What the history of referendums tells us about constitutional recognition

13 Aug 2015

Referendums have become synonymous with failure in Australia, even when initial polling shows great support for a proposed change. Regardless of whether the stigma is warranted, this history is having a negative impact on the push to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution.

The figures are well known: 44 referendums have been put to the Australian people, but only eight have been passed.

Professor George Williams, a constitutional law expert at the University of New South Wales who has written several books on our nation’s founding document, says that while there are structural reasons why referendums are tough to pass, there are also good reasons why some fail.

‘Robert Menzies, our former prime minister, compared it to a labour of Hercules—as being one of those impossible tasks. Even he, having the greatest electoral success nationally in our history, could never crack a referendum,’ says Williams.

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