A referendum (plural: referendums or referenda) is a direct vote in which the people of Australia (or states and territories) are invited to vote on a particular proposal; held to approve parliament-proposed changes to the Constitution of Australia or to the constitutions of states and territories. Votes conducted on non-constitutional issues are usually referred to as plebiscites.
In accordance with the Referendums Act 1998, the Northern Territory Electoral Commission (NTEC) is the authority legislated to undertake a referendum in the Northern Territory.
A referendum takes place on the motion of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly that a question be put to electors. The writ is issued by the Administrator to the Electoral Commissioner who must make appropriate arrangements to conduct the referendum.
The key stages in a referendum from the issue of the writ are:
- Publish notices, including the writ, as provided for in the legislation.
- Close the electoral roll and prepare the certified list of electors.
- Distribute to electors the arguments for and against the referendum question.
- Determine locations and arrange for mobile voting.
- Establish arrangements for, and undertake early voting, election day voting and declaration voting including un-enrolled, postal and absent voting.
- Determine and declare the result of the election.
- Return the writ and undertake post-election tasks; including the investigation of non-voters.
Provision is made in the Act that a referendum can take place at the same time as a Northern Territory Legislative Assembly election or federal election. In the latter case, the Act provides that officers of the Commonwealth can undertake tasks detailed in the legislation and adopt election procedures and materials used at the federal election.
History of referendums in the NT
Early plebiscites held in the Northern Territory were the military service plebiscites held in 1916 and 1917.
In 1977 an Australian Referendum was held on 21 May and contained four referendum questions and one non-binding plebiscite. Only electors in the six states could vote at the referendum; however, voters in the territories were able to vote on the plebiscite.
The questions were:
- It is proposed to alter the Constitution to ensure that Senate elections are held at the same time as House of Representatives elections. Do you approve the proposed law?
- It is proposed to alter the Constitution to ensure as far as practicable that a casual vacancy in the Senate is filled by a person of the same political party as the Senator chosen by the people and for the balance of their term. Do you approve the proposed law?
- It is proposed to alter the Constitution so as to allow electors in the territories, as well as electors in the states, to vote at referendums on proposed laws to alter the Constitution. Do you approve the proposed law?
- It is proposed to alter the Constitution so as to provide for retiring ages for judges of federal courts. Do you approve the proposed law?
As an additional question the voters were polled on which song they would prefer to be played as the de facto national anthem (in place of 'God Save the Queen'). Voting on this question was not compulsory.
Since the 1977 amendment was carried, voters of the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory have been eligible to vote in referendums. Territory votes are counted towards the national total but the Territories do not count as states for the purpose of the requirement for a majority of states.
Types of referendums
Northern Territory referendums
The Northern Territory Legislative Assembly passed referendum legislation in 1998:
This legislation allows for the conduct of a referendum only for or in relation to a matter specified under section 35 of the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 of the Commonwealth, which refers to ‘the matters in respect of which the Ministers of the Territory are to have executive authority’.
The Australian Constitution can be amended only with the approval of Australian voters. Voting in a constitutional referendum is compulsory for enrolled voters. For a referendum to pass, a double majority must be achieved. That is:
- a national majority of voters in the states and territories
- a majority of voters in a majority of the states (i.e. at least four out of six states)
Voters in the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory have only had the right to vote in constitutional referendums since an amendment to the Australian Constitution was passed in 1977. Territory voters are counted towards the national total but the Territories do not count as states for the purpose of the requirement for a majority of states.
In Australia, a plebiscite (also known as an advisory referendum) is used to decide a national question that does not affect the Constitution. It can be used to test whether the government has sufficient support from the people to go ahead with a proposed action. Unlike a referendum, the decision reached in a plebiscite does not have any legal force.
A plebiscite is not defined in the Australian Constitution, the Electoral Act or the Referendums Act. A plebiscite can also be referred to as a simple national vote.
Statehood Referendum - 3 October 1998
A referendum was held in the Northern Territory on Saturday, 3 October 1998, to decide whether the Territory should become a State of the Commonwealth of Australia.
A total of 94,011 Territorians voted in the referendum which was narrowly defeated (YES case - 44,702 votes; 48.1% | NO case - 48,241; 51.9%) There were also 1,068 informal votes.
Since 1901 there have been 19 referendums, proposing 44 changes to the Constitution; only eight changes have been agreed to.