Based on the topics of its referendums, New Zealand is a country obsessed with alcohol: 26 of the 38 referendums held in New Zealand have been about liquor licensing. Other controversial topics have included gambling, compulsory military training, electoral terms and parental discipline.
Full story by Nigel Roberts
Main image: Pro-prohibition poster, for the 1925 liquor-licensing referendum
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Referendums in New Zealand
In referendums people get to have a direct vote on a particular question. By 2012 New Zealand had held 38 nationwide referendums. Most have been held at the same time as general elections. The referendums have fallen into four categories:
- prohibition or liquor-licensing referendums
- consultative or indicative referendums
- constitutional referendums
- citizens-initiated referendums.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a strong movement against alcohol. People voted in referendums to say whether they wanted alcohol to be banned (prohibition). Many districts went ‘dry’ – alcohol was not allowed to be sold – but alcohol was never banned in New Zealand as a whole. Support for prohibition shrank from the 1930s, and the last referendum on liquor licensing was held in 1987.
Consultative referendums have been a way for Parliament to gauge what voters think about a particular, usually controversial, issue. Consultative referendums have been held to ask:
- if the opening hours of hotel bars should be changed (1949 and 1967)
- if off-course betting on horse races should be allowed (1949)
- if military training should be compulsory (1949)
- if the electoral system should be changed (1992 and 2011)
- if a compulsory retirement scheme should be introduced (1997).
New Zealand has had two referendums to ask if the parliamentary term should be changed – in 1967 and 1990. In both cases the majority of voters wanted to keep the term of three years.
In 1993, following the 1992 consultative referendum, there was a binding referendum on whether New Zealand should change from the first-past-the-post electoral system to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system. Of those who voted, 54% wanted to change to MMP.
Since 1994 referendums can be held on a question that has received the support of 10% of voters via signed petitions in a 12-month period. This is a very high number – more than 300,000 people in 2012. By 2012 there had been four citizens-initiated referendums on:
- not reducing the number of professional firefighters employed in New Zealand
- reducing the number of MPs
- reforming the criminal justice system by ‘imposing minimum sentences and hard labour’
- whether corporal punishment ‘as a part of good parental correction [should] be a criminal offence in New Zealand?’.
These referendums have been viewed by some as populist and emotive. The results have been ignored by Parliament, leading to questions on the worth of citizens-initiated referendums.