Polipedia Academy

Welcome to Polipedia Academy, where we explain how Australian politics works.

How Does a Referendum Work?

Update April 2023

Changes to the wording, or parts of the Australian constitution require a referendum. A referendum is a nationwide vote. The most recent was the Republic referendum, in 1999, which did not pass.

Unlike a general election, there is no ranked or preferential voting for a referendum. Voters either write 'yes' or 'no' in the box next to the question.

In order to pass, the majority of voters AND the majority of states need to reply 'Yes' to the question being put. Voters in NT and ACT have their votes counted toward the national vote, but as they are territories, their votes are not counted towards the majority of states.

There are six states in Australia. Western Australia South Australia Tasmania Victoria New South Wales Queensland

Therefore a majority of states requires four states or more to vote Yes.

Australia's last successful referendum was in 1977.
At this referendum, there were four questions put to voters. Three were carried. The topics carried were about filling Senate vacancies, allowing voters in territories to vote in constitutional referendums and retirement ages for judges. The fourth question was to ensure senate elections were held at the same time as House of Representative elections. 62% of people voted Yes, but only in three states - SA, Victoria and NSW, and was defeated.

source: https://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/referendums/Referendum_Dates_and_Results.htm

How it happens

  1. A Bill is passed by Parliament

Before a referendum can be held, a bill outlining the proposed changes to the constitution must be passed by both houses of the Federal Parliament or alternatively passed twice in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. The referendum must be held no sooner than two months and no later than six months after the bill is passed.

  1. A Writ is issued

The Governor-General issues a writ for a referendum which, like an election must be held on a Saturday. It can be held with an ordinary election but can also be held separately.

  1. Australians vote

There can be several proposed changes on a referendum ballot paper for voters to consider. If voters agree with a proposed change, they write ‘yes’ in the square on the ballot paper. If they do not agree with a proposed change, they write ‘no’ in the square.

Source: https://www.aec.gov.au/elections/referendums/

Update - Payments for Votes! May 2023

Levels of Government

Australian Federal Terms

Forming Government

Three Possible Results of an Election

The Senate

How Preferential Voting Works

Informal Votes

Counting the Votes

How Payments for Votes Works

Federal Elections

Democracy is expensive. But even when a party loses, they can still reap electoral funding.

But first each candidate, party or senate group in a federal election must pay a $2,000 deposit and submit either party endorsement or 100 signatures from voters in that electorate the candidate is running in.

If the candidate does not receive 4% of first preference votes in an electorate, they lose their deposit. In an electorate with about 100,000 voters (as many are) then this is equivalent to 4,000 first preference votes. If they receive 4% of the vote, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) pays the candidate or party what’s called ‘Election Funding’. This may be a single electorate for an independent candidate, or votes collated over entire states or the whole country.

Election funding began at the 1984 election, with a rate of $0.61c per vote. It reached $1 per vote in 1993 and then $2.10 at the 2007 federal election. It has been indexed every siz months and is now worth 2.91 per vote. (Officially it’s, $2.914, or $10,656 for 4% / 4,000 votes)

Therefore, your first preference means a LOT to the parties, not just because it helps them survive the first few rounds of preference voting, but it’s worth money. 5,000 first preference votes become $14,570 for one electorate. 20,000 votes becomes $58,200.

Multiply these 4 and 5% of first preference votes by 151 electorates, and it equals $1.5 to $2.2 million … which in many cases goes to the party HQ and not the individual candidates. At the 2022 election, both Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party fielded candidates in all 151 electorates. If each gets around 4-5% of the vote, they can recoup between $1.5 and $2 million in Election Funding.

Candidates can also claim further expenses, if their expenses incurred during the election are going to be more than their automatic entitlement. It’s a lot of extra paperwork.

The AEC has made a helpful video.

Levels of Government

Australia has three levels of government.

  • Local (councils)
  • State or Territory
  • Federal

The Federal government of Australia is bicameral, which means it has two chambers, or houses. (camera is latin for chamber). The House of Representatives is the Lower House, and forms Government. The Senate is the Upper House and is a house of review.

