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Advisory Referendums

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(also called plebiscites)

Not all referendums are about changing the Constitution. Governments can hold advisory referendums to test whether people either support or oppose a proposed action or issue.   They are not bound by the “result” of an advisory referendum as by a Constitutional referendum. While Commonwealth, State and Territory governments are able to hold advisory referendums they only occasionally exercise this option. Examples are: State (Daylight Saving and Secession) and Commonwealth (Conscription).

Secession

After Federation, many Western Australians felt they had lost more than they gained by joining. By 1933 they became so dissatisfied that they voted overwhelmingly at an advisory referendum, by a two-thirds to one-third majority, to secede from the Australian Federation.  A petition was sent to London where a Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament ruled it invalid because it had come from a State not the Commonwealth.

Though it was mainly seen as a protest vote at Commonwealth ignorance of the State’s desperate circumstances during the early Depression years, secessionist calls continue to arise from time to time. 

Many of the reasons underlying Western Australian feelings of resentment continue today. But the question is, having chosen to enter the Federation, can we leave?  Or are we bound, as the preamble to the Commonwealth Constitution states, by the fact that the States have…agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth…?

Daylight saving (Western Australian referendum)

In Western Australia, four referendums have been held on daylight saving.  This is an example of a local issue and highlights the fact that such a question can be put to the people more than once. In 1975, 1984, 1992 and 2009 people were asked to vote on whether they agreed to advance the standard time one hour from the last Sunday in October in each year until the first Sunday in the following March.  In each instance the proposal was rejected.

Conscription

An example of a Commonwealth advisory referendum or plebiscite is conscription. To support the war effort during WW1, Prime Minister WM Hughes, wanted to introduce conscription but, faced with divisions within his own party, did not wish to do so without the support of the people.  To canvass public opinion, military service plebiscites were held in 1916 and 1917.  On the first occasion the proposal was:

“Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?”

On the second occasion, it sought to conscript men for overseas service in sufficient numbers to make the total reinforcements up to 7000 a month. The conscription issue divided the nation and was a matter of intense political debate.  Electors in all States and Territories voted. Both plebiscites sought approval for conscription and both were defeated, though the majority of Western Australian’s voted yes on both occasions.