee to invite public nominations for the office of President and prepare a report and shortlist for the Prime Minister. After taking into account the committee's report, the Prime Minister would present a single nomination for the office of President, seconded by the Leader of the Opposition, to the Federal Parliament. The nomination would require affirmation by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting. If the Prime Minister nominated a person not shortlisted by the committee, he or she would need to inform Parliament of the reasons.

The term of office of the President would be five years. The Prime Minister could remove the President, but would then have to seek the approval of the House of Representatives for this action within 30 days, unless an election is called.

(This background information was supplied by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet).

Subject Date of Referendums States in which a majority of electors voted in favour Percentage of voters in favour
Senate Elections 12.12.1906 All 82.65
Finance 13.4.1910 Qld,WA,Tas 49.04
State Debts 13.4.1910 All but NSW 54.95
Legislative Powers 15.4.1911 WA 39.42
Monopolies 26.4.1911 WA 39.89
Trade & Commerce 31.5.1913 Qld,SA,WA 49.38
Corporations 31.5.1913 Qld,SA,WA 49.33
Industrial Matters 31.5.1913 Qld,SA,WA 49.33
Railway Disputes 31.5.1913 Qld,SA,WA 49.13
Trusts 31.5.1913 Qld,SA,WA 49.78
Nationalism of Monopolies 31.12.1919 Qld,SA,WA 49.33
Legislative Powers 13.12.1919 Vic,Qld,WA 49.65
Nationalism of Monopolies 13.12.1919 Vic,Qld,WA 48.64
Industry & Commerce 4.9.1926 NSW,Qld 43.50
Essential Services 4.9.1926 NSW,Qld 42.80
State Debts 17.11.1928 All 74.30
Aviation 6.3.1937 Vic,Qld 53.56
Marketing 6.3.1937 none 36.26
Post War Reconstruction & Democratic Rights 19.8.1944 SA,WA 45.99
Social Services 28.9.1946 All 54.39
Organised Marketing of Primary Products 28.9.1946 NSW,Vic,WA 50.57
Industrial Employment 28.9.1946 NSW,Vic,WA 50.30
Rent & Prices 29.5.1948 None 40.66
Power to deal with Communists and Communism 22.9.1951 Qld,WA,Tas 49.44
Parliament 27.5.1967 NSW 40.25
Aborigines 27.5.1967 All 90.77
Prices 8.12.1973 None 43.81
Incomes 8.12.1973 None 34.42
Simultaneous Elections 18.5.1974 NSW 48.30
Mode of Altering Constitution 18.5.1974 NSW 47.99
Democratic Elections 18.5.1974 NSW 47.20
Local Government Bodies 18.5.1974 NSW 46.85
Simultaneous Elections 21.5.1977 NSW,Vic,SA 62.22
Senate Casual Vacancies 21.5.1977 All 73.32
Territory Voting in Referendums 21.5.1977 All 77.72
Retirement of Judges 21.5.1977 All 80.10
Terms of Senators 1.12.1984 NSW,Vic 50.64
Interchange of Power 1.12.1984 None 47.06
Parliamentary Terms 3.9.1988 None 32.91
Fair Elections 3.9.1988 None 37.59
Local Government 3.9.1988 None 33.61
Rights and Freedoms 3.9.1988 None 30.79


Information about the Government run public information activities (including the 'Yes' and the 'No' campaigns) can be obtained from the Referendum Taskforce web site at www.dpmc.gov.au/referendum. The Referendum Taskforce is part of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.


Following on from the 1999 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Regional Council Elections on 9 October, approximately 40 Community Electoral Information Officers will visit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Organisations throughout Australia to provide information on the referendum.

This information will include AEC material such as leaflets and posters plus information provided by the Government's Referendum Taskforce.

AEC Contacts

Central Office

Electoral Commissioner (02) 6271 4400
Bill Gray

Deputy Electoral Commissioner (02) 6271 4410
Andy Becker

Director, Information (02) 6271 4415
Brien Hallett

Assistant Director, Information (02) 6271 4431
Silvana Puizina

Editor, Newsfile (02) 6271 4505
Margaret Meneghel

State/Territory Head Offices

The administration of the 1999 referendum in each State and Territory is under the control of the Australian Electoral Officer (AEO) for that State or Territory. An AEO for the ACT is temporarliy appointed for each referendum.

AEOs may be contacted on the following numbers.

New South Wales
Frances Howat Ph. (02) 9375 6333 Fx. (02) 9281 9384

David Muffet Ph. (03) 9285 7171 Fx. (03) 9285 7178

Bob Longland Ph. (07) 3834 3400 Fx. (07) 3831 7223

Western Australia
Andrew Moyes Ph. (08) 9470 7299 Fx. (08) 9472 3551

South Australia
Geoff Halsey Ph. (08) 8237 6555 Fx. (08) 8231 2664

A/g Alex Stanelos Ph. (03) 6235 0500 Fx. (03) 6234 4268

Northern Territory
A/g Kathy Mitchell Ph. (08) 8982 8000 Fx. (08) 8981 7964

Media Liaison

Members of the media are asked to use the AEC Central and Head Office contact numbers listed above rather than the general enquiry line below which appears on AEC advertising.

National Enquiry Sevice 13 23 26 from anywhere in Australia for the cost of a local call.

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