If you’ve recently found yourself wondering about government processes for amending or implementing laws in Australia, you’re not alone. Whether you zoned out during that civics and citizenship class or just never knew the difference, this guide will provide a simple answer to your question about the difference between a plebiscite and a referendum.

What is a referendum?

A referendum, also known as a Constitutional referendum, is a vote to approve change to the Australian Constitution. Governed by rules set out in Section 128, a referendum is the only means by which the Constitution can be amended. In order to be successful, referendums require what is known as a “double majority.”

This means that both a majority of voters nationwide and a majority of states must vote “yes” for the proposed change. Voting in referenda is compulsory for Australian citizens. Consequently, the result of a referendum has legal force and is binding on the government. Since 1901, there have been 19 referendums proposing 44 changes to the Constitution, and eight of those changes have been implemented. The most recent example of a referendum Australia has seen was the 1999 republic referendum, which was not successful.

What is a plebiscite?

A plebiscite is sometimes referred to as an “advisory referendum” as Parliament is not bound by the result. Plebiscites do not consider the Constitution, but rather focus on issues the Parliament seeks approval to act or not to act. Like referendums, plebiscites require an enabling Act of Parliament to accompany the proposal, and this Act will determine whether voting in the plebiscite is compulsory or not.

Aside from this, plebiscites differ from referendums in that they do not have specific rules determining how they are conducted. States are permitted to conduct plebiscites for internal matters, however Australia has had only two national plebiscites. These took place in 1916 and 1917 and related to conscription in the First World War.

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Lily O'Keefe

Lily is a Paralegal, working in our content team, which aims to provide free legal guides to facilitate public access to legal resources. With a keen interest in media and IP law, her research focuses on the evolving role of the law to navigate new and emerging information platforms.