1999 Referendum Report and Statistics

Updated: 24 January 2011

Leading up to the 1999 referendum

Following years of widespread community discussion about Australia becoming a republic, the major event which lead to the 1999 referendum was the 1998 Constitutional Convention.

The Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention was held at Old Parliament House in Canberra from 2 to 13 February 1998 to provide a public forum for debate on the issue of whether Australia should become a republic. At the beginning of the convention, the Prime Minister stated that, if clear support for a particular republican model emerged from the convention, the government would put that model to the Australian people in a referendum to be held before the end of 1999.

Constitutional Convention Election 1997

Half of the 152 delegates who attended the convention were elected by the Australian voters in a voluntary postal ballot conducted by the AEC in late 1997. The logistics of conducting the largest national postal ballot ever held in Australia required the AEC to direct its skills and resources in new and innovative ways. Nationally, 46.93 per cent of eligible Australian voters elected the successful 76 delegates from a total of 690 nominated candidates.

The other 76 delegates were appointed by the Federal Government and included parliamentary, community, indigenous and youth representatives from every State and Territory.

The Prime Minister identified three issues for the convention delegates to discuss:

  1. whether Australia should become a republic;
  2. which republic model should be put to the electorate to consider against the status quo; and
  3. in what time frame and under what circumstances might any change be considered.

The delegates deliberated these issues for almost two weeks and considered a number of different models for choosing a head of state including direct election, appointment by a Constitutional Council, and election by Parliament. The 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 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 constitutional changes be put to the Australian people at a referendum.

Legislation for the Proposed Constitutional Changes

The Federal Government agreed to hold a referendum in 1999 and followed the Convention's proposed republic model and other recommendations in drafting the required referendum legislation.

The republican legislative package, which formed the basis for the republic question, was introduced into the Federal Parliament on 10 June 1999. The legislation was referred to the Joint Select Committee on the Republic Referendum which was established to consider whether the legislation would be effective in implementing the republic model developed by the Constitutional Convention. The Committee met for the first time on 22 June 1999, and following a program of public hearings reported back to Parliament on 9 August 1999.

The draft Bill to insert a preamble in the Constitution was released for a period of public comment from 25 March 1999 until 30 April 1999. The Bill was introduced into Federal Parliament on 11 August 1999.

The Federal Parliament passed both the Constitution Alteration (Establishment of Republic) Bill 1999 and the Constitution Alteration (Preamble) Bill 1999 on 12 August 1999.

The proposed republic model

The main features of the republic model which was put forward in the 1999 referendum were 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 and like the Governor-General would, in almost all cases, act on the advice of Ministers.

The Federal Parliament would establish a broadly representative nominations committee to invite public nominations for the office of President and to 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 were called.

Information supplied by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The proposed preamble

With hope in God, the Commonwealth of Australia is constituted as a democracy with a federal system of government to serve the common good.

We the Australian people commit ourselves to this Constitution:

  • proud that our national unity has been forged by Australians from many ancestries;
  • never forgetting the sacrifices of all who defended our country and our liberty in time of war;
  • upholding freedom, tolerance, individual dignity and the rule of law;
  • honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation's first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country;
  • recognising the nation-building contribution of generations of immigrants;
  • mindful of our responsibility to protect our unique natural environment;
  • supportive of achievement as well as equality of opportunity for all;
  • and valuing independence as dearly as the national spirit which binds us together in both adversity and success.

Legislation to conduct the referendum

The Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 sets the legislative framework for conducting a referendum in Australia. The Federal Government introduced a bill into Parliament on 11 March 1999 proposing several amendments to the way the 1999 referendum would be undertaken.

The Referendum Legislation Amendment Bill 1999 came into effect on 19 April 1999 and resulted in the following changes:

  • it allowed the AEC to spend money on a wider distribution of the Yes/No case pamphlet. The AEC was able to distribute the Yes/No pamphlet by post and other means and to persons other than electors. It also allowed the pamphlet to be published on the internet.
  • it allowed each proposed constitutional change to be printed on separate ballot papers, each of a different colour chosen by the Electoral Commissioner.
  • it allowed the Federal Government to spend money on proposed public information activities in the lead up to the 1999 referendum.