Australia's politicians have always struggled to get their ideas accepted by the Australian people when they have been put to a vote in a referendum. Of the 44 referendums that have been held, only 8 have been carried. The failure can be partly attributed to the adversarial nature of the Australian political system which produces great critics, but poor salesman. In the bull pit of question time, politicians are trained in the art of the acid tongue. While such a political system is great for finding flaws in ideas or belittling dissent, it doesn't produce leaders capable of inspiring others.
A second reason for the failure is that many of the referendums have been designed to increase government power to control the lives of Australians in the name of "freedom". Ever since the bush was championed as an escape from the restrictive nature of British laws, many Australians have been suspicious of government attempts to control them and have voted accordingly in referendums.
A third reason is that leadership of social change tends to be easiest when the target audience shares a social identity. Leaders just need to redefine the stereotype of the social identity with the desired in a way that encourages individuals to assimilate the social stereotype. In Australia; however, there has never been a strong national stereotype that the majority of Australians have identified with, and this has in turn made it hard for a leader to manipulate the stereotype. In the words of Donald Horne:
needs sudden shocks of reorientation within its society that will divorce it from
the largely irrelevant problems of the British, make it possible to speed necessary
changes and to develop some new sense of identity, some public feeling of being
a people who can be described - even if incorrectly - as such-and-such a kind
of nation, and act at times as if it were so. Australians are anonymous, featureless,
nothing-men. This modest anonymity reveals itself in the argument that Australia
does not run to the kind of person we could turn into a president."
The Republic Referendum – 1999
In the 90s, an Australian republic seemed like an idea whose time had come. Polls showed that 90 per cent of Australians were in favour of a republic. Both sides of parliament supported a republic. A host of Australian celebrities proudly voiced their support for a republic and the only national newspaper, The Australian, unashamedly stated its support for a republic.
In addition to the broad public support, there were numerous issues that allowed republican sentiment to be framed into current issues of the day. The upcoming Sydney Olympics were a stage for Australia to show its maturity to the world, and to have the games opened by the Queen of England seemed a little childish. Likewise, the upcoming Century of Federation celebrations allowed the republic to be portrayed as a constitutional step forward, as Federation was a century earlier. Even the upcoming mellenium celebrations seemed to be giving a sense that some kind of change should be happening.
The one sticking point was the republic model. Polls showed that 80 per cent of voters wanted the president to be directly elected by the people. Unfortunately, most politicians wanted the president to be appointed by a two-thirds majority of parliament. Politicians argued that a direct-election model would lead to a "populist" president. In other words, politicians were concerned about having less ability to control the population if power was diversified. They didn't want to be chained to the democratic process.
Roughly 55 per cent of the nation voted no and all states voted no. Rural areas were strongholds for the no vote, as were Labor seats in working-class suburbs. Wealthy city electorates mostly voted yes
Activity -Why change?
Look at the advertisment for voting yes in 1999 to become a republic
What reasons are given to become a republic?
Do you think these are good reasons?
The video uses lots of people for whom English is obviously a second language. Why do you think this strategy is used?
What emotion does this video give you?
Would you describe the advertisement as patriotic?
Was becoming a republic a patriotic issue?
How did the advertisers try to manipulate social identities in order to achieve change?
1988 - Referendum on protecting freedoms
A Bill of Rights is a set of rules, and like all rules, they can be selectively interpreted in ways that serve the interests of one group to the detriment of another. Because Australians have historically been opposed to increasing government power or laws, they have resisted attempts to accept a Bill of Rights. Instead, they have favoured freedom from government as the true form of freedom.
In 1988, the federal government tried to introduce elements of a Bill of Rights by stealth. In an oxymoronic way, it proposed that Australia needed more laws and more government power in order to protect the freedoms and rights of individuals. Along with three other ambiguous questions, the government asked:
"A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to extend the right to trial by jury, to extend freedom of religion, and to ensure fair terms for persons whose property is acquired by any government.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?"
Nationally, around 70% of voters said no. The three other questions were also defeated.
Activity - Do laws protect freedoms?
Do you think that cultural elders should have the right force their cultural laws on individual members of the culture?
Are there any rights which you think are universal across time and cultures? For example, the right to life? The right to free speech?
Do laws protect freedoms?
Which is more important? The right to speak freely or the right of people not to be offended by free speech?
1967 - Referendum on federal powers relating to Aborigines
In 1967, the Harold Holt Liberal government staged a referendum on whether the federal government should have powers in respect to Aborigines. The questions asked whether Aborigines should be included in the federal census, and whether the federal government should be allowed to make policies in respect to them (previously all Aboriginal issues had been left to the states because they were deemed to have more specialised knowledge). Almost 90 per cent of Australians voted yes.
