Are politicians keeping you uninformed about the planned referendums and plebiscites?

Have you ever wondered if it is deliberate that members of parliament, from all political persuasions, may try to keep you out of the conversations about proposed referendums and plebiscites?

Maybe they want to keep you uninformed?

CEFA believes in empowering Australians through Constitutional education as an essential component of referendum and plebiscite debates.

The current situation

Our new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has promised that he will stick with the Abbott government promise to hold a plebiscite to decide whether to legislate for same sex marriage.

He’s also kept in the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) department the team chaired by Warren Mundine dedicated to the proposed referendum on Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

A third issue revving up again since Mr Turnbull became Prime Minister is the proposal for Australia to become a republic. Prior to the failed referendum in 1999, many Australians had thought the question of a republic should first go to a plebiscite rather than straight to a referendum.

Here at CCF we thought we might revisit for our readers the difference between a referendum and a plebiscite.

Australian referendums

In Australia the word referendum has a very specific meaning and is used to alter the Constitution. The method for altering our Constitution is outlined in Section 128. It’s a very long section, but the gist of it is:

The proposed law for alteration must pass both Houses of Parliament, then within two to six months the proposed change must be voted on by the electors. If a majority of the states and a majority of the electors approve the change it will be assented into law. There are circumstances where the referendum can go ahead if passed in only one house and there are protections for each state from any referendum that would diminish that states proportional representation. You can read the full text here.

So, referendums in Australia are only for Constitutional change. We use another term “plebiscite” to describe a vote given to the electors of Australia that doesn’t change the Constitution.

What is an Australian plebiscite?

A plebiscite is a vote held on questions that do not affect the Constitution. Plebiscites can be used to test whether the government has sufficient support from the people to go ahead with a certain action and can be used for far wider issues than referendums. They are, however non-binding and this means that the results do not have to be implemented.

Plebiscites are an exercise in direct democracy. In a representative democracy, such as ours, we elect representatives to make decisions for us, but a plebiscite is able to give the representatives a clear indication of the will of the people at a certain point in time.  There are no specific rules on how a plebiscite must be run.

Since federation in 1901 Australia has held three plebiscites. The last plebiscite was in 1977 to choose the national song. Rather than a Yes or No vote for a referendum, the electors were given a choice of four songs in which they indicated their preference. Advance Australia Fair achieved the highest vote, followed by Waltzing Matilda, God Save the Queen and the Song of Australia came in last. It was some years later, but Advance Australia Fair did eventually become the national song. Because the vote was non-binding, there was no requirement for the National Song to be implemented immediately.

The two plebiscites held earlier in 1916 and 1917 were to consult the Australian electors about conscription to the war. Both of these votes failed to gain an overall majority of states and electors. If these results are obtained in a referendum it fails. However, due to the non-binding nature of plebiscites, the issue of conscription popped up many more times in Australia throughout the 20th century.

What is a question on marriage equality or a republic expected to be like?

Only eight out of 44 referendums held in Australia have passed and two of the three plebiscites did not receive a majority result. Many people say this is because the wrong question gets put to the people. The question is ultimately signed off by the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This means that the wording of the questions can be subjective and can very much reflect the personal intention of the writers and approvers and without a doubt affect the referendum or plebiscite result.

So, independently of the Yes and No campaigns, the question asked of the people at the time of a plebiscite or referendum has a huge impact on the result. This is why we all need to be informed and engaged with the debate up until the time that the question is crafted, not just at the end when the question is asked. It is vitally important that everyone has an understanding of our Constitution so that the right model and questions are proposed to the people.

What will the question for the proposed Constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples look like?

Those of you who visit the CEFA website are aware that we have a section dedicated to Educating about Recognition.

This debate seems to still be stuck with the politicians and elites, despite the great awareness work being undertaken by the dedicated Recognise team. The question is yet to be written as argument about Sections of the Constitution and the current preamble ensue. But, what do ordinary Australians think? When do the rest of us get involved?

This is all the more reason for CEFA’s essential education so voters are fully informed through education, not only at the time of the vote, but in the lead up to the writing of the questions. Let’s make our democracy work with these plebiscites and referendums.

If you’ve got a view already and want to be involved in any or all of the above mentioned debates you and your friends need to be involved with CEFA. You can sign up, join us on social media, make a donation or volunteer your time.

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