Let the people decide: referendums in New Zealand History

Image: Advertisement from the Wairarapa Age. 2 December 1911.

Normally, the task of writing, debating, and approving legislation is delegated to our elected members of parliament. In a referendum, though, the public are given the opportunity to vote directly for or against a proposal. As Nigel Roberts writes on Te Ara,referendums are a means for Parliament to avoid making decisions on controversial and divisive issues without public approval”. The issues at play in parliament-authorised referendums are inevitably highly contested.

The two referendums taking place during this year’s general election are no exception. In 2020, New Zealand voters will be given a chance to vote in favour or opposition of legalising recreational cannabis, and the End of Life Choice Act 2019. These referendums are the result of extended processes of political debate both inside and outside parliament, culminating in the poll of public opinion to authorise legalisation.

With that in mind, it is worth asking: when did we start holding referendums? We might look back to the year 1893 to learn more about the first popular votes in New Zealand history.

It’s all about alcohol

You may already recognize 1893 as the year the women’s suffrage movement achieved victory in New Zealand, when parliament gave women the right to vote on the same grounds as men. The successful campaign centred around the efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Temperance supporters saw the root of many social problems in the prevalence of alcohol in colonial society. They regarded the right of women to vote as essential to support prohibition and other social reforms.

A major element of the WCTU’s tactics in campaigning for women’s suffrage involved pressuring political leaders by demonstrating popular backing for women’s suffrage. To this end, the WCTU expanded the suffrage cause by founding Women’s Franchise Leagues across New Zealand to accommodate non-temperance supporters of the suffrage movement. The suffragists also famously presented a series of pro-suffrage petitions to Parliament from 1891 to 1893 which featured increasingly larger numbers of signatures from women. The last petition in 1893 carried almost 32,000 names, around a quarter of the unenfranchised female vote—making it then the largest petition ever in New Zealand to that point.

Prohibitionists also saw popular politics as the route to achieving prohibition. As the prominent Liberal Party MP and prohibitionist Robert Stout explained in an 1893, “[The prohibitionists] do not ask this Parliament for prohibition. They ask that this question should be sent to the people.” These words came as Stout argued for a bill had introduced in 1893, which would create district elections for continuance, reduction, or prohibition of liquor licenses. Votes were to take place every three years and allow the participation of all general election voters.

Image from the Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act (1893)

The final Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act (1893) came instead from Prime Minister Seddon. It was all but identical to Stout’s proposal except for provisions designed to protect the liquor industry. Seddon proposed a 60% majority for prohibition to pass, and the participation of at least 50% of a district’s voters to produce a valid result. From 1895 the licensing elections also took place together with the general elections, further linking prohibition with national politics.

The cause of prohibition grew in popularity over successive elections as New Zealand entered the twentieth century, leading prohibitionists to push for a binding national referendum on prohibition. The first national referendum on liquor licensing took place during the general election of 1911, with prohibition failing by less than 5% of the vote.

New Zealand Graphic. Map of North Island voting patterns in the local option for liquor licenses. 13 December 1911. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZG-19111213-19-1.

The prohibition vote suffered an even narrower defeat in 1919 after the special votes of overseas soldiers carried continuance by only 2%.

Leslie Hinge, Auckland Weekly News. Men gathered at night in Cathedral Square, Christchurch to await the results of the liquor referendum,  17 April 1919. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19190417-34-3.

National support for prohibition remained significant if in slow decline until the 1930s, when the failure of prohibition in America discredited the cause. But triennial referendums on licensing continued to be held, barring wartime exemptions, until 1987. Parliament finally abolished the requirement in 1989 in an overhaul of liquor licensing laws. Despite its remarkably contentious beginnings, Neill Atkinson observes in Adventures in Democracy the end of the long-running referendums took place with barely any notice. Although liquor licensing is no longer so deeply divisive an issue, it is notable that New Zealanders went to the polls 24 times during the 20th century to vote about alcohol. Just 12 referendums took place on other subjects during the same time.