For political reasons, a number of myths have been created regarding the legal and symbolic ramifications of the referendum. One myth was that it allowed Aborigines to vote for the first time. In truth, although Aborigines had been excluded from the federal vote in 1901, under section 41 of the constitution, any person who held a State vote, also held a federal vote. When Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia framed their constitutions in the 1850s they gave voting rights to all male subjects over 21 – Aborigines included. Legally, Aborigines in these states have been allowed to vote in all federal elections. Aborigines were formerly given the federal vote by the Menzies Liberal government in 1962.
The second myth is that Aborigines were not citizens prior to the referendum. In truth, Aborigines became British citizens when Australia was annexed by Britain in 1772. It should be noted; however, being a citizen provided few advantages. For most of Australia's early years, being a British citizen meant little more than obeying British laws designed to protect each citizen or a vested interest. These laws could not easily be applied to hunter gatherer tribes. For example, to protect women from men, from 1838 to 1902, it was declared illegal to swim during the day in NSW. The exposure of flesh was deemed to put men into uncontrollable states. Even though the law was deemed to be in the individual's welfare, it simply wasn't practical to send soldiers out into the hunter gatherer communities to force Aborigines to wear clothes. Furthermore, even if the laws could have been applied to hunter gathering communities, Australia's penal colonies were not the type of societies that any individual could be considered fortunate to be part of. To the contrary, if an individual wasn't bound by the laws, then there was some good fortune in that. Arguably, the bush was so important to the early colonial identity because the bush offered an escape from British citizenship, and the oppressive laws that British citizens were bound by.
The status of Australian citizenship was created by the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948. Aborigines attained their citizenship at the same time as every other Australian. The only difference between Aborigines and other Australians was that the federal government had the power to make race-specific policies for all races except Aborigines. This power was originally created in the era of the white Australia policy, with the intention that it could be used to discriminate against Asians and Pacific Islanders. By not having the power to make policies specifically for Aborigines, the federal government was unable to interfer in the lives of Aborigines the way that the states interfered.
Activity - Did the referendum help Aborigines?
Most Australians believed the referendum was about equality for Aborigines. Ironically, the “equality” was to allow Aborigines to be included in the race power laws that had originally been designed to discriminate against non-white labour at the time of Federation. Since 1967, the federal government has used its new power to discriminate in Aborigines’ perceived favour. In your opinion, do you think they have used the power to the benefit of Aborigines?
1951 - Referendum to ban communism
Throughout the world, different cultures have employed different strategies to defend 'freedom'. In communist countries, 'freedom' has been defended by shooting the individualist thinkers. In America, ' freedom' has defended by blacklisting communists, going to war in Vietnam, and bombing countries in the middle east. A few patriots have even taken matters into their own hands by murdering suspected communist sympathizers, or bombing apartment buildings. In Australia in 1951, the Menzies government tried to defend ' freedom' by passing a bill banning communism. When the high court ruled the bill unlawful, a referendum was held to ban communism. To the government's displeasure, no McCarthyism type fever swept the nation and many Australians were against the referendum, not because they were communists, but because they believed in freedom of choice.
After the referendum was defeated, the Menzies government conscripted Australians to suppress the rights of Vietnamese to be communist.
Activity - Was it Liberal to ban?
Menzies was elected on a platform of banning communism yet his referendum failed. Why would Australians vote for a Liberal leader but not for laws that aimed to protect Liberalism?
1944 - Referendum to extend the Government's wartime powers into peacetime
In 1944, the government held a referendum to extend its war time powers into times of peace. One vocal opponent declared:
"Now it wants even greater power so it can push people around even more than it has in the past and so the Canberra bureaucrat, who, Nazi like, have made themselves little dictators, may continue to dictate."
Australia voted no.
Activity - Government uses opportunity to strengthen power
Why might the government have wanted to extend wartime powers into peacetime?
Why might returning soldiers have been opposed to it?
1916/17 - Referendums on conscription
In 1916, the government held a referendum to give itself the power to conscript Australians and send them to war. Vocal opposition came from the labour movement and working class football clubs who, despite supporting the war, objected to the principle of compulsion. Australia voted no. In 1917, the Government again held a referendum on conscription, but censored any advertisements that promoted the no case. Australia voted no again.
1906 Senate elections
The first referendum held in Australia, and one of the few to have been passed. By 1906, the proposed amendment provided for Senate terms to begin on the 1st July. It was generally felt that the referendum passed because the average voter just didn’t care how frequently the Senate rotates.