The precise meaning and use of the terms 'referendum' and 'plebiscite' have varied between countries and over time. In 1916 the Australian Parliament passed the Military Service Referendum Act, empowering the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia to hold a referendum on the topic of conscription. It was described as 'an Act to submit to a Referendum a question in relation to Military Service Abroad'. On both occasions that the conscription question was put to the people of Australia, in 1916 then again in 1917, it was described as a 'referendum'. Now the term 'referendum' is used in Australia to refer only to questions put to the electorate that involve a change to the constitution, while non-constitutional questions are described as 'plebiscites'. However we use the term 'referendum' in this exhibition to be consistent with usage in 1916-17.

 

How was the result determined?

The Australian constitution is precise about the degree of support required from the electorate to make changes. It requires assent from a majority of the electorate in a majority of states. Non-constitutional questions require only a simple majority. The 1916 and 1917 referendums required a simple majority to pass.  However the result of the vote was not necessarily binding on the government.
 

Referendums or referenda?

The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the plural of referendum can be either referendums or referenda. Once again we have chosen to use the form most commonly used at the time.

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