In the News

The Voice referendum in Australia

Mike McCartney

4th October 2023

In the land down under: is the referendum a good way to decide a controversial question?

Later this month, Australia is to hold a vote on "about whether to change the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice" -

See the video below for more...


1. What is the proposed law in the upcoming referendum?

2. What is the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?

3. Why is it important to recognize Indigenous Australians in the Constitution?

4. What are the potential benefits of giving Indigenous Australians a direct say on laws affecting them?

5. What are the concerns raised by the No side?

6. Why do some argue against an advisory body as a form of recognition for Indigenous Australians?

7. What is required for the referendum to succeed?

8. What is the process for voting in the referendum?

9. What is the significance of enshrining the voice in the Constitution?

10. What are the potential consequences of the referendum result?

And what evidence do we have of how divisive the debate on the issue has been?


1. How have the two neighbors expressed their opposing views on the referendum?

2. What is the response of the people passing by the two houses?

3. What are the values of David and Belinda Goodwin?

4. What is the political affiliation of David Goodwin?

5. What is the statement released by the Yes campaign regarding the black-painted house?

6. What is the opinion of local Aboriginal Elder Auntie Becky Thompson on the Yes House owners' display?

7. What is the opinion of Yes 23 campaign director Dean Parkin on the display?

8. What happened to the Goodwin's house two years ago?

9. How is the referendum debate affecting relationships within the community?

10. What is the goal of the Yes campaign according to the video?

The arguments over the referendum are well worn. I have posted a summary below. After considering these, and the scheduled vote in Australia, consider whether you agree that referendums are a dangerous device and have no real place in a system of representative democracy.

Advantages of using referendums to determine political issues

  • It is the most direct, purest form of democracy.
  • The fact that the people have made the decision grants it a great deal of legitimacy.
  • Referendums are useful in securing the consent of the people for important constitutional and governmental change.
  • There is a citizenship issue in that referendums give people the opportunity to participate directly in politics and so may increase their attachment to political institutions.
  • They have an educational function, raising citizens’ awareness of issues
  • It can help to entrench constitutional change in a system which has an uncodified, flexible constitution.
  • Sometimes referendums can solve a problem for government itself when there is a good deal of internal conflict.

Disadvantages of using referendums to determine political issues

  • If referendums become too frequent there will be a danger of ‘voter fatigue’, resulting in low turnouts and apathy.
  • Referendums may have the effect of undermining respect and authority for elected institutions.
  • There is Rousseau’s and John Stuart Mill’s argument that referendums represent the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Minority interest would be swamped by the power of the democratic majority.
  • Many issues may be too complex for the average voter to understand. Perhaps these decisions are best left to those who have knowledge and the means to reflect of the various complexities.
  • Similarly voters may respond to emotional, rather than rational arguments.
  • There is a danger with referendums that voters would be swayed by campaigns of newspapers, notably tabloids, or by wealthy vested interests who can afford to spend large amounts of money on the campaign.
  • Similarly voters might make illogical choices in referendums, for example voting for tax cuts which might result in the collapse of public services that they want to see funded.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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