1999 referendum report

A referendum was held on Saturday 6 November 1999. Australians were asked to vote on two proposed laws to alter the Constitution:

  • Constitution Alteration (Establishment of Republic) 1999

    To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

  • Constitution Alteration (Preamble) 1999

    To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble.

Both proposed laws were not carried.

Leading up to the 1999 referendum

Following years of widespread community discussion about Australia becoming a republic, the major event which lead to the 1999 referendum was the 1998 Constitutional Convention.

The Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention was held at Old Parliament House in Canberra from 2 to 13 February 1998 to provide a public forum for debate on the issue of whether Australia should become a republic. At the beginning of the convention, the Prime Minister stated that, if clear support for a particular republican model emerged from the convention, the government would put that model to the Australian people in a referendum to be held before the end of 1999.

Constitutional Convention Election 1997

Half of the 152 delegates who attended the convention were elected by the Australian voters in a voluntary postal ballot conducted by the AEC in late 1997. The logistics of conducting the largest national postal ballot ever held in Australia required the AEC to direct its skills and resources in new and innovative ways. Nationally, 46.93 per cent of eligible Australian voters elected the successful 76 delegates from a total of 690 nominated candidates.

The other 76 delegates were appointed by the Federal Government and included parliamentary, community, indigenous and youth representatives from every State and Territory.

The Prime Minister identified three issues for the convention delegates to discuss:

  • whether Australia should become a republic;
  • which republic model should be put to the electorate to consider against the status quo; and
  • in what time frame and under what circumstances might any change be considered.

The delegates deliberated these issues for almost two weeks and considered a number of different models for choosing a head of state including direct election, appointment by a Constitutional Council, and election by Parliament. The delegates also considered issues such as the powers, title and tenure of a new head of state, and proposals for a new preamble to the Australian Constitution.

The convention supported an in-principle resolution that Australia should become a republic, and recommended that the 'bi-partisan appointment of the President model' and other related constitutional changes be put to the Australian people at a referendum.

1999 Referendum

The 1999 referendum was announced on 12 August 1999 in a joint statement by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, the Hon. Daryl Williams MP and the Special Minister of State, Senator the Hon. Chris Ellison.

They announced that two proposed constitutional changes would be put to the direct vote of Australian electors at a referendum to be held on 6 November 1999. The first change was whether Australian voters approved the proposal to establish Australia as a republic and the second change was whether they approved the proposal to insert a preamble in the Constitution.

Republic Question

The question on the republic put to electors at the 1999 referendum was whether they approved of:

A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Preamble question

Electors were also asked to vote on a second question at the 1999 referendum which asked whether they approved of:

A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to insert a preamble.

Issue of the Writs

The writs for the 1999 referendum were issued by the Governor-General on Friday 1 October 1999, officially triggering the referendum process. A separate writ was issued for each question as technically each of the two proposed changes to the Constitution was a separate referendum.

1999 referendum timetable

The timetable for conducting a referendum is determined by the Constitution and the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984. The timetable for the 1999 referendum is presented below.

Referendum Officially Announced: Thursday 12 August 1999

  • A joint media release was issued by the Attorney-General and the Special Minister of State officially announcing the passage of legislation facilitating the 1999 referendum.

Writs Issued: Friday 1 October 1999

  • The writs directed the AEC to conduct the 1999 referendum. They were issued by the Governor-General and contained the dates for the close of rolls, polling day and the return of the writs.

Close of Rolls: 8pm, Friday 8 October 1999

  • Electors had until 8pm, seven days after the writs were issued, to enrol or update their details on the Commonwealth electoral roll.

Polling Day: 8am to 6pm, Saturday 6 November 1999

  • The day on which the majority of electors voted. It had to be on a Saturday and at least 33 days but not more than 58 days after the issue of the writs.

Return of the Writs: Tuesday 30 November 1999

  • The writs, with the results of the two referendums, were returned to the Governor-General by the Electoral Commissioner.