Some quick acronyms

  • HOR House of Representatives (the Lower House)
  • LNP - Liberal National Party coalition - sometimes shortened to Libs and Nats.
  • ALP - Australian Labor Party
  • PM - Prime Minister
  • GG - Governor General

Australian Federal Terms

Australia’s Federal election terms are not fixed, but are held every three years or less. “Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House, and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor-General.” (*)

  • Once officially called, the election campaign must run for a minimum of 33 days.
  • Elections days are always held on a Saturday, but pre-poll and postal voting are available for voters who are unable to vote on the day.
  • When an election is called, the Federal Government moves into caretaker mode for the duration of the official campaign until the election. No major government decisions can be made and no new bills may be introduced (as parliament is not sitting.)
  • Only the Prime Minister of the day is able to call the election. The PM goes to the Governor General and asks the GG to dismiss Parliament and 'issue the writs' for the election date.
  • At a general election, every seat in the House of Representatives (HoR) is vacated, and half the senate is vacated. (Senate members are elected for two terms of government, so sit for a maximum of six years.)
  • Since the late 1970s, Australia has had 'combined' elections where voters elect all members of the HoR and half of the Senate on the same day. (Unless it's a Double Dissolution, which is what Malcolm Turnbull called in 2016 election, in which case both houses of parliament are dissolved and all seats in the House and Senate are vacated.)  

Forming Government

• Once vote counting is completed, whichever party wins the majority of seats in the House of Representatives is invited by the Governor General to form government. • The next largest party forms the Opposition. • The rest of the Members of Parliament form the Crossbench.

Current numbers in the House of Representatives prior to the May 21, 2022 election • The Liberal National Coalition had 76 seats. • The Labor Party had 68. • The Crossbench had 7. (1 Green, 3 Independents, I Katter, 1 UAP and 1 Centre Alliance)

Because the Liberal Party and the National Party have a formal coalition agreement, they are considered to be a single party. In their arrangement, when they are elected to government, the leader of the Liberal Party becomes the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the National Party becomes the Deputy Prime Minister. The Labor Party does not have any formal coalition agreements with any other parties, but has in the past created workable ‘minority’ government in order to have the largest number of seats in the House.

There are three possible results of an election

Majority Government

One party wins the more than 50% of seats in the House; they form Government and produce Bills which they plan to pass into law.

Hung Parliament

Seats are split evenly across parties. This would be the case if there were an even number of seats in the House (for argument’s sake, 150, and both Labor and the Liberal National Coalition win 75 seats each.) Parties would likely negotiate with members of opposite parties to vote with one side or another, to try and form a working majority. If there is no break to the impasse, another election may be called.

Minority Government

This is where no single party has an absolute majority in the House. For example, with 151 seats in the House, a party needs 76 to form government (which the Liberal National coalition currently does.) Hypothetically after an election, the LNP Coalition might have 70 seats, Labor 68, and independents and Greens the remaining 13. Party representatives from Labor and LNP would negotiate with as many of those 13 to form a majority (76 or more) in order to ‘guarantee supply’ and allow them to form Government. In other words, guarantee they will vote with the minority government to pass financial and supply bills. They would not be bound to vote with the minority government on all things, however. Note: Minority government does not mean that current members of the opposition who are in an absolute minority, can pass, or sometimes even introduce bills. Nor do they have the voting numbers to stop them.

The Senate

The purpose of the Senate is to act as a house of Review, and is sometimes referred to as The Upper House. Senators are elected for two House of Representative term. Half the seats ‘roll over’ and are vacated each election (unless there is a Double Dissolution, mentioned above). Bills that are passed in the Lower House are then sent to the Senate for review and approval. (**)

Australia has 78 Senators. Each state has 12 senators, each Territory has 4. No party has an absolute majority in the current Senate.

  • Australian Greens 9
  • Australian Labor Party 26
  • Centre Alliance 1
  • Country Liberal Party 1
  • Independent 1
  • Jacqui Lambie Network 1
  • Liberal National Party of Queensland 4
  • Liberal Party of Australia 28
  • Pauline Hanson’s One Nation 2
  • The Nationals 3

The Liberal National Party Coalition extends to the senate, so the 1 CLP, 4 LNP from Queensland, 3 Nationals and 28 Liberal Party of Australia members form a voting block of 36.

