The nation is bracing itself for an imminent, non-binding, non-compulsory postal plebiscite on marriage equality. This is not Australia’s first plebiscite on an important issue of national interest. Our own history calls the necessity of this plebiscite into question, and shows that a postal vote regarding marriage equality signals a new era in Australian plebiscites.
Australians are familiar with referenda: the national vote required in order to amend the Australian Constitution. A plebiscite is a different beast. This national vote is entirely non-binding on legislators. It might be compared to a government-sponsored national opinion poll.
Australians have taken part in three sets of plebiscites. These concerned federation, conscription and the national anthem.
Nationhood, War and Songs
The first series of plebiscites took place in the final years of the 19th century across the colonies that would become states. The ‘Yes’ vote in 1898 was not by a sufficiently significant margin to carry in NSW, but that margin was strengthened when the question was again put to the people in 1900 – and we all know the outcome of the campaign for federation.
The second set of plebiscites concerned the issue of conscription in WWI. In 1916, as support for the Great War declined, Australia struggled to meet its troop supply commitments. The question was put to the people of Australia:
Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?
Then Governor General, Sir Ronald Ferguson, did not see the plebiscite as a valid device to resolve the political tension, calling it: ‘a first-class error for which the state of politics and society is more responsible than the Prime Minister.’ In 1916 the people voted against conscription by a narrow majority, with a 51.6% ‘No’ vote.
Enlistments continued to fall as Billy Hughes succeeded in his first election as Prime Minister in 1917, campaigning on a promise to introduce conscription only if backed by another plebiscite. So Australians returned to the polls, this time facing the more ambiguous question:
Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Australian Imperial Forces overseas?
Again the ‘No’ vote won the day, this time by a stronger margin of 53.8%. This would not be the last time the people went to the polling booth to reiterate a point to the government.
The most recent plebiscite concerned the selection of the National Song in 1977. In 1974, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) conducted a poll of 60,000 people to determine the preferred song, choosing from Advanced Australia Fair, Waltzing Matilda and Song of Australia. At the time this was one of the most expansive polls of the Australian people. Advance Australia Fair was the preferred choice. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam declared it to be the national anthem on 8 April 1974.
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