Highlights of the 1999 referendum

Some of the highlights of the 1999 referendum were:

  • of the 12 361 694 electors on the Commonwealth electoral roll at the close of rolls for the 1999 referendum, just over 20 per cent had never voted in a federal referendum before. For the remaining electors it had been 11 years since the last referendum.
  • each of the two referendum questions was printed on a separate and different coloured ballot paper. The Federal Parliament passed special legislation in order to put each question on a separate ballot paper.
  • the electoral enrolment form was available on the AEC website. In the close of rolls week, around 24 000 people accessed the enrolment form on the site.
  • the Automated Postal Vote Issuing System was used for the first time. The system used leading edge technology to automate a previously time-consuming manual process. Using the system resulted in significant improvements in the efficiency of issuing postal votes, a better allocation of AEC resources and cost savings.
  • over 447 344 enquiries were handled throughout the seven week operating period of the AEC's national telephone enquiry service.
  • in the five weeks leading up to polling day, the AEC responded to over 1 670 emails on a range of referendum questions from people within Australia and overseas.
  • the AEC's advertising was translated into 17 ethnic languages in the press, 25 languages on radio, and 11 languages on television. Radio advertising was also translated into 20 indigenous languages.
  • the AEC's television advertisements were closed captioned for the benefit of deaf and hearing impaired electors.
  • the AEC increased the assistance available to electors with a print disability by providing key information on audio cassette, computer disc, and in braille and large print publications. There was high demand for these formats.
  • the production of the Yes/No case pamphlet was the largest single print job ever undertaken in Australia and the largest single mailout. Production of the 12.9 million pamphlets took nine high-speed web presses in three different locations up to ten days of round-the-clock production.
  • as there was no National Tally Room, the virtual tally room, housed on a specially created internet web address, was the primary source of official results for the 1999 referendum. It was the main means of transmitting results to the media and other interested people and on referendum night alone, over 154 000 users downloaded over 1.3 million pageviews.
  • a total of 31 international electoral officials from 13 countries visited the AEC to witness first-hand the planning and conduct of the 1999 referendum.
  • a total of 53 874 votes were issued by the 99 overseas voting posts to Australian electors living, working or holidaying overseas during the 1999 referendum.


There were 12,361,694 people enrolled on the Commonwealth electoral roll at the close of rolls for the 1999 referendum. This figure was calculated following the processing of all enrolment cards received by 8pm on Friday 8 October 1999. 

Voting before election day

While the majority of electors vote at their local polling place on polling day, there are always a number of electors who have a valid reason why they cannot. As voting is compulsory at federal elections and referendums, the AEC offers electors a number of options to cast their vote.

Early voting

At the 1999 referendum a total of 286 pre-poll voting centres were set up. A total of 658,817 pre-poll votes were received for the 1999 referendum. 

Hospitals and nursing homes

At the 1999 referendum, 2,130 hospitals and nursing homes around Australia were visited by a mobile polling team in the days leading up to and including polling day. A total of 78,600 votes were taken by the 462 teams.


At the 1999 referendum, mobile polling teams visited 13 prisons and remand centres in the days leading up to polling day and issued 1,060 votes. The majority of eligible electors serving a prison sentence vote by post. Only prisoners serving a sentence of less than five years were entitled to vote.


At the 1999 referendum, 47 mobile polling teams took a total of 17,908 votes in 328 remote locations in the Divisions of Northern Territory, Kalgoorlie, Leichhardt, Grey and Wakefield.

In the Northern Territory Division:

  • 21 teams visited 221 locations in the lead up to polling day taking 12,080 votes
  • the teams used four-wheel-drive vehicles, and a series of different aircraft for transport.

In the Western Australian Division of Kalgoorlie:

  • Kalgoorlie is split into two sub-divisions, Dampier and Kalgoorlie, because of the size of the division
  • a total of 2,055 votes was recorded, with 1,502 taken in Dampier and 553 taken in Kalgoorlie
  • 16 teams visited 52 locations in the 12 days before polling day.

In the Queensland Division of Leichhardt:

  • three mobile teams visited 17 remote locations in the Torres Strait over five days, recording 1,859 votes.

In the South Australian Divisions of Wakefield and Grey:

  • seven teams visited 38 locations in the mid and far north of South Australia, taking 1.914 votes.