Toward the present

Perhaps the most consequential exercise of the popular vote took place during the 1993 constitutional referendum, despite its inauspicious beginnings. The promise of a referendum on a new electoral system infamously began as an off-the-cuff remark by then Prime Minister David Lange during a 1987 election debate. Before long, Lange’s National Party opponents also found themselves supporting an electoral reform referendum to capitalise Labour’s reluctance to carry out this promise. In truth, neither party bore enthusiasm for changes to the electoral system to their potential disadvantage. However, upon taking power in late 1990, the National government under Jim Bolger could hardly avoid delivering upon the earlier pledge of a path to electoral reform.

The reform process culminated in the binding 1993 referendum in which New Zealand voted to drop our British-style First Past the Post elections in favour of the German-inspired Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system still in use today. A further consultative referendum in 2011 reaffirmed MMP continued to be the preferred choice of New Zealand voters.

Through independent developments, 1993 also saw the adoption of the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act allowing a national referendum to be triggered if more than 10% of registered voters supported it during a 12-month period.  Five of these public petition-triggered plebiscites have taken place since the Act came into effect in 1994. However, the actual significance of Citizens Initiated Referenda is open to question, notes Nigel Roberts on Te Ara. Parliament is not bound to follow the outcomes of Citizens referenda and chose to ignore the results of all five votes when legislating upon the issues concerned.

Most recently, the National Government under John Key asked New Zealanders whether to change the New Zealand flag in a public consultation process over 2015-2016. Part of the consultation allowed the public to submit their own design proposals, thousands of which were received. This process culminated in a final referendum in March 2016 in which most voters preferred to keep the current national flag. At the National Business Review, Chris Keall wondered whether the process involved “too much democracy”, allowing the flag-change referendum to become derailed and discredited by flag designs intended as comedy rather than serious successors.

The questions at hand in the 2020 referendums are much more focused. In the case of the End of Life Choice Act (2019), the outcome of the referendum directly controls whether the law enters effect, as specified in the legislation. The process will be different on cannabis legalisation since the referendum will ask whether voters support or oppose the introduction of the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. The Bill will still need to pass through parliament to become law, leaving the potential for further politicking yet.

Whatever your positions on the issues, remember the prohibitionists when you cast your vote—and the long legacy of their efforts. After all, they very nearly succeeded.

For further reading about the broader history of referendums, Nigel Roberts’ story on Te Ara is a good starting point: https://teara.govt.nz/en/referendums

You can learn more about the 2020 referendums at the official New Zealand government website https://www.referendums.govt.nz, including the text of the End of Life Choice Act (2019) and the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, as well as the finalised wording of the referendum questions.

Author: Liam, Research Central


Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act 1893.
http://www.nzlii.org/nz/legis/hist_act/alsca189357v1893n34394 (accessed 17 June 2020).

New Zealand. Parliament. Parliamentary debates. v.81 1893. (30 August 1893).
https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.32106019787743&view=1up&seq=7 (accessed 17 June 2020).

Chris Keall. “Five reasons the flag-change campaign failed”. National Business Review, 24 March 2016.
https://www.nbr.co.nz/fail (accessed 23 June 2020).

Conrad Bollinger. Grog’s Own Country: The Story of Liquor Licensing in New Zealand. Auckland: Minerva, 1967.

Neill Atkinson. Adventures in Democracy: A History of the Vote in New Zealand. Christchurch: University of Otago Press, 2003.

New Zealand Government. “Referendums 2020”.
https://www.referendums.govt.nz (accessed 18 June 2020) .

Nigel Roberts. “Referendums”. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/referendums (accessed 12 June 2020).

Wairarapa Age. Volume XXXII, Issue 10493, 2 December 1911, Page 5. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WAG19111202.2.22.7 (accessed 23 June 2020)