In the late 19th and early 20th centuries alcohol was a difficult subject for New Zealand voters and parliamentarians. The temperance movement was a powerful political force, especially among women – and it had helped women win the right to vote. Politicians were besieged by arguments from both sides of the debate.
The Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act 1893 gave electors a vote on the question of whether or not the number of liquor licences in their district should be continued or reduced, or whether no licences should be granted in the district.
After 1894 prohibition referendums were held in conjunction with general elections, apart from a referendum held in April 1919.
God’s or grog’s?
Twenty-four of the 37 nationwide referendums held in New Zealand in the 20th century were about alcohol. In other words, two-thirds of New Zealand’s referendums during this period were about prohibition or bar and pub opening hours. Little wonder then that author Conrad Bollinger, taking his lead from Premier Richard Seddon’s description of New Zealand as ‘God’s own country’, entitled his book about liquor licensing Grog’s own country. None of the nationwide referendums held in the 21st century have related to alcohol – although in 2020 the legalisation of the recreational use of cannabis was narrowly defeated in a consultative referendum.
The first nationwide referendum
In the referendums of 1894, 1902, 1905 and 1908, the majority of votes nationally were for no local liquor licences. As people could only vote on the sale of liquor within their own electorate, these votes did not constitute a national referendum. Electorates with a majority for no-licence went ‘dry’, but the country as a whole did not. In 1911 the choice offered to voters in the local district poll was reduced to one between continuance and no licences, dropping the option for reduced licences.
From 1911 voters were also given the chance to vote for national continuance (of alcohol sales) or national prohibition, potentially being able to vote the whole country ‘dry’. The 1911 prohibition referendum was New Zealand's first nationwide referendum.
Although the vote for national prohibition in 1911 (259,943 votes) comfortably exceeded the vote for continuance (205,661), the almost 56% vote for prohibition did not result in a change to the law. Parliament had already decided that prohibition would need 60% of the vote to succeed.
The soldiers’ vote in April 1919
The initial vote in the April 1919 prohibition referendum gave a narrow victory to prohibition, with 246,104 votes to 232,208. With more than the 50% of votes required, it looked as if the sale of alcohol in New Zealand would be prohibited. However, the counting of nearly 40,000 special votes cast by soldiers still overseas changed this situation – 80% of them voted for national continuance. With a final tally of 264,189 votes for national continuance against 253,827 for prohibition, the prohibition vote fell to 49%. New Zealand just missed out on going ’dry’.
Prohibition narrowly misses out
Referendums involving a straight fight between national continuance and national prohibition were held in 1914 and in April 1919. For the April 1919 referendum, Parliament reduced the threshold for success to 50%. Prohibition came very close to succeeding, with just 10,362 votes (2%) less than those for national continuance.
The rules for nationwide prohibition referendums were then changed: Parliament added a third option – state purchase and control. These three options (national continuance, national prohibition and state control) were voted on by electors in referendums that accompanied every New Zealand general election from 1919 until 1987, with the exception of the 1931 and 1951 elections.
In the December 1919 poll, prohibition failed by only 1,632 votes – the closest it ever came to succeeding. Prohibition’s share of the vote remained strong through the 1920s – it was 48.6% in 1922, 47.3% in 1925 and 40.2% in 1928.
The decline of the prohibition vote
With the onset of economic depression and the failure of prohibition in the United States, the vote for prohibition declined in the 1930s. From 1949 until 1987 the vote for national continuance – keeping New Zealand's liquor laws largely unchanged – was always over 60% (sometimes closer to 70%). The licensing referendums had become irrelevant, and in 1989 Parliament voted to abolish them.