After the Second World War Parliament extended the use of referendums to questions other than liquor licensing. Referendums are a means for Parliament to avoid making decisions on controversial and divisive issues without clear public approval. They invariably involve politically thorny questions.
In order for a referendum to be held, Parliament has to pass a special act containing the question (or questions) to be asked. With just two exceptions (one of the country’s constitutional referendums and end of life choice in 2020), referendums in New Zealand have been non-binding. In each of the consultative and constitutional referendums, however, it was clear that Parliament intended to follow the will of the public, and it did so.
Drink, horses and military training: 1949
Three consultative referendums were held in 1949, which proved to be the first Labour government’s final year in office. Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s government had declined in popularity in the aftermath of the war, and it wanted to avoid making tough decisions without public support.
The CMT referendum
Of the three consultative referendums held in 1949, the one dealing with Compulsory Military Training (CMT) was the most controversial. Prime Minister Peter Fraser was convinced that New Zealand needed CMT to deal with the increasing Soviet military threat. The strongest opposition to CMT came from within Fraser’s own Labour Party, which had traditionally been opposed to peacetime conscription. A series of rowdy meetings occurred during the brief campaign leading up to the referendum. While voters gave CMT a clear majority, turnout was moderate and the highest ‘no’ votes were in safe Labour electorates.
In March 1949 referendums were held on the question of extending the opening hours of hotel bars and on whether there should be off-course betting on horse races. The public rejected the former idea (a three-to-one majority voted to keep six o’clock closing), but two-thirds favoured off-course betting. About 55% of registered voters took part in these two referendums.
Five months later the government held a third consultative referendum. Voters were asked whether they were for or against compulsory military training. More than three-quarters of the 63.5% of registered electors who voted favoured peace-time CMT.
1967: end of the six o’clock swill
After the 1966 general election Prime Minister Keith Holyoake’s National government decided to revisit the question of extending the opening hours of hotel bars. A referendum was held on the issue in September 1967, and 69% of registered electors voted. This time those favouring change were in a clear majority: 64.4%. New Zealand’s notorious ‘six o’clock swill’ – the rush to drink as much as possible before the bars closed – duly ended.