At the national level Tasmania has taken part in over forty referendums and plebiscites. The more notable referendums include two on federation in the 1890s, one on Aboriginal rights in 1967 and one on an Australian Republic in 1999. Important non-binding plebiscites have included two on conscription in 1916 and 1917. At the state level, Tasmania has no mandatory referendum provisions. Instead, a simple parliamentary majority can alter the state constitution, except for provisions concerning the duration of the House of Assembly's term, which need a two-thirds majority.

Tasmania's first statewide referendum, on Hotel Closing Hours, occurred in 1916 at the same time as the general election. Voters could express opinions on six alternatives ranging from 6 pm to 11 pm. Following an intense temperance-oriented campaign, 6 pm closure gained 42 percent of the vote and 10 pm just 25 percent, other alternatives faring badly; 6 pm closure was therefore enacted.

The second referendum, in 1968, concerned a casino for Wrest Point. Federal Hotels Ltd sought a gaming licence and Premier Reece, facing a cabinet split, only amassed the necessary legislative support subject to a successful referendum. An acrimonious parliamentary debate was followed by a 'positive' tourism versus 'negative' gambling campaign. Asked if 'in favour of granting a casino licence', 58 percent voted Yes and 35 percent No. Therefore, from 1973, Tasmania was the first Australian state to operate a legal Riviera style casino.

In 1981 the third referendum, which became nationally controversial, concerned a hydro-electricity dam on the Gordon River. Following a parliamentary deadlock and dam-site indecision (between Gordon-below-Franklin and Gordon-above-Olga) Premier Lowe received a written caucus request to resign. Instead he quit the Labor Party. His former colleague, Harry Holgate, replaced him as Premier, and obtained royal assent for the already-passed Referendum Act.

Because the south-west wilderness was an emotive conservation issue, protesters campaigned for 'No Dams'. Even though absent from the ballot paper, this option generated 33 percent of votes compared to 47 percent support for Franklin, with only 8 percent for Olga. After legal opinions reinstated many informal votes, it resulted in 54 percent for Franklin and 10 percent Olga, so Holgate's government decided to dam the Gordon-below-Franklin.

In March 1982 Holgate suffered a parliamentary defeat on a Want of Confidence motion for 'gross mismanagement of power issue and economy'. He lost the May 1982 election to the Liberal Party led by Robin Gray, an enthusiastic Hydro supporter. In March 1983, the new federal Labor government rejected any dam in the South-West. The Tasmanian government appealed to the High Court of Australia and lost the case, although dam compensation was paid. The area achieved World Heritage status under the Fraser government, although Lowe had already designated it the Wild Rivers National Park.

Further reading: T Newman, Referenda in Tasmania, Hobart, 1984.

Terry Newman