At the 1999 referendum, a total of 53,874 votes were issued at 99 overseas posts in 72 countries.


At the 1999 referendum, 87 votes were recorded from registered Antarctic voters.

An additional 69 summer expeditioners, who were travelling to Antarctica on the supply ship Aurora Australia, were given the opportunity to pre-poll vote on 4 October 1999 before they left Hobart.

Referendum day

A referendum is always on a Saturday and must be at least 33 days and no more than 58 days after the issue of the writ. The 1999 referendum was on Saturday 6 November 1999.

Polling places

There were 7,716 polling places operating on polling day. They were set up mainly in schools or community halls, with the DRO in each division having selected suitable premises as part of their referendum preparations.

Polling places opened at 8am and closed at 6pm sharp. Electors inside the polling place at 6pm were able to complete their vote but no one else was able to enter to vote.

Declaration votes

In addition to issuing ordinary votes, a declaration vote officer issued absent and provisional votes at each polling place. Electors casting these types of votes were required to fill in a declaration envelope that they put their completed ballot papers into before they were put into the ballot box.

A total of 888 425 absent votes and 106 046 provisional votes were received at the 1999 referendum. National and State and Territory summaries of the provisional and absent votes counted for the republic question and for the preamble question are available. Divisional breakdowns for the republic question and for the preamble question are also provided.

How to vote

Electors at the 1999 referendum voted on two different proposed constitutional changes which were printed on separate ballot papers. The republic question was printed on a buff ballot paper and the preamble question was printed on a mauve ballot paper.

On each ballot paper was a printed statement and electors were asked whether they approved of that proposed change to the Constitution. If electors approved of the statement they wrote 'yes' in the box provided and if they did not approve of the statement they wrote 'no' in the box provided.

The two questions posed were independent of each other and the result of one did not affect the other.

Referendum night

The counting of votes, known as the scrutiny, began in each polling place as soon as they closed their doors at 6pm on polling day.

Counting at polling places

Only ordinary votes were counted on referendum night – just over 83 per cent of votes at the 1999 referendum. Absent and provisional votes cast at each polling place were put aside as checks had to be made at the divisional office to ensure that these ballot papers were eligible to be included in the count.

After the doors to the polling place closed the polling officials opened and emptied the ballot boxes. The buff ballot papers for the republic question were unfolded and the 'yes', 'no' and informal votes were put into separate piles and counted. This procedure was repeated for the mauve ballot papers for the preamble question.

Formal and Informal voting

For the republic question only 0.86 per cent of votes were informal and only 0.95 per cent of votes were informal for the preamble question.

Virtual Tally Room

The 1999 referendum did not have a National Tally Room as it was determined that the internet would be the most timely and cost effective way of providing referendum results to the media and other interested people on referendum night.

A specially created website at referendum.aec.gov.au was established to house the virtual tally room. The virtual tally room was the official source of 1999 referendum results on referendum night and in the post-referendum period.

On referendum night, the virtual tally room received a direct feed from the AEC's computerised Referendum Night Results System to display a number of live tables containing a range of referendum results. A national graph screen also showed a graph illustrating the results on a State/Territory and national basis. The site was continually updated on referendum night as results were entered at divisional offices.

The results of the count were published simultaneously to three web centres in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. The three centres shared the large load of users who logged on to the site on referendum night so as to avoid delays in accessing information. On referendum night alone, over 154 000 users downloaded over 1.3 million pageviews on the virtual tally room, with the average user spending 45 minutes surfing the site. Peak use of the site occurred at 8pm with 5 000 users per second accessing the site. In the three weeks following polling day, more than 55 300 people accessed over 597 264 page views.

Based on these figures, the 1999 referendum site eclipsed the previous record for the 'largest live internet event in Australia!', with the previous record being the virtual tally room for the 1998 federal election.

The software and technology necessary to host the virtual tally room had been developed especially for the AEC for the 1998 federal election. It was further developed for the 1999 referendum with results screens appropriate to the referendum. The virtual tally room website for the 1999 referendum cost just over $214 000 to develop and run.

