Suddenly, plebiscites are all the rage. From deciding on whether a nuclear power facility is to be located in your neighbourhood to the desirability of local government amalgamations, politicians appear to be suddenly encouraging the vox populi. Or are they?

John Howard’s own Liberal Party has always been less than enthusiastic about direct democracy, and has consistently opposed it in the states.

This sudden embrace from a desperate man facing gloomy polls is suspicious in the extreme.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines a plebiscite as “a direct vote of the qualified electors of a state in regard to some important public question.” Unlike referenda, plebiscites are advisory rather than constitutionally binding.

Plebiscites in Australia have been rare. Two were held during World War I on the issue of conscription, and both were rejected. The only other plebiscite was held in 1977 by the Fraser Government to determine Australia’s national anthem, voters being asked to choose between God Save the Queen, Advance Australia Fair, Song of Australia and Waltzing Matilda.

Advance Australia Fair scored a resounding 43.29 per cent of the vote.

In more recent times, Western Australians have been asked to vote on extended shopping hours (rejected) and in 1992 voters in the ACT endorsed the Hare-Clark proportional representation electoral system.

Australia was once a leading proponent of direct democracy because of the provision for referenda in the Australian Constitution, where s128, adapted from the Swiss Constitution, provides for amendment of the Constitution by a referendum initiated by the federal parliament. The experiment, however, has progressed little further.

Bills for Citizens’ Initiated Referenda (CIR) have been introduced across the Australian parliaments, yet not one has been passed despite support for the concept at different times by all sides of politics.

The concept of CIR has been advocated in Australia since before Federation, and the Australian Labor Party was an early proponent of the principles of popular initiative and referendum, adopting as part of its platform in 1908 where it remained until it was removed in 1963.

Although the Liberal Party has not supported CIR at a national level and recently rejected it in Queensland, it has supported it in the ACT, Tasmania and Western Australia.

CIR has been introduced successfully only at the local government level, but only in rare and isolated instances, most notably at North Sydney Council in NSW and Burnie City Council in Tasmania. CIR has long been in use in Switzerland, and in the United States it is widespread at the State level even though there is no provision for CIR at a federal level.

It has been argued that CIR is inconsistent with the Westminster system of government and, in particular, the principles of responsible government and representative democracy.

While its proponents argue that it increases the participation of electors in a democracy and serves to make governments more responsive and accountable to voters, opponents claim that it clearly has the potential to undermine the accountability of elected representatives if they were to abdicate leadership to the CIR process.

The measure in recent years has become the preserve of the extreme right and its distrust of politicians and the political system in general.