Podcast #102: A history of Australian referendums


Ben is joined by Paul Kildea and Andre Brett to discuss the history of Australian referendums. We discuss the historical origins of referendums at both the state and federal level, the dynamics of referendum campaigns, how different states tend to vote, the voters’ bias towards the status quo, and discuss some of our favourite referendums.

We reference some fairly obscure referendums, including the 1928 referendum in the Australian Federal Territory on ending prohibition, the 1951 and 1965 Wool Reserve Prices referendums, the national song poll of 1977 and the unsuccessful attempt to extend hotel opening hours prior to the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

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  1. Interesting discussion. Western Australia was a Yes voting State until the 1948 Prices referendum, and has subsequently been a strong No state. David Black has argued that in the early 20th century WA voters were unhappy with the status quo but thought that the ‘enemy’ was Eastern States governments rather than the Federal Government, and thus favoured change. The other factor was that many referendums (1911, 1913, 1946) were very partisan and there was a massive ALP vote in Kalgoorlie that was effective in referendums.
    In regard to referendums concurrent with elections, they tend to be closer but they also lose because the Opposition marshals its base plus some. In 1946, 1974 and 1984 the ALP was re-elected but eight of nine concurrent referendums were defeated. The exception was Social Services in 1946 which the Coalition did not oppose, and was legitimising the status quo. If only the Calma-Langton report had been first been legislated, operated and refined then a referendum might have succeeded.

  2. WA often consider themselves a separate country and an self autonomous area like Scotland and as such they don’t like being told what to do by powers in the capital. Look at what happened to scomo in the last federal election

  3. re the referendum….. reasonably sure qld will vote no…… but beyond that it is unclear… some or all of wa sa and tas could vote yes………. assume a total yes vote

  4. @John – you have to remember that it tool WA 6 months to join the Commonwealth, and did vote to succeed from the Commonwealth, and have bankrolled Australia forever. It is quite an oppressed nation.

  5. Adding my little factoid re: Prohibition referendums, specifically to do with the 1928 referendum in New South Wales. In 1923, Thomas Ley, a conservative state MLA for St. George, was elected with a vote quite considerably over quota in the single PR election in NSW history. He recorded this vote with support from the temperance movement, as Ley, who earned (or perhaps concocted) the nickname “Lemonade Ley”, had committed himself to an immediate referendum on prohibition if elected. A year after the election, Ley announced a referendum would be held 5 years later in 1928, purportedly to give the prohibitionists time to make their case. The delay in the referendum confounded, divided and ultimately destroyed the prohibitionist movement. The response in 1928 was an emphatic rejection of prohibition. It has been contended that Ley was being paid by the liquor interests.

    This story, and many more, I have covered in a recent documentary about Ley:

  6. Excellent documentary, thanks Douglas. Dudding the prohibitionists over the delayed referendum would rank among Ley’s milder sins. Proponents of social control can be dangerous.
    It is intriguing to speculate how Ley established the presumed underworld links that would have been necessary for the disappearance/deaths of his antagonists.

  7. NZ’s general election will be on 14th October – the same day as our referendum. Happy channel surfing everyone!

  8. I wonder if there will be absentee voting. The question is the same regardless of where you are. You could be from NSW but vote in Tasmania.

    Because of a late surge in enrolments of 18 to 24 year-olds, I sense the percentage of votes by post will go down as under 25’s are less likely to postal vote.

    @Dan M, there should be results by electorate as there was for the 1999 referendum. I’m not sure if it’ll go down to the booth-level. It should be faster to count referendum ballots than general election ballots as there are two choices and no distribution of preferences.

  9. The procedures will be exactly the same as for a federal elections. Results will be reported by state, electorate and polling place. If you vote within your state you can vote anywhere but I think they will still track them by electorate since that’s how the AEC’s machinery is organised.

    The question may be the same but there are effectively seven different totals being judged – the total in each state and the national total. So if you’re from NSW but in Tasmania you’ll need to find a facility for interstate voting since they need that vote to count to the NSW total.

  10. The top of the ballot paper might have your electorate name and state so the AEC can group the ballots by electorate. Back in 1999, it was assumed nearly everyone would vote on referendum day within their electorates. Since then, postal voting and prepoll voting have boomed in popularity.

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