The effects of alcoholic liquor and its potentialities for abuse have led many countries to control its sale and consumption, and (mainly in English-speaking lands) there have been efforts to have its manufacture and sale prohibited altogether. In modern times in New Zealand every Government, whatever its political philosophy, has recognised that liquor cannot be treated as an ordinary article of commerce.
The sale, supply, and consumption of liquor are governed principally by the Sale of Liquor Act of 1962, which revised and restated the law and marked the culmination of reforms made in 1960 and 1961. The new legislation continues and, in some respects, tightens the close control of the liquor trade that has characterised our law for many years, and it has left some anomalies and illiberal features. It may be said, however, to have ended an era when the liquor laws were a reaction to frontier conditions and mirrored the social and moral attitudes of a small-town colonial community.
New Zealand's licensing laws have been frequently derided. An informed judgment on them is, however, impossible without some understanding of the conditions which gave rise to them, and the mores, ideals, and prejudices of the society in which they were enacted. The pre-1962 law was essentially enacted between 1881 and 1918. Its substance was originally in reasonable harmony with public opinion and social habits. The criticism that can be made is that the resistance of extremists and the fears of successive Governments allowed the legislation to become increasingly chaotic in form and delayed changes of substance too long after the law had become divorced from social facts and responsible opinion.
A licensing ordinance was passed in 1842, but for the first 40 years of the colony's history there was no effective restriction on the number of liquor outlets and virtually no control over the conditions in which liquor was sold. During this period and until the First World War, public drunkenness was much more common than it is today. In 1870, for example, drunkenness convictions were 16·7 per 1,000 of the population; in 1890, 9·1; and in 1910, 117; compared with an average of 2·0 for the years 1958–60.
Given the amount of excessive drinking and the grave social and moral evils that it produced, the influence of evangelical religion and social reform made the growth of a strong temperance and prohibition movement inevitable. The cause took on the fervour of a moral crusade. Led by some of the Protestant Churches, which placed great emphasis on the sin of drunkenness, it also appealed to many radicals and humanitarians who were aware of the harm drink did to the working man, his family, and his interests. It was no accident that Sir Robert Stout, a liberal and an agnostic, was a prominent prohibitionist. Nor is it surprising that the Women's Suffrage Movement was closely associated with the anti-liquor forces.
The Licensing Act of 1881 succeeded for the first time in comprehensively regulating and controlling the liquor trade and in stopping increases in the number of licences. From 1881 to 1918 the theme was increasing restriction. For many years it seemed that the process would end in national prohibition. The high-water marks were the polls of 1911, when 55·82 per cent of the voters supported prohibition (a majority of 60 per cent being required), and December 1919, when prohibition failed to secure the majority it needed by only 3,263 votes.
At first those opposed to the sale of liquor fought for an effective local option poll. This was secured in 1893, when provision was made for a triennial poll in districts corresponding to parliamentary electoral districts on the issues of continuance, reduction, and no licence. The majority required to carry no licence was 60 per cent. The prohibition forces, led by the New Zealand Alliance, sought unsuccessfully to have local option and, later, national prohibition decided by a bare majority. Despite the handicap, 12 out of 76 districts had carried no licence by 1908. Others had from time to time carried reduction, which was effected under the supervision of elected licensing committees. Publicans and accommodation licences in force decreased from 1,719 in 1894 to 1,257 in 1910, although the population had increased substantially.
The reduction issue was abolished in 1910. Local option polls were replaced in 1918 by a periodic nation-wide vote on the issues of continuance, State purchase and control, and prohibition, a vote that is still taken. Areas that had carried no licence were, however, to remain “dry” until a 60 per cent majority had voted for the restoration of liquor sales. Seven such districts remain, all in the suburbs of Auckland and Wellington.
The appeal of prohibition diminished after 1919. In 1925 over 47 per cent of the voters still favoured it. By 1935 the figure had sunk to 30 per cent, and there has since been a slow decline to 20 per cent in 1963. Despite this, there were no changes in the law from 1918 to 1944. When amendments did come they were mostly related to the machinery of control, rather than the substance of the law.
Following the carrying of restoration in Invercargill in 1943, legislation was passed for the public control of the liquor trade in that city through a licensing trust originally nominated, but elected since 1950. The experiment was successful and further legislation in 1947 and 1949 led to the setting up by popular vote of trust control in other former no-licence districts. In trust districts there are no licences and, broadly speaking, the trust itself decides what premises for the sale of liquor will be established and where they will be. Provision was also made for what are known as local trusts to operate individual new licences. Mainly for financial reasons these trusts have made little headway, and only two have established hotels.
Between 1910 and 1949 the number of hotels slowly decreased. Moreover, their distribution remained unchanged, reflecting the demographic conditions of 1881. Partly to provide a means to remedy this maldistribution and partly to improve standards and enforce licensees' legal obligations, a central authority, the Licensing Control Commission, was established in 1948. At the same time provision was made for a modest increase in the number of licences, the first in nearly 70 years. A number of other useful improvements were made. Many of the new provisions were the result of recommendations of a Royal Commission, whose report in 1946 exhaustively analysed the law and the operations of the liquor trade. The Royal Commission's principal proposals, which were of a radical nature, were, however, rejected.