The next decade saw persistent attempts to secure from the General Assembly legislation that would allow residents of a district to determine whether or not they wished liquor to be sold there. Between 1871 and 1873 nearly 100 petitions, with 30,000 signatures, were presented to the Assembly praying for such legislation. The result was the Licensing Act of 1873, under which liquor sales could be prohibited in a district if this were demanded by a petition signed by two-thirds of its residents. Although a weak measure, the Act was the first stage in the process that was to make the granting of licences, and eventually the question of national prohibition, subject to popular vote. The legislation was drafted by Sir William Fox, who was then Prime Minister. Fox was a fervent advocate of complete prohibition and the first important public figure in New Zealand to be identified with the movement. He was at that stage an extremist on the liquor question, but during the 1870s the temperance movement as a whole was becoming increasingly identified with the demand for total prohibition.
This was probably inevitable in New Zealand at that time. The unrelieved rigours of pioneering life, the opportunities for the production of inferior and highly intoxicating liquor, and the unsettled period of the Maori Wars were conditions that made for hard drinking, and there was inevitably a strong reaction. Drunkenness was commonplace, as contemporary newspapers testify in reports of accidents, deaths, and domestic tragedies. It is scarcely surprising that the extreme demand for total prohibition overwhelmed the gentler, but more reasonable arguments of the temperance reformers.
The 1887 Licensing Act, although the work of a Government anxious to stave off demands for more radical legislation on the liquor question, was a measure that gave the prohibitionists ample scope for their efforts for almost a decade. Under the Act licences were to be issued at the discretion of committees comprising the Resident Magistrate of the district and five others elected by ratepayers. No new licences might be granted unless the ratepayers had determined by majority vote whether the number of licences in the district might be increased. Polls on this question and the elections of committees were held in 1881. Interest in the country generally was not great, and only about one-fifth of those eligible to vote did so. It was clear from this that there was no general disposition to use the vote as a means of achieving licensing reform.
The prohibitionists achieved some notable successes using the machinery set up by the Act. It was established by a series of Court decisions that a committee could, provided it acted in accordance with the law and without predetermination, refuse each application for a licence at the annual meeting and thus abolish the legal sale of liquor in the district. This was done in Roslyn, a suburb of Dunedin, in 1891.
Nevertheless, the prohibitionists failed during the 1880s to make full use of the discretionary powers of licensing committees under the 1881 Act. It was difficult to get prohibitionists elected to committees at all. The veto powers of committees were weakened by their being confined to granting new licences only, and throughout the eighties prohibitionists campaigned to extend the licensing polls to cover the reduction and abolition of licences. But the most serious deterrent to decisive action by committees was the threat of costs from successfully challenged decisions in the Courts. Not all committees were as fortunate as that of Roslyn, whose action was upheld in the Courts. The most controversial case was that of the Sydenham (Christchurch) Licensing Committee which, after a hard-fought battle, was elected with a majority of prohibitionists. The chairman was the Rev. Leonard Isitt, one of the leading prohibitionists of the time. Isitt was assisted in the campaign by T. E. Taylor, then a young man, and later to earn a national reputation as a brilliant debater and the chief spokesman for the prohibition cause in Parliament. The Sydenham Licensing Committee refused to renew any of the eight licences in the district. The decision was challenged in the Courts, which ruled against the committee. The decision was reversed on appeal, but the Supreme Court finally ruled for the licensees, finding that a majority of the committee had acted “from bias and predetermination” and had not considered the matter “honestly in a judicial spirit”. This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the members of the committee had to pay 700 in costs. This, and other similar cases, deterred committees from vigorous use of their powers in pursuit of prohibition principles.
To compensate for these setbacks in the campaigns of the prohibitionists, the triennial elections of licensing committees were strengthening the belief that popular control of the liquor trade could be achieved. The extension of this control was the principle demand of the prohibition forces during the 1880s.