Utilising the internet to transmit electoral results is a key innovation which has been used successfully by the AEC at both the 1998 federal election and the 1999 referendum. It has greatly enhanced the access that the media, political consultants and other interested people have to timely progressive electoral results.

Key results

National Results

The two proposed constitutional changes put to Australian electors at the 1999 referendum were not approved by a 'double majority' of electors. Therefore the proposals for constitutional change were not carried.

For both the republic question and the preamble question, neither a majority of Australian voters nor a majority of voters in a majority of States approved the proposed constitutional change.

The table below shows on a national level how electors voted at the 1999 referendum:

Summaries of referendum results at a national, State and Territory and divisional level for the republic question and the preamble question are provided in the statistics section. The referendum results by vote type for the republic question and for the preamble question are also provided.

It was evident from the counting completed on referendum night alone, that the two proposed constitutional changes would fail to gain the required double majority.

The only change to the trend of results available on referendum night occurred in Victoria. On referendum night it appeared that the republic question might have achieved a majority 'yes' vote in Victoria. However, once the counting had been finalised Victoria joined the other States and the Northern Territory in recording a majority 'no' vote on the republic question.

Only the Australian Capital Territory recorded a majority 'yes' vote for the republic question.

The preamble question did not gain a majority 'yes' vote in any State or Territory.

Voting Turnout

Nationally, 95.1 per cent of eligible electors voted in the 1999 referendum.

View the Enrolment statistics

Statements of Results

The Australian Electoral Officer for each State and Territory produced a written statement showing the referendum results for their particular State or Territory. These statements certified the number of 'yes' votes, 'no' votes and informal votes for both of the proposed constitutional changes.

These eight statements were provided to the Electoral Commissioner on 24 and 25 November 1999.

Return of the writs

After receiving the statements of results, the Electoral Commissioner endorsed on the two writs the number of 'yes', 'no' and informal votes for Australia and for each State and Territory.

The two writs for the 1999 referendum were returned to the Governor-General on 30 November 1999.

Public Information Campaign (yes/no pamphlet)

The AEC's advertising campaign for the 1999 referendum consisted of national and State and Territory based advertising. The campaign cost over $7 million, with just over $6 million for national advertising and nearly $1 million spent on state- and territory-based advertising.

National advertising campaign

The national advertising campaign was divided into three main phases: encouraging enrolment; explaining voting services; and explaining how to vote formally. In addition, there were press advertisements placed to promote the delivery of the Yes/No case pamphlet.

The campaign was based around the key message of 'Yes/No'. As it had been 11 years since the last federal referendum, the campaign used every opportunity to reinforce to electors the importance of these two words when marking their ballot papers on polling day.

The campaign was based around the key message of 'Yes/No'. It consisted of six television commercials, eight radio commercials and seven press advertisements. The campaign had an early start, with enrolment advertisements appearing on television and radio on Sunday 26 September 1999. This meant the AEC could begin to encourage electors to enrol even before the writs for the referendum had been issued. Once the referendum writs were issued, the enrolment advertisements publicised the key close of rolls date. The final AEC advertisements were broadcast on major metropolitan and regional radio on polling day.

The national advertising was translated into 17 languages in the ethnic press, 25 languages on ethnic radio and 11 languages for ethnic television. In addition, radio advertisements were translated into 20 indigenous languages and advertisements were broadcast on the Radio for the Print Handicapped network.

Of the total media budget, 51.5 per cent was spent on television, 16 per cent on radio and 32.5 per cent on press advertising. Expenditure in ethnic and indigenous media accounted for approximately 8.6 per cent of media placement costs.

Public Relations

The public relations campaign was another important component of the public information campaign for the 1999 referendum. The campaign was divided into five major phases: pre-referendum activities, encouraging enrolment, explanation of voting services, explanation of voting formality and distribution of results.

The 1999 referendum public relations campaign, which cost over $223,000, included the following activities:

  • Media releases
  • Media interviews
  • Media briefings
  • Photo opportunities

Production of the pamphlet

One of the major logistical challenges of the 1999 referendum was the production and delivery of an individually addressed multi-page pamphlet to every Australian elector. The AEC was required under the Referendum Act to deliver a pamphlet to every person listed on the electoral roll at the close of rolls for the 1999 referendum.

