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.
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.
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)
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.
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.