New Zealand is a representative democracy, with a Parliament consisting of members who represent the voters who elected them. This is true of legislatures (parliaments) in all modern democracies. Generally speaking, voters' views are considered and acted on indirectly by their members of Parliament. A referendum – a poll of voters on a particular issue – sometimes gives voters an opportunity to express their views directly.
The editors of a comparative study of referendums asked the editor of the Oxford English dictionary which word was correct for the plural of referendum – referendums or referenda? The OED editor replied: ‘My own view is that referendums is logically preferable as a plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund, referendum has no plural). The Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning ‘things to be referred’, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues.’1
New Zealand’s system of representative democracy was modelled on that of Britain, where referendums were traditionally held in low regard. British politician Edmund Burke, speaking to the electors of Bristol in 1774, expressed the widely held idea that the views of representatives, rather than voters, should be followed in policy-making. Burke said, ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’2
The United Kingdom held its first national referendum as recently as 1975. By a majority of more than two to one, voters endorsed Britain's continued membership of the European Economic Community. A much closer referendum in 2016 had the opposite outcome, and in 2020 the UK left the European Union.
In former British colonies there was less concern for Burke's principles of representative democracy and a greater willingness to experiment.
Citizens in New England towns and counties adopted the idea of town meetings almost as soon as they set foot on American soil. Many were dissenters (non-Anglican Christians) who had fled Britain in search of greater tolerance of their views.
In the early 20th century California's constitution was amended to include not only a provision for referendums, but also a means for voters to be able to initiate them.
In Australia the federal (national) constitution required referendums to be held before the constitution can be changed.
Māori have only participated in New Zealand referendums since 1949, when Māori electoral rolls were introduced. The Licensing Amendment Act 1949 allowed Māori to participate in the regular prohibition referendums for the first time.
The Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act 1893 made referendums part of the New Zealand political landscape. These first referendums were held within single electorates. In 1911 the first nation-wide referendum, on whether there should be prohibition of the sale of alcohol, was held.
The subsequent nation-wide referendums that have been held in New Zealand have fallen into four main categories:
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries alcohol was a difficult subject for New Zealand voters and parliamentarians. The temperance movement was a powerful political force, especially among women – and it had helped women win the right to vote. Politicians were besieged by arguments from both sides of the debate.
The Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act 1893 gave electors a vote on the question of whether or not the number of liquor licences in their district should be continued or reduced, or whether no licences should be granted in the district.
After 1894 prohibition referendums were held in conjunction with general elections, apart from a referendum held in April 1919.
Twenty-four of the 37 nationwide referendums held in New Zealand in the 20th century were about alcohol. In other words, two-thirds of New Zealand’s referendums during this period were about prohibition or bar and pub opening hours. Little wonder then that author Conrad Bollinger, taking his lead from Premier Richard Seddon’s description of New Zealand as ‘God’s own country’, entitled his book about liquor licensing Grog’s own country. None of the nationwide referendums held in the 21st century have related to alcohol. In 2020 the legalisation of the recreational use of cannabis was narrowly defeated in a consultative referendum.
In the referendums of 1894, 1902, 1905 and 1908, the majority of votes nationally were for no local liquor licences. As people could only vote on the sale of liquor within their own electorate, these votes did not constitute a national referendum. Electorates with a majority for no-licence went ‘dry’, but the country as a whole did not. In 1911 the choice offered to voters in the local district poll was reduced to one between continuance and no licences, dropping the option for reduced licences.
From 1911 voters were also given the chance to vote for national continuance (of alcohol sales) or national prohibition, potentially being able to vote the whole country ‘dry’. The 1911 prohibition referendum was New Zealand's first nationwide referendum.
Although the vote for national prohibition in 1911 (259,943 votes) comfortably exceeded the vote for continuance (205,661), the almost 56% vote for prohibition did not result in a change to the law. Parliament had already decided that prohibition would need 60% of the vote to succeed.
The initial vote in the April 1919 prohibition referendum gave a narrow victory to prohibition, with 246,104 votes to 232,208. With more than the 50% of votes required, it looked as if the sale of alcohol in New Zealand would be prohibited. However, the counting of nearly 40,000 special votes cast by soldiers still overseas changed this situation – 80% of them voted for national continuance. With a final tally of 264,189 votes for national continuance against 253,827 for prohibition, the prohibition vote fell to 49%. New Zealand just missed out on going ’dry’.
