Fast facts: The 1999 Referendum

Background

One hundred years ago Australia was divided into six separate colonies instead of being one nation. To decide whether to join together, representatives from each of the colonies met at a number of special meetings called constitutional conventions. They discussed how to go about joining together into one nation. When they had worked out what they wanted, they wrote a constitution.

The constitution described how the parliaments and governments of the new nation would work. The monarch of England was named as the head of state for Australia and was to be represented in Australia by a Governor General. Voters throughout the colonies voted in two referendums on whether to join together in a federation of states. The first referendum failed, but the second one passed, and Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901. More information about Federation is in the Discovering Democracy upper primary unit The People Make a Nation and the middle secondary unit Making a Nation

What is a referendum?

In order to change the Australian Constitution, all voters must have the opportunity to have a say. The word referendum refers to voting for or against a suggested change to the Constitution. Here is what happens:

  • the Commonwealth Parliament has to pass a bill to change the Constitution

  • voters have to vote whether to approve the bill or not

  • a change can happen only if there is a double majority. A double majority is when a majority (more than half) of voters in Australia AND a majority of states vote 'yes' for the change.

The 1999 referendum

The 1999 referendum was about whether or not Australia should become a republic. On 6 November, voters were asked this question:

Do you approve of an Act to alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament?

Voters were asked to vote 'yes' or 'no'. Note that the question asked not only about the republic but also about how the president should be chosen. This way of choosing a President was worked out at the Constitutional Convention in February 1998.

In this referendum, voters also decided whether to add a new Preamble to the Constitution. A Preamble is an introduction to the Constitution and is not a legal part of the Constitution. The proposed new Preamble had been presented and people throughout Australia had commented on it. The proposed Preamble was:

'With hope in God, the Commonwealth of Australia is constituted as a democracy with a federal system of government to serve the common good.We the Australian people commit ourselves to this Constitution: proud that a unity has been forged by Australians from many ancestries; never forgetting the sacrifices of all who defended our country and our liberty in time of war; upholding freedom, tolerance, individual dignity and the rule of law; honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation's first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country; recognising the nation-building contribution of generations of immigrants; mindful of our responsibility to protect our unique natural environment; supportive of achievement as well as equality of opportunity for all; and valuing independence as dearly as the national spirit which binds us together in both adversity and success'

Deciding results

The vote on becoming a republic and the vote on including a new preamble to the Constitution were completely separate. The vote on one issue did not affect the vote on the other.

After the voting was over, the Australian Electoral Commission counted the votes for each of the proposals separately. If a majority (more than half) of the voters in Australia had voted 'yes' and if more than half the states had voted 'yes', then the proposal would have passed. Both these majorities had to happen. This is called a double majority.

A Double Majority

A double majority requires two things: more than half the voters throughout Australia vote 'yes' to the change PLUS more than half the voters in at least four out of the six States vote 'yes' to the change. The two Territories are not included in this count.

So far, Australia has held 44 referendums and 8 have been passed. If a majority of people voted 'yes' in the referendum on the republic, we would have as Head of State an Australian president appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament instead of the Queen or King of England and the Governor General. We would have become a republic on the 100th anniversary or centenary of Federation on 1 January 2001. However, a majority of people voted 'no' in the referendum, so there were no changes to the Constitution.

Click the top image: More than half the voters in Australia must vote YES.

Click the bottom image: More than half the voters in more than half the states must vote YES.

More information

The Commonwealth Government published material for voters giving arguments both for and against the republic. A group of experts has been appointed to make sure all the arguments are fair, correct and represent various points of view. There were national campaigns by groups arguing for 'yes' or 'no'. People in Parliament prepared official arguments both for and against the republic and this information was distributed to voters before the referendum. More information is available on these websites:

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