39 votes are required to pass bills in the Senate, so if the LNP government want bills passed into law, senators must secure the votes of at least three of the five crossbenchers. In order for Labor or the Greens to block legislation, they would need to combine their numbers, (26 + 9 to make 35), then secure four votes from the 5 crossbenchers.

(*) Parliament House information. https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fprspub%2F7127233%22

(**) How a Bill becomes Law https://peo.gov.au/understand-our-parliament/how-parliament-works/bills-and-laws/making-a-law-in-the-australian-parliament/

How Preferential Voting Works

Federal Elections

The Australian Electoral Commission co-ordinates and oversees federal elections and referenda in Australia. The AEC offers a practise ballot for voting. https://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/How_to_vote/practice/That way can get a feel for how it all works. This is an excellent resource. (Polipedia is not affiliated with the AEC.)

Voting is compulsory in Australia, which means the AEC makes things as easy as possible to help every person find a voting centre and cast a vote in every election.

Voting takes several steps.

  • The voter arrives at the voting centre (often a school or community hall) and is directed towards an AEC staff member who will check their name off the electoral roll.
  • They are handed a green lower house ballot and a white Senate ballot.
  • They move to a voting booth (made of cardboard) where there is a pencil supplied for writing votes. You may bring your own pen or pencil if you wish.
  • If the voter makes a mistake, they can return their ballots to an electoral officer and they will get a new ballot. Their old ballot will be disposed of.
  • When the voter is satisfied they have voted, they place the green ballot in the House of Reps voting box, and the white senate ballot in the senate voting box
  • To make a valid vote, the voter must number every box in numerical order, and use each number only once. If there are eight candidates, the voter puts a 1 next to their preferred candidate, 2 next to their second preference, 3 next to their third and then 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.
  • Some names will have party logos next to them, others might not.
  • If there are seven candidates, then number them 1 to 7, using each number only once. If there are 5 candidates, then number them 1 to 5. If there are 15 candidates, then take your time and number every single one of them, from 1 to 15.

Informal votes

Ballots will be declared ‘informal’ if

  • The ballot has nothing on it at all
  • It has checks/ticks/crosses instead of numbers
  • A number is repeated
  • The numbers are illegible or scribbled over
  • It has writing which identifies who the voter is (such as a candidate writing ‘this is me!’ next to their name)
  • There is no official mark /signature from the electoral officer in the top right corner
  • Several numbers have been missed along the way - for example, there may be 10 candidates but they are numbered 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Note: If a House of Representatives ballot paper has all squares numbered consecutively but one, then it is assumed that the unmarked square constitutes the last preference and the ballot paper will be deemed formal.

Volunteer scrutineers are usually available after polling closes, to observe (but not touch!) the ballot count, which is conducted by AEC officials.

The scrutineers may examine a ballot if it appears to be informal.

Not all states have preferential voting.

Preferential voting is optional in NSW and Qld. This can lead to a higher number of informal votes in those states in federal elections.

Voting In The Senate

Voting in the Senate has changed over the years, from placing one number ‘above the line’ or numbering every single box below the line.

The Senate paper is white, and can have a Melbourne-Cup sized field of candidates

  • From the 2016 eleciton are two ways to vote in the Senate, both are preferential.
  • Above the Line - voting by Party or ‘bloc’
  • You must number at least six boxes from 1 to 6, in order of preference. Place 1 next to your favourite party, then 2 next to your second favourite party and then 3, 4, 5 and 6. You may keep numbering 7,8,9 etc if you want to, but make sure you do not skip or repeat any numbers, which would invalidate your vote.
  • Below the Line - voting for specific senators
  • You must number at least 12 boxes in the order of your preference. 1 for your preferred candidate for senator, 2 for your next preferred, 3 for your third, then 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. There will be many boxes unmarked, or left blank, and this is still valid.
  • You may continue to preference more candidates, but again make sure you do not skip or repeat any numbers, which would invalidate your vote.
  • By allowing voters to preference a limited number of candidates or parties, their votes become ‘exhausted’ and do not deliver any further preferences. This ensures that the voter’s intentions are fulfilled. In previous elections, voters could place a number 1 against a party name above the line, and they would have a valid vote. However, the preferences would then flow in the way the party had pre-decided, not the individual voter. This sometimes resulted in obscure senate candidates being elected on preferences, even if they only secured a small percentage of initial first preference votes.

