1946 Australian referendum (Social Services)

Constitution Alteration (Social Services) 1946 proposed to extend the powers of government over a range of social services. The question was put to a referendum in the 1946 Australian referendum with two other (unrelated) questions. It was carried and inserted s51(xxiiiA) into section 51 of the Australian Constitution.

1946 Australian referendum
28 September 1946
Votes %
 Yes 2,297,934 54.39%
 No 1,927,148 45.61%
Valid votes 4,225,082 94.86%
Invalid or blank votes 228,859 5.14%
Total votes 4,453,941 100.00%
Registered voters/turnout 4,739,853 93.97%


Result [1]
State On
For Against Invalid Result  
Votes % Votes %  
New South Wales 1,858,749 1,757,150 897,887 54.00 764,723 46.00 94,540 Yes  
Victoria 1,345,537 1,261,374 671,967 55.98 528,452 44.02 60,955 Yes  
Queensland 660,316 612,170 299,205 51.26 284,465 48.74 28,500 Yes  
South Australia 420,361 399,301 197,395 51.73 184,172 48.27 17,734 Yes  
Western Australia 300,337 279,066 164,017 62.26 99,412 37.74 15,637 Yes  
Tasmania 154,553 144,880 67,463 50.58 65,924 49.42 11,493 Yes  
Armed forces*   37,021 22,824   13,211   986    
Total for Commonwealth 4,739,853 4,453,941 2,297,934 54.39 1,927,148 45.61 228,859 Yes  
  • Armed forces totals are also included in their respective states.


This was one of the few (eight) referendum questions which were successfully passed.

Section 51 of the Australian Constitution grants the commonwealth legislative power. Prior to this amendment the only social services provision was s51(xxiii) that gave power to legislate for invalid and old-age pensions. This amendment introduced s51(xxiiiA), which reads:[2]

(xxiiiA) the provision of maternity allowances, widows’ pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services (but not so as to authorize any form of civil conscription), benefits to students and family allowances;

Notably, federal legislation already existed on a number of these issues despite the lack of a clear constitutional basis: child endowment payments were introduced in 1941, widow’s pensions in 1942, and unemployment benefits (commonwealth) in 1945. These payments were based on the spending power (s81). However, in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Case (Attorney-General (Victoria); Ex rel Dale v Commonwealth) constitutional questions were raised about the validity of Commonwealth social security legislation based on s81. The High Court held unconstitutional the Pharmaceutical Benefits Act 1944, which sought to introduce a scheme of subsidised medications, because it was not supported by a section 51 head of power and could not be supported by s81.

The amendment was therefore intended to clarify and enshrine the existence of a power that was already being exercised and received bipartisan support. This perhaps explains why this amendment was carried, given that it was already accepted as an area of Commonwealth activity. In addition, a “no” vote could have ended welfare programs from which voters were benefiting.

After the amendment the Social Services Consolidation Act 1947 was passed. In addition the Pharmaceutical Benefits scheme, held unconstitutional in the Pharmaceutical Benefits case, was reintroduced and passed as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Act 1947.


  1. ^Handbook of the 44th Parliament (2014) “Part 5 – Referendums and Plebiscites – Referendum results”. Parliamentary Library of Australia. Archived from the original on 29 September 2017..
  2. ^“COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA CONSTITUTION ACT – SECT 51 Legislative powers of the Parliament [see Notes 10 and 11]”. www5.austlii.edu.au. Australasian Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 20 November 2019.

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