Referendums involving a straight fight between national continuance and national prohibition were held in 1914 and in April 1919. For the April 1919 referendum, Parliament reduced the threshold for success to 50%. Prohibition came very close to succeeding, with just 10,362 votes (2%) less than those for national continuance.
The rules for nationwide prohibition referendums were then changed: Parliament added a third option – state purchase and control. These three options (national continuance, national prohibition and state control) were voted on by electors in referendums that accompanied every New Zealand general election from 1919 until 1987, with the exception of the 1931 and 1951 elections.
In the December 1919 poll, prohibition failed by only 1,632 votes – the closest it ever came to succeeding. Prohibition’s share of the vote remained strong through the 1920s – it was 48.6% in 1922, 47.3% in 1925 and 40.2% in 1928.
With the onset of economic depression and the failure of prohibition in the United States, the vote for prohibition declined in the 1930s. From 1949 until 1987 the vote for national continuance – keeping New Zealand's liquor laws largely unchanged – was always over 60% (sometimes closer to 70%). The licensing referendums had become irrelevant, and in 1989 Parliament voted to abolish them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In late 1991 Parliament passed the Electoral Referendum Act, introduced by Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s National government. This brought about a two-part referendum on the electoral system in September 1992. Part A asked electors whether they wanted to retain or change the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system. Regardless of their vote on the first question, Part B asked electors which one of four alternative electoral systems they would prefer if the country opted for change.
Although the referendum was a consultative – or indicative – one, the government made clear its intention to hold a binding constitutional referendum if a majority voted for a change. Of the 55% of registered electors who took part, 85% chose change, triggering a binding constitutional referendum in 1993. In the September 1992 indicative referendum, 71% of those who voted favoured the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system. At the 1993 constitutional referendum, MMP was chosen in preference to first-past-the-post.
In a comment made in Parliament four days after the 1992 referendum on the voting system, acting Prime Minister Don McKinnon called the result ‘probably one of the most momentous this country has ever had.’ Opposition Labour leader Mike Moore said of the vote, ‘The people didn’t speak on Saturday. They screamed.’1
In November 2011 New Zealand held a consultative referendum that was almost an exact copy of the 1992 referendum. Part A asked voters whether they wanted to keep New Zealand’s MMP electoral system, while Part B asked them to choose one of four possible alternative voting systems.
A clear majority (58%) favoured the retention of the country’s current electoral system. The 2011 referendum did not, therefore, result in a binding run-off constitutional referendum. Around 74% of registered electors voted in the 2011 referendum.
In September 1997 a referendum asked electors if they supported a proposed compulsory retirement savings scheme. An overwhelming 92% of voters opposed the proposal, with 80% of registered voters taking part.
In 2015 and 2016 New Zealand held a two-stage consultative referendum on the future of the New Zealand flag. In 2015 voters ranked five alternative flag designs from a shortlist developed by the Flag Consideration Panel in consultation with the public. Then in March 2016, voters had a choice between the preferred option from the first referendum and the current New Zealand flag. As a result of the referendum process, the current New Zealand flag was retained. Around 49% of registered electors voted in the 2015 referendum and around 68% in the 2016 one.
Alongside the 2020 general election, voters were asked if they supported legalisation of the growth of small quantities of psychoactive cannabis for personal use, and its controlled sale at licensed premises. The proposal was narrowly defeated.
New Zealand does not have a single written constitution – a variety of laws and long-standing conventions have created its constitutional structures. Until 1993 the Electoral Act 1956 provided the legislation for the voting system. Entrenched clauses in the act could only be changed by either a vote by at least 75% of all the members of Parliament or by a majority vote in a referendum. One of these clauses entrenched the three-year parliamentary term. New Zealand has twice held referendums on whether the maximum term of Parliament should be three years or four.
The first referendum on the term of Parliament was held on 23 September 1967, at the same time as the referendum on hotel opening hours. Of those who voted (69% of registered electors), 68% favoured retaining a three-year parliamentary term. In the second referendum on this matter, in 1990, 69% of those who voted supported the three-year term. This referendum was held in conjunction with a general election, with 85% of registered electors voting.
Neither referendum was conducted directly under the provisions of the Electoral Act 1956. As a result, had a majority in either referendum favoured a four-year term, the public will could only have been formally implemented by a vote of at least 75% of the members of Parliament. The results of both referendums made this issue irrelevant.
