The only way to change the Australian Constitution is by holding a referendum. This means that the constitution cannot be altered without ‘the approval of the people’.
The AEC is an independent statutory authority and is responsible for the machinery of the referendum only. It has no involvement with the campaigns for or against the proposed changes to the Constitution.
There are a number of essential steps involved in holding a federal referendum.
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 sooner than six months after the bill is passed
2. 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.
3. Case committees are formed
In the four weeks after the bill is passed by parliament, the ‘yes’ case is prepares by members and senators who support the proposed changes. The ‘no’ case is prepared by the members and senators who oppose the proposed changes.
4. Information is provided to voters
To ensure voters are well informed on the proposed changes to the constitution The AEC then organises the printing and distribution of information booklets to every elector outlining the proposed alterations to the Constitution and the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases provided by parliament
5. 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
Procedures for voting at a referendum are very similar to those at federal elections, except that voters vote by writing either Yes or No opposite each question on the ballot paper. Voting is compulsory for eligible electors.
Similar to a federal election, polling places for a referendum open at 8am and close at 6pm sharp.
Section 128 of the Constitution provides that any proposed amendment to the Constitution must be passed by an absolute majority in both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament.
At the referendum the proposed alteration must be approved by a 'double majority'. That is:
The votes of people living in the ACT, the NT and any of Australia’s external territories count towards the national majority only.
Since Federation there have been 44 proposal for constitutional change put to Australian electors. Only 8 of these have been approved.