A referendum is a vote by the people. Every citizen who is eligible to vote has the right to vote on a given issue. The people can accept or reject a government proposal put directly to them.
Under Section 128, the Commonwealth Constitution can be amended only by a referendum that gains a “double majority”, that is a national majority of all voters as well as a majority of electors in a majority of the States (ie, at least four of the six). This has made successful referendums difficult to achieve.
“Make no mistake about referendums. Their results are notorious. You couldn’t introduce free beer by referendum.”
Sir John Walsh, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 1965.
The Australian people have voted on 44 proposals for change in 20 constitutional referendums since 1901. Amending the Commonwealth Constitution has proved difficult. Only eight of the 44 proposals have been successful.
(also called plebiscites)
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.