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The other referendum of 1967

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Tuesday, 13 June 2017


It is often forgotten that there were two referenda in 1967, one of which was successful and the other one which failed.  The one which failed has had as important implications for the workings of government in Australia as the one which succeeded.  It was a referendum to break the nexus between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

As the constitution stands the number of members of the House of Representatives is set down as being twice the number of Senators.  At the present point of time, this means that there are 150 members of the House of Representatives and 76 Senators.

If the number of members of the House of Representatives was to be increased, as it was in 1949 and 1984, then the number of Senators has to be increased proportionately.  So, if we had an increase to say 180 MHRs, then we would need to increase the number of senators to 90, which would mean probably an extra two senators per state.

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Now, Tasmania has only 5 MHRs, and that is also guaranteed by the Constitution.  But that number would not increase, meaning that it would have 5 MHRs and 14 senators.  South Australia also has more senators than MHRs (currently eleven).

The population of Australia has increased sixfold since 1901 and yet the number of MHRs has only doubled.  This has enormous implications for the size of electorates and the capacity of a member to provide proper representation for his or her constituents.  One must ask: why hasn’t the House of Representatives grown in accordance with the growth in population?

One cannot but suspect that the nexus must bear a great deal of the responsibility.  If we now had 250 MHRs, as would reasonable on population figures, we would also have 125 senators.  That would mean twenty senators from Tasmania!  And, with proportional representation being used to elect them, that would raise the possibility of many more Jacqui Lambies, Pauline Hansons and Derryn Hinches simply because it would involve smaller quotas being required to elect a senator.

It seems to be so much easier just to make the number of people an MHR has to represent increase, and increase, and increase.

On the other hand, it is worth pointing out that a larger House of Representatives should also have the advantage that it would be much more difficult for political parties to control their members and ‘discipline and punish’ them.  In theory, a larger House of Representatives should mean greater independence for individual members.

The 1967 referendum failure has had enormous effects and it seems to have prevented the proper growth of representation for the people of Australia.  The real problem is that to break the nexus requires a referendum and as the disparity in size between the various states grows so the possibility of such a referendum being passed will become even less likely.  Tasmania and South Australia will instinctively vote NO, and so it only requires one other state to vote NO to prevent it happening.

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In 1967, only New South Wales voted YES to the referendum.  Tasmania and Western Australia voted 70% NO while both Victoria and South Australia voted over 66% in opposition to the referendum.  Queensland voted 44% in favour.

What is interesting is that these numbers reflect, to a certain extent, the levels of support for federation in the 1898 referendum, where New South Wales had the largest vote against federation and Queensland the second largest.

In the case of New South Wales this opposition meant that the Premier, George Reid, who was concerned about the anti-democratic aspects of the Federation Bill, had to tread very carefully, leading to the famous Yes/No speech.  Reid’s democratic concerns were focused on the concessions which needed to be made to the smaller states to make federation possible.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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