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Electoral Insight – Review of Electoral Systems

Electoral Insight – June 1999


Australia the 1999 Referendum on the Republic

Margaret Meneghel
Australian Electoral Commission


Helen Gladstones
Referendum Task Force, Australia

This November, Australian voters will vote in a constitutional referendum on whether Australia should become a republic. Australia is currently a constitutional monarchy. Under Australian law, Queen Elizabeth II is Queen of Australia. Almost all of her powers are exercised by the governor general as her representative in Australia. Should the referendum be carried, the Government proposes that Australia would become a republic on January 1, 2001.

Altering the Australian Constitution

The process for amending the Australian Constitution is set out in section 128 of the Constitution, which provides, broadly, that a proposed law to alter the Constitution must first be passed by an absolute majority of each house of the federal Parliament and then put to a referendum for approval by the electorate. The referendum is carried only if it is approved by a majority of voters overall and a majority of voters in a majority of states (at least four of Australia's six states). The votes of people living in any of Australia's internal or external territories count only towards the overall majority.

This requirement for a special majority has proved difficult to meet. Since the Australian Constitution was adopted at Federation on January 1, 1901, Australians have voted in 18 referendums which have included 42 separate proposals for change. Only eight proposals have received the special majority needed in order to pass; a further five proposals have received the overall majority of votes, but not a majority in a majority of states.

The Constitutional Convention

In February 1998, the Government met an election commitment to provide a public forum for debate on the issue of whether Australia should become a republic, and held a Constitutional Convention. Half of the 152 delegates to the Convention were appointed by the Government, including delegates from every state and territory, and community, government, indigenous and youth representatives. The other half were elected by the Australian voters in a voluntary postal ballot conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), in which 47 percent of eligible voters returned ballot papers. The Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. John Howard, MP, invited the Convention to consider three questions:

Delegates met for two weeks in Old Parliament House in Canberra, Australia's capital, and their deliberations attracted a considerable degree of interest around Australia. The delegates considered a number of different models for choosing a head of state, including direct election, appointment by a constitutional council, and election by Parliament. Delegates also considered issues such as the powers, title and tenure of the new head of state, and proposals for a new preamble to the Australian Constitution.

The Proposed Republican Model

The Convention supported an in-principle resolution that Australia become a republic, and recommended that the "bi-partisan appointment of the president" model, and other related changes supported by the Convention, be put to the Australian people at a referendum. The Government agreed to hold this referendum in 1999 and indicated that, in drafting the referendum legislation, it would follow closely the Convention's model. The main features of the model are as follows.

The president would be Australia's head of state and would exercise the same powers as are currently exercised by Australia's governor general. The existing constitutional conventions (unwritten rules) that apply to the exercise of the governor general's powers would continue to apply.

The Parliament would establish a broadly representative presidential nominations committee to invite and consider nominations from the public and report on the nominations to 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 approval by a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting.

The term of office of the president would be five years. The prime minister could remove the president; however, the prime minister would then have to seek the approval of the House of Representatives for this action within 30 days.

Apart from the head of state, the proposed model makes no changes to Australia's system of representative parliamentary democracy.

The 1999 Referendum

The constitutional changes needed to give effect to the republican model outlined above are contained in a Constitution alteration bill, a draft of which was released by the Australian Government for public comment in March 1999. Separate legislation has also been drafted to deal with the establishment of the presidential nominations committee: this would not require changes to the Constitution and so does not form part of the referendum.

A second question, on whether to insert a preamble to the Australian Constitution, will also be put at the referendum. The proposed preamble is drafted in such a way as to enable it to be adopted regardless of the result of the referendum on the republic. A draft of the proposed preamble has also been released for public comment.

The 1999 referendum will be the first time Australians have voted on whether to become a republic.

Drafts of the Constitution Alteration (Establishment of Republic) 1999, the Presidential Nominations Committee Bill 1999, and the Constitution Alteration (Preamble) 1999 are available on the Internet at

1999 referendum logistics

The Australian Electoral Commission is undertaking preparations for the 1999 referendum to ensure that all Australians have their say on whether Australia should become a republic. These preparations involve organizing a large quantity of materials, infrastructure and people all around Australia and overseas.

Australia has over 12 million electors. Voting is compulsory for all Australian citizens who are at least 18 years of age. Approximately 7 500 ordinary polling places will operate on polling day. They will be set up mainly in schools or community halls. As far as practicable, buildings with wheelchair access will be selected.

Polling places will be open between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Polling officials will be available to provide voters with any information that they require in order to vote.

Not all voters will be able to attend a polling place on polling day. To enable every eligible voter to cast a vote, the AEC will provide a number of alternative arrangements.


Electors unable to get to a polling place on polling day will be able to cast a vote in advance at a pre-poll voting centre or by post. Approximately 300 pre-poll centres will be set up in key locations around Australia.

Australians living or travelling overseas will be able to vote at approximately 100 different overseas locations, including Australian embassies, consulates and high commissions, or they will be able to vote by post.

mobile polling

Mobile polling teams bring the polling place to the voter. Mobile teams will visit approximately 2 000 locations, including special hospitals, remote outback areas and prisons, to ensure that people who cannot attend a polling place will still be able to vote.

public education campaign

The AEC will conduct an extensive public education campaign reminding voters of their rights and responsibilities. To communicate this information to the public, and in particular to key target audiences such as those from non-English speaking backgrounds and young electors, the AEC will use a range of different communication strategies.

National and state-based advertising using press, radio and television media will be conducted throughout the referendum period, and a multi-page referendum information leaflet will be distributed to households throughout Australia. A large-scale public relations campaign will also be conducted to complement the advertising campaign.

Other activities will include:

The cost of conducting the referendum is expected to be A$63.6 million. In addition, the Government will provide approximately A$15 million for a separate public information campaign.

Note: The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.