Kōrero: Liquor laws

Whārangi 4. Radical reform

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Sale of Liquor Act 1989

By the 1980s liquor laws had become absurdly complex, allowing 29 different types of licence. Many provisions restricted competition, conflicting with the free-market ideology of the 1984–1990 Labour government. In 1986 the government established the Working Party on Liquor, which recommended a complete overhaul of liquor licensing. The result was the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, which instituted the most radical reform of the liquor laws in over a century.

New bars

The new act allowed for just four types of licence, which became easier to get, but also easier to lose if conditions of the licence were breached. Bars no longer needed to provide overnight accommodation to avoid hefty turnover taxes. Local objection polls and other barriers to competition were eliminated, resulting in several thousand new bars and licensed eating places. Supermarkets were allowed to sell wine.


The cumbersome system of licensing committees was abolished and licensing decisions were made by local government and a new Liquor Licensing Authority. Parliament eliminated standard national licensing hours, enabling bars to open into the small hours as long as they had local government permission.

Suburban dry areas

After Ōamaru voted to restore liquor licences in 1960, dry areas were a big city suburban phenomenon – the remaining seven dry districts and four dry special areas (smaller suburbs) were in Auckland and Wellington. The last to go wet were Eden and Roskill in Auckland and Tawa in Wellington in 1999.

End of dry areas

Parliament abolished the regular national licensing referendums, ending a sequence of 24 polls over 76 years. The remaining stranded dry districts, which had been created decades earlier by electoral boundary changes, were similarly abolished (except Tawa). In 1990 Parliament allowed residents of the remaining four dry districts to restore licences by a bare majority vote, rather than the long-standing 60%. By 1999 the last remaining dry suburbs had voted ‘wet’ under the new rules.


Another 1989 reform revamped the system of alcohol taxes. Taxes were based on alcohol content, regardless of the type of beverage.

Other changes in the late 1990s

In 1997 a government review concluded that the 1989 reforms had been beneficial, and recommended further changes, which were enacted in 1999.

Supermarkets and grocery stores were allowed to sell beer as well as wine, liquor sales were permitted on Sundays (excluding Easter and Christmas) and the drinking age was lowered to 18.

At the coal face

In 2009 the Law Commission conducted a three-month consultation process as part of the liquor laws review. During a meeting in Ōtara, South Auckland, a local said: ‘Alcohol is destroying our community. I work with families and we can see the damage to them, to their children and to the wider community. I see it in the courts, the hospitals, family violence. We have tried many ways to reduce the damage. My dream is to stop selling alcohol in our community altogether.’1 This solution harked back to the dry areas of the not-so-distant past.

Further reform

Following these reforms, many expressed disquiet at rising alcohol consumption, which had previously been falling. Anecdotal evidence pointed to increasing alcohol abuse, especially by young people. In 2008 the Law Commission, an independent government organisation that reviews New Zealand laws that need updating, was instructed to carry out a further review of the liquor laws. It recommended numerous changes, including increasing alcohol prices through taxation, regulating alcohol advertising and sponsorship, increasing the drinking age back to 20 and reducing bar opening hours.

Only some of the Law Commission’s recommendations were incorporated in liquor laws when three bills – the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Bill, the Local Government (Alcohol Reform) Amendment Bill and the Summary Offences (Alcohol Reform) Bill – were passed in December 2012. The drinking age was kept at 18 and alcohol prices were not increased through tax. Major changes (which came into effect in 2013) included:

  • Parents must give consent for minors to be supplied with alcohol.
  • Dairies and convenience stores are not allowed to sell liquor.
  • On-licence premises (bars, clubs and restaurants) must close between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. and off-licence premises (shops) must close between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
  