Remember this cute ditty: 6 above or 12 below, they can't steal your preference flow!

Voting in Referenda.

From time to time, politicians propose a change to the Australian Constitution.

This can only be done by Referendum. The timing of it will usually coincide with a federal election, so save on costs and to save people having to cast a separate vote.

With a referendum, the ballot will be cream-coloured and will ask voters to vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a specific question (or several questions).

Only ballots marked with the words ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are valid. Checks, ticks and crosses are not valid.

Counting the Votes

There is an old saying in former Soviet Republics. “It’s not who votes that counts, but who counts the votes!”

Thankfully, the AEC is independent and is responsible for counting the votes and recounting them where necessary.

Counting in Referenda

The votes are binary - yes or no. When all valid votes are counted, they must show a majority of voters in the majority of states have agreed to the change in order for the referendum to succeed.

Counting in the House of Representatives

Voting closes at 6pm on election day.

AEC staff, with several checks and observers, empty the House of Representative ballot boxes onto a table (or several tables pushed together).

Votes are tallied into piles based on first preference, then counted.

They total number of votes (formal and informal) are compared against the number of people who have voted in that polling place that day, to make sure no votes are unaccounted for.

If one candidate already has 50% +1 of the vote after the first count, they are declared the winner of that polling place, or booth. This does not mean they have won the seat, as there are multiple polling places/booths in each electorate.

If no candidate has a clear majority of votes, the candidate with the least number of first preference votes is eliminated, and their second preferences are distributed to other candidates.

If no candidate still has a clear majority, the remaining candidate with the least votes has their preferences distributed to the remaining candidates.

This preference distribution will continue until one candidate has at least 50% + 1 vote

Postal, pre-poll and absentee votes are not counted on election night, which could result in long delays for precise results, depending on how close the votes are.

Counting Senate Votes

Takes several weeks for an accurate result. Each state has 12 senators, and in a regular election cycle, six of those will be up for election.

As states have different population sizes, the number of votes a senate candidate must receive to be elected (a quota) varies.

A senator in NSW during the 2019 election needed 670,761 votes to secure a quota (or half that in 2016 when all 12 senators were up for election in a double dissolution.)

At the same election, a senator in Tasmania needs 50,285 votes to secure a quota and just over 26,000 in 2016’s double-dissolution election.

This is why a candidate’s position on the ‘party senate ticket’ is so important. Candidates in first and second position for a major party are almost guaranteed to get a quota, as senate votes above the line are allocated based on the position a candidate holds on the ‘party ticket’.

If the party receives a quota, the first candidate on the ticket is elected to the senate. If the party earns a second quota, the second candidate is then elected.

(Voting below the line in the Senate means a voter can vote for their favourite person within a party, and their preferences will flow exactly as they want them until they are exhausted. Lisa Singh, a Labor senator from Tasmania, was elected this way in 2016.)

Things get complicated if a candidate or party receives more votes than required for a quota. This happens when a party receives enough quotas to elect the first two candidates on a ticket, but not enough for the third.

Those surplus votes are then redistributed at a value of their surplus votes divided by their total ballot papers.

For example, if a party needs 50,000 votes for a quota, they elect the first two candidates and the surplus 20,000 votes is distributed at a value of 20,000 votes / 100,000 ballot papers or 0.2 . Here is a far more detailed explanation of the Senate count process, courtesy of the AEC. https://www.aec.gov.au/voting/counting/files/senate-count-process.pdf

All content here curated by Ebony McKenna, Cert IV Training and Assessment, Box Hill Tafe.