In Australia’s referendum history, only eight out of 45 referendums have passed, which represents a winning rate of 17.77%. Of the eight referendums that Australians have voted in the majority, the most significant would be the 1967 referendum that enabled the Commonwealth Government to enact law for Aboriginal people. This particular referendum removed the prohibition against counting Aboriginal people in population counts in the Commonwealth and/or State.
In fact, the last referendums passed were in 1977. On that day (May 21) Australians voted in the affirmative for casual vacancies in the Senate to be filled by a person of the same political party; for the Territories, as well as the States, to vote in constitutional referendums and finally for there to be a retirement age set for judges. (It is 70 years old for those wondering – Australian Constitution section 72(iii)).
We have seen many logical referendums fail such as the terms of Senators to no longer be fixed, so that federal elections would see us voting for both House of Representatives and the Senate on the same day; to provide for parliamentary terms in the House of Representatives to be fixed for four years (thereby saving the taxpayer millions of dollars) and 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.
Why do Australians vote against referendums?
So, why do referendums fail? Well, there is no straightforward answer but generally you can associate it with the fact that we are very much a state led country, where each state retains a lot of power - think education and hospital systems - and does not cede crucial day-to-day decision making to the Commonwealth Government.
People are generally conservative by nature and do not like change. Most referendums seek to increase Commonwealth Government power, which the general public are not keen on and prefer to let the state they live in govern them.
Furthermore, there is also the dual requirement stated clearly in the Australian Constitution section 128. For an Australian referendum to pass, there must be a majority of votes across all states and territories, as well as a majority of voters in a majority of states (i.e. at least four out six states must vote in favour).
In summary, referendums have always proven difficult to pass in Australia and will probably continue to do so in the future.