The 1993 constitutional referendum campaign saw the emergence of an anti-MMP lobby group, the Campaign for Better Government (CBG), led by Telecom chairman Peter Shirtcliffe. The CBG reportedly spent over $1.5 million on its campaign, compared to $181,000 by the pro-MMP Electoral Reform Coalition. The CBG’s campaign may have increased support for first-past-the-post (FPP), which received 46% of the vote in 1993. On the other hand, it has been argued that the CBG was seen by many as a lobby group for business interests opposed to proportional representation.
New Zealand’s only constitutional referendum held directly under the provisions of the Electoral Act 1956 – and therefore binding – took place in November 1993. It asked voters whether they wanted to replace the first-past-the-post voting system with the mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system. A majority of electors (54%) said they did. The referendum was held in conjunction with the general election, and 85% of registered voters participated.
The result had important constitutional consequences. The Electoral Act 1993 replaced the Electoral Act 1956 as the legislative basis of New Zealand’s voting system. The number of MPs increased from 99 to 120. The voting system became proportional (parties’ shares of seats in Parliament reflected their share of the nationwide vote). Until 2020, every subsequent administration was a coalition government.
In 1992 the National government introduced the Citizens Initiated Referenda Bill to Parliament. The bill was passed the following year, with the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 becoming operational in early 1994.
The act permits citizens-initiated referendums (CIR) to be held on questions that receive, via signed petitions, the support of at least 10% of registered electors in a 12-month period. This is a very high hurdle. More than 3.5 million people were enrolled to vote in 2017, requiring a CIR during the subsequent term of Parliament to gain the signed support of more than 350,000 people. What is more, by law the organisers of a CIR petition can spend no more than $50,000 promoting their petition and gathering signatures.
By 2013 only five questions had received enough support to trigger a citizens-initiated referendum. All were about highly emotive, populist topics:
Many proposals to hold a CIR failed to get off the ground because they could not get enough support; petitions to hold referendums on the topics subsequently lapsed. Petitions that failed to achieve the requisite level of support included prohibiting the production of eggs from battery hens; legalising voluntary euthanasia; spending at least 7% of GDP on government health services; replacing the country’s flag; and deciding whether New Zealand should ‘adopt direct democracy by binding referendum’.
Each of the first four CIRs received overwhelming support for their propositions – 87.8%, 81.5%, 91.8% and 87.9%, respectively. The first CIR – the firefighters’ referendum – was held on 2 December 1995. It was not held in conjunction with a general election, and only 27% of enrolled electors cast a vote. The next two referendums – on the size of the House of Representatives and on the criminal justice system – were held together with the 1999 general election, and the turnout for both questions was 84.8% (the turnout in the general election). As a result, when the fourth CIR, about the legality of corporal punishment of children, was held separately from a general election, the government decided to make it a postal ballot. The turnout was still comparatively low – 56.1% of enrolled voters took part – but more than twice that for the first CIR.
The fifth CIR, on the sale of state assets, was held in late 2013. It was also separate from an election and was made a postal ballot. 67.3% of those who voted did not support the sale of state assets.
CIRs are not binding on New Zealand governments; the result of each referendum was largely ignored. The New Zealand Fire Service was restructured (indeed, it had been by the time the first CIR was held in 1995), the number of MPs was not reduced to 99, hard labour did not become part of the prison regime, the so-called ‘anti-smacking’ legislation was not repealed, and asset sales proceeded.
Two of the five CIRs were closely associated with individual citizens. Margaret Robertson – a ‘battling Karori grandmother’1 – started the 1997–98 petition promoting a referendum on a proposal to reduce the size of the House of Representatives. Norm Withers of Christchurch initiated the petition for a referendum on violent crime after his mother was beaten while working in his shop. By May 1999 he had gathered enough signatures for a referendum to be held.
CIRs are an integral part of the political landscape in places as diverse as California and Switzerland. However, the evidence from New Zealand is that grafting a foreign concept such as CIRs onto the country’s existing constitutional tree has not borne fruit.
New Zealand’s CIRs are non-binding. Both the proponents and opponents of citizen-initiated questions are restricted in promoting their views by exceptionally low spending caps. If this situation continues (and there is no strong push for change in this regard), it is likely that these referendums will remain little more than sideshows to the realities of government and politics in New Zealand.
Atkinson, Neill. Adventures in democracy: a history of the vote in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2003.
Christoffel, Paul. ‘Prohibition and the Myth of 1919.’ New Zealand Journal of History 42, no. 2 (2008): 154–175.
Church, Stephen. ‘Crime and punishment: the referenda to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the size of Parliament.’ In Left turn: the New Zealand general election of 1999, edited by Jonathan Boston and others, pp. 184–198. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000.