Story: Referendums

Most of the referendums held in New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were about liquor licensing. Other controversial topics included gambling, compulsory military training and electoral terms. Since the advent of citizens-initiated referendums in 1994, topics have included parental discipline and state asset sales.

Story by Nigel Roberts
Main image: Pro-prohibition poster, for the 1925 liquor-licensing referendum

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Referendums in New Zealand

In referendums people get to have a direct vote on a particular question. Most referendums in New Zealand have been held at the same time as general elections. They have fallen into four main categories:

  • prohibition or liquor-licensing referendums
  • consultative or indicative referendums
  • constitutional referendums
  • citizens-initiated referendums.

Liquor-licensing 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 fell from the 1930s, and the last referendum on liquor licensing was held in 1987.

Consultative referendums

Parliament uses consultative referendums to find out what voters think about a particular, usually controversial, issue. Consultative referendums have been held to ask:

  • if hotel bars should be able to stay open for longer (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)
  • if the national flag should be changed (2015/2016)
  • if the recreational use of cannabis should be legalised (2020)

Constitutional referendums

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 would change from the first-past-the-post electoral system to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system. Of those who voted, nearly 54% wanted to change to MMP.

Citizens-initiated referendums

Since 1994 referendums have been able to be held on a question that has received the support of 10% of voters via signed petitions in a 12-month period. By 2020 there had been 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’
  • whether the government should sell ‘up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand’.

Citizens-initiated referendums have been viewed by some as populist and emotive. The results have been ignored by Parliament, leading to questions about their worth.

How to cite this page:

Nigel Roberts, 'Referendums', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Nigel Roberts, published 20 June 2012, reviewed & revised 30 August 2016, updated 1 December 2020