Brent, Peter: Constitutional referenda

Brent, Peter

And the rest say “no”‘, Inside Story, 17 July 2014

The author examines the history of referenda in the run-up to a possible referendum on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australian occupation of the country prior to European settlement.

Way back in the 1920s, at a royal commission into the Australian constitution, a historian called A.C.V. Melbourne had already detected a logic to how constitutional referendums fared: “active supporters [of political parties] vote along party lines; the rest say no.” Experience since then [apart from in the two 1967 referenda] has rarely contradicted this formulation.

He adds that

another clear pattern from the voting record involves whether a referendum is held at a general election or separately. The very worst performers were held mid-term and lacked bipartisan support. Those put with an election, and opposed by the opposition, tended to lose respectably, garnering votes similar to the government’s primary vote. In A.C.V. Melbourne’s equation, we might see this as party loyalty being consolidated at election time. And during election campaigns, referendums sit neglected in the background, behind the more urgent fight for government …

The best chance of success, provided bipartisan support was locked in, would be a referendum held with the 2016 election. Then the topic would remain largely unmolested.

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