A total of 12.9 million pamphlets were produced, making it the largest single print job and largest single mail out ever undertaken in Australia.

Delivery of the pamphlets commenced on 27 September 1999 and was completed by 22 October 1999. This gave electors at least a fortnight in which to consider the various arguments before they went to vote on polling day, as required by referendum legislation.

Key information in the elector pamphlet was also provided on audio cassette, ASCII computer disc, braille and large print to assist electors with a print disability.

The pamphlet was also available from 20 September 1999 on the AEC's website in English and in an additional 14 languages.

The total cost of the production of the pamphlets was over $16 million, with the printing costing almost 45 per cent of the total and the delivery component costing just over 54 per cent of the total.

National Telephone Enquiry Service

The AEC established dedicated call centres to assist AEC divisional offices to answer the large increase of telephone calls made to the national '13 23 26' number during an electoral event.

For the 1999 referendum, the national telephone enquiry service operated from 13 September 1999 to 12 November 1999 to provide information and assistance to electors.

This service answered a total of 447,344 calls over the operating period. In addition to the enquiries answered by the temporarily established call centres, AEC divisional offices answered just over 115,000 calls throughout the referendum period.

Telephone interpreting service

A telephone interpreting service to assist electors from non-English speaking backgrounds also operated during the 1999 referendum.

The service had 15 language specific telephone lines and one line for electors who did not speak any of the 15 specific languages available.

During the referendum period, a total of 10,098 calls were made to the interpreting service with nearly 40 per cent of these callers choosing to speak further to an operator. The language lines that received the most calls during the period were the Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese lines.

Special Target Groups

The AEC's public information campaign included a number of activities directed at key target groups disadvantaged in their access to information about the referendum.

Electors from non-English speaking backgrounds

Advertisements were translated into 25 languages placed in the ethnic media and 15 language-specific lines on the telephone interpreting service were created to help communicated with electors from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

A remote area information program was undertaken in the weeks leading up to referendum polling day. The program employed 29 Community Electoral Information Officers (CEIOs) to visit Aboriginal communities and organisations to inform Indigenous electors of the referendum process and of polling arrangements and times. A poster and brochure outlining the referendum process were developed to support the CEIOs in their visits.

Radio advertising, translated into 20 indigenous languages, was broadcast in every phase of the national advertising campaign.

Electors with a disability

Key referendum information, including the Yes and No cases, was produced in the following alternative formats: audio cassette; ASCII disc; braille; and large print. The cassettes and computer discs were distributed to disability organisations and agencies, libraries and individuals and were available along with the other two formats on request from the AEC. Below is the number of each format that was produced for the 1999 referendum:

  • Audio cassettes: 16,444
  • ASCII disc: 231
  • Braille: 87
  • Large print: 176

(AEC offices also provided additional copies on a demand basis)

An advertising campaign was run on the Radio for Print Handicap network to promote the availability of these alternative formats. A publicity campaign was also conducted resulting in community service announcements, interviews on radio and numerous press articles. The national advertising campaign also included advertising on the Radio for the Print Handicapped network in all phases of the campaign.

To address the needs of deaf and hearing impaired electors, all AEC television commercials were closed captioned and Telephone Typewriter (TTY) facilities were available in central office and every State and Territory head office.

International visitors program

A total of 31 electoral officials from 13 countries in the Asian, Pacific and Southern African regions participated in the international visitors program conducted by the AEC during the 1999 referendum.

The first study program covered all aspects of the AEC's administration and conduct of elections and referendums and ran over 10 days. Participants were based at the AEC’s central office in Canberra, but also travelled to Brisbane, Sydney or Hobart to observe field operations

The second program, conducted over four days, concentrated on polling and included information sessions on the conduct of the poll and the preliminary scrutinies.

The international visitors program is part of the AEC's ongoing commitment to encouraging communication and cooperation with international electoral bodies, particularly those in the Asia Pacific region.

See also

Updated: 24 October 2012