Only 8 out of 44 referendum proposals have been successful since federation. Of these, only four have changed the division of law-making powers. This is due to a number of reasons.
The double majority provision is rigid and hard to achieve. For instance, in the 1977 referendum calling for simultaneous elections, 62.25% of the general population voted “yes”, but only 3/6 states did the same.1. Since federation, 13 referendum proposals received a “yes” vote from over 50% of Australians overall, but five of these did not receive a majority of “yes” votes in a majority of states.2
Proposals are often difficult to express in simple language. When it was difficult for laypeople to understand a referendum proposal, the proposal generally failed, while simple, non-contentious issues generally passed (e.g. the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal affairs).3
Proposals without the support of both major political parties are less likely to be put to the people, and when they are, they are unlikely to succeed, as many people vote along party lines. Therefore, a referendum will have a greater chance of success if both political parties support the change.
Most referendum proposals argue for an increase in the Commonwealth’s power. The people, however, may view such proposals as simply a grab for power, and may vote “no” on this basis.
If voters are not well informed or confused about the details of the proposed change, they may be reluctant to vote “yes”, particularly if they believe that the Constitution is working well for them currently. A “no” vote would maintain the status quo.
Referendum Dates and Results, Australian Electoral Commission, 24 October 2012, http://www.aec.gov.au/elections/referendums/Referendum_Dates_and_Results.htm ↩
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