Now that every vote has been counted in Australia’s recent referendum, I can give my analysis based on truly accurate statistics. Permit me, therefore, to begin by comparing my prediction with the actual result. In my Switzer Daily article posted on Monday 9 October, “The Voice referendum: PM take note, and Dutton you have some explaining to do”, there was my prediction: “There will be 10 million votes for NO (58.8 per cent) and 7 million for YES (41.2 per cent).” The final result is 9,452,792 votes for NO (60.06 per cent) and 6,286,894 for YES (39.94 per cent). So, the NO margin is 3,165,898 votes where I had predicted it would be an even three million votes. There were 155,545 informal votes so the total vote was 15,895,231. The number of electors on the roll was 17,676,347 so the turnout was 89.9%, lower than I expected.
The headline for this article tells readers this was the fourth highest nation-wide YES vote. The heading refers to my view that most earlier referendums were not nation-wide because electors in territories were not entitled to vote – even though since World War II a significant number of Australians have lived in territories. Therefore, there have been only nine referendum questions in my lifetime put to a nation-wide vote – and I compare them now. Before I do, however, I give the dates of each occasion and the number of questions. The first was 1 December 1984 for two questions in conjunction with a general election. The next three were stand-alone referendums, on 3 September 1988 for four questions, on 6 November 1999 for two questions and on 14 October 2023 for one question. I now rank the success of each in order of the nation-wide YES percentage. None of the nine was carried.
Coming first was “Terms of Senators, 1984”. It secured 50.64 per cent of the national vote, including majorities in New South Wales, Victoria, the ACT and the Northern Territory. It went down in the four least populous states. Its purpose was to tie half-Senate terms to the House of Representatives, thus ensuring elections for the two houses would always be simultaneous, but importantly also giving the Prime Minister more power over the Senate.
Coming second was “Interchange of Powers, 1984”. It secured a national YES vote of 47.06%, with a majority recorded only in the ACT. Its purpose was to allow bargaining about powers between the federal government and the states.
In third place was “Establishment of Republic, 1999” with a YES percentage of 45.13%. In fourth place was “Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2023” with a YES percentage of 39.94%. Those two proposals had this in common – only the ACT cast an affirmative vote.
In fifth place (and, therefore, the median vote) was John Howard’s “Preamble, 1999” with a YES percentage of 39.34%. It went down in all eight jurisdictions.
At this point, it is worth noting that Howard’s proposed Preamble included these words: “honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for the ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country”. Let it be noted, therefore, that the Australian people have now said NO to BOTH possible ways of recognising their First Nations People, Howard’s way getting an affirmative vote of 39.34%, Albanese’s 39.94%.
Reverting to my history of nation-wide referendums the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth percentages were cast in respect of four thoroughly Labor proposals put by the Hawke Government in 1988. They were “Fair Elections”, “Local Government”, “Parliamentary Terms” and “Rights and Freedoms” with YES percentages of 37.60, 33.62, 32.92 and 30.79, respectively. The ACT voted YES on the first and NO to the other three.
So, the ACT has voted YES five times and NO four times. New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory have voted YES once only. The four least populous states answered NO to all nine questions.
The three proposals most comparable with each other are the two in 1999, and this recent Recognition question. As seen above, their percentages rank third for Republic, fourth for Recognition and fifth for Preamble. The same rank order applies in respect of the number of federal electoral divisions voting YES. It was 42 for Republic, 34 for Recognition and 15 for Preamble.
In my assessment, the most interesting cases are the “blue ribbon Liberal” seats in big cities, of which there are now only four, Bradfield and Berowra on Sydney’s northside, Menzies in Melbourne’s outer eastside and Sturt in Adelaide’s inner eastside. Bradfield voted YES on all three proposals and Berowra and Sturt YES to Republic but NO to the other two questions. Menzies voted YES to both Republic and Preamble but NO to Recognition.
However, back at the time of the Republic/Preamble referendum in November 1999, there were nine more “blue ribbon Liberal” federal seats in big cities, Ryan in Brisbane, Mackellar, North Sydney, Warringah and Wentworth in Sydney, Goldstein, Higgins and Kooyong in Melbourne and Curtin in Perth. Today Ryan is held by the Greens, Higgins by Labor and the other seven by “teal” independents.
Eight of the above nine seats voted YES for both Republic and Recognition and North Sydney, Wentworth, Higgins and Kooyong also said YES to Preamble. Mackellar voted NO to both Republic and Preamble but YES to Recognition.
So, what lessons should we take from all this analysis? In my article cited above, my advice to Albanese on the Republic was “drop it” but I went further. He should make this vow to himself: “There will never be another referendum while Anthony Albanese is Prime Minister.”
As for the post-Albanese Prime Ministers, my advice is the same. Just accept that the Australian Constitution is unamendable. Only if there is a genuine need to change should you seek change. For example, if the constitutional monarchy collapsed in the United Kingdom itself, then move to make Australia a republic. Otherwise, let everything in the Constitution remain unchanged. Learn from the humiliating experience of Albanese.
There are plenty of people who accept the above assessment but think it to be depressing. Maybe so. However, there will be one upside from the inevitability stated above. It will mean federal politicians don’t waste their time (and that of voters) placing before the people what are really just fads of current thought. My view is that the great majority of defeated proposals meet that description. That is why I have proudly been telling people that in my voting career there has been only one referendum proposal worthy of a YES vote from me, the vote I cast for Recognition last month.