Temperance means moderation in or abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages. In the early 19th century social reformers in the United States and Britain linked alcohol with a host of social problems, including poverty and ill health. Temperance ideas were exported to New Zealand and the movement gained traction later in the century.
Many temperance campaigners wanted to ban the production and consumption of alcohol. The first national temperance group that campaigned for prohibition was the New Zealand branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1885. This was swiftly followed by the New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Traffic in 1886.
Prohibition campaigners achieved major victories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Following a visit by temperance campaigners, King Country Māori requested a ban on liquor sales in their area, as provided for by the Licensing Act 1881. In 1884 the King Country consequently became New Zealand’s first major dry district.
Stuck in a dry area
No electorates voted to ban liquor sales after 1908, yet the proportion of New Zealanders living in ‘dry’ districts grew. Electoral boundary reviews created new dry electorates and shifted towns between wet and dry areas. Many places were left stranded, with no way of restoring liquor sales. Geraldine, for example, was denied bars for decades, despite its residents never having voted for prohibition. In 1945 Parliament froze licensing district boundaries to prevent them moving with electoral boundaries. Later, special polls for ‘stranded’ dry towns were provided for, which enabled them to go ‘wet’.
Under an 1893 act voters could reduce the number of liquor outlets in their electorate, or ban them altogether, in referendums held every three years. After 1895 these were held on the same day as general elections. Premier Richard Seddon allowed Liberal Party MPs a free vote on the 1893 act, establishing a tradition of ‘conscience’ votes on liquor matters that has persisted into the 2000s.
Between 1894 and 1908, 12 out of 76 general electorates banned liquor sales, and 484 hotels lost their licences. By 1910 it was almost impossible to open a new bar.
In 1893 Parliament banned the sale of takeaway liquor to children under 13. The drinking age in pubs was raised to 18 in 1904, and to 21 in 1910. In 1914 those under 21 were banned from buying takeaway liquor.
In 1895 Parliament prohibited Māori women from buying alcohol unless married to a European. From 1904 Māori men in most parts of the North Island were prohibited from purchasing takeaway liquor.
To remove temptations to drink, most entertainments were banned from bars and women were forced out of the liquor trade. In 1893 most women who were not already licensed were barred from holding liquor licences. A 1910 law banned new barmaids and further restricted drinking hours.
As the reforms appeared to have little effect on drinking, prohibitionists pushed the government for a poll on nation-wide prohibition. In 1910 Parliament legislated for a new referendum to be held in conjunction with every general election. In 1911, 56% of voters supported national prohibition, just short of the 60% Parliament had decided would be required to ban alcohol. However, support for prohibition in national and local polls fell in 1914 to less than 50%.
The First World War boosted temperance support world-wide – the liquor trade was seen as wasting resources needed for national war efforts. In 1917 the National Efficiency Board (NEB) recommended a ban on liquor sales after 6 p.m., as had already happened in four Australian states. To cut liquor consumption, Parliament imposed temporary ‘six o’clock closing’ of bars.
When Invercargill voted to end 37 years of prohibition in 1943, a lobby group successfully campaigned for new outlets to be owned by a community trust. Eventually the law allowed a vote on whether any proposed new liquor outlets anywhere should be run by a trust. Many local licensing trusts were set up as a result, chiefly in former dry areas. Some still existed in the 2000s, such as in Invercargill and Masterton.
Licensing referendums had been cancelled since 1914 due to the First World War. Because of this the NEB successfully recommended a special one-off prohibition poll. The Licensing Amendment Act 1918 provided for an extra referendum to be held in April 1919. For this and subsequent national polls, Parliament reduced the majority required to introduce prohibition to 50%.
If prohibition failed to achieve a majority in April 1919, a referendum would be held with the next general election, and every subsequent election. If prohibition won, liquor sales would then be banned after six months, without compensation to the liquor industry. As a concession to the industry, Parliament added a third option, ‘state purchase and control’, to the ballot paper.
While debating the act, Parliament made six o’clock closing permanent. It also abolished local prohibition polls, but retained polls enabling dry districts to restore licences.
Referendums were held in April and December 1919, the second during the general election. Prohibition was almost carried in both – 49% (April) and 49.7% (December) – and polled over 47% in 1922 and 1925. The ‘state control’ option had no effect. However, the depression and the end of prohibition in America meant support for prohibition dropped to 29% in 1935.