Winning an Australian referendum is not as difficult as people say. Here are three key factors that can make all the difference in securing a ‘yes’ vote.

After a wait between referendums of 24 years, Australian voters will once again be called to the polls—this time to decide on a whether a Voice to Parliament will be enshrined in the Constitution.

The ‘yes’ campaign launched in South Australia this week against a background of pessimism—previous Australian referendums have rarely been successful.

In 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart asked for a national referendum on establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament. Photo: Adrian Tritschler/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ask any political scientist or constitutional lawyer and they will tell you that making changes to the Australian Constitution is a tall order. Since federation there have been 44 referendums—of which only eight have passed the twin hurdles of achieving a majority of the popular vote in a majority of states. An additional 13 have been endorsed by a majority of voters, but only a minority of the states.

But the assumption that this history of failure will inevitably repeat itself is only superficially true. There is a laziness is such arguments. The past is not always a good guide to the future.

What is more important are the factors that favour a ‘yes’ vote; the underlying logic if you like. These factors include the freshness of a government, alignment against unpopular figures, and cues from credible spokespeople—not politicians or celebrities.

The honeymoon effect

So, when are ‘yes’ votes likely to win? Has it got something to do with the popularity of the issue? Only partly. It actually has more to do with the popularity and shelf-life of the government calling the vote.

The issue on the ballot will be whether a First Nations Voice should be enshrined in the Constitution to supervise a process of agreement-making and truth-telling. This might appeal to some, and not to others. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Often referendums are about things other than the issue on the ballot paper.

Political scientists call referendums ‘second-order’ votes; by this they mean that voters use referendums to send a signal to the government.

Often the signal voters are sending is about how much they trust government.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has committed to holding a referendum on the Voice in 2023. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

A few years ago, when I wrote an article that predicted Brexit in my home country, I did so on the basis of a statistical model. The model basically said that referendums are won when people have trust in the government. I got the result right down to a decimal three months before polling day.

This is the lesson I drew. To govern, you spend political capital and you accumulate distrust. As a rough rule of thumb, you lose one per cent in support for every year you are in office. The fact the Voice referendum will be held in the first year after the Albanese government has been elected is likely to favour the ‘yes’ side.

Referendums are subject to what we might call a ‘honeymoon effect’. Hold them quickly, and you are likely to win. Hold them late in the term, and you are likely to lose. The chances of winning are less than 50 per cent if a government waits until its second term.

Dutton’s doubt a help not hindrance

This brings us on to another issue, namely, if a lost referendum will have consequences for the government. The short answer is no.

There are very few examples of referendums that lead to resignations of prime ministers. David Cameron in Britain after the Brexit vote was an exception.

The current Leader of the opposition in Australia, Peter Dutton, while not directly campaigning against the Voice, has wasted very few opportunities to sow doubt about the proposal.

It is understandable that an opposition leader would want to give the government a metaphorical bloody nose. But this is a tactical mistake. A defeat in a referendum rarely weakens the government.

Given Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton’s poor popularity, the side he associates himself with is likely to lose the Voice referendum. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

In fact, many very successful prime ministers have lost referendums, and then won elections. Sir Robert Menzies lost a referendum on banning the Communist Party in 1951 and went on to govern for another 15 years. Other prime ministers too have lost referendums and then won subsequent elections. To name but three—Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke—all lost referendums and were re-elected.

What make referendums successful is when they are associated with trusted figures. In their heads, voters often ask themselves ‘who is behind it?’

Experts in referendums talk about ‘cues’ or ‘short cuts’. Voters base their decisions on who supports a proposition. If you are a popular politician, people are likely to trust you – and hence they will vote ‘yes’.

Conversely, if you are unpopular, you are unlikely to win. Given that Dutton’s popularity is negative, the side he associates himself with is likely to lose.

Celebrities are not the X factor

Another aspect of this ‘cue-theory’ is that voters rarely listen to celebrities. Last year, American basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal lent his support to the Voice campaign in a brief and awkward press conference alongside Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

As someone who has been involved in referendums for more than 30 years, I would consider this a tactical mistake. Ordinary voters do not take cues from the rich and famous.

Soccer legend David Beckham was against Brexit, as was the famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. And yet people voted contrary to their recommendations. 

To win a campaign, you need to find spokespeople voters can identify with. If you can mobilise trusted and credible individual spokespeople, then you have an excellent chance of winning a referendum.

Professor Matt Qvortrup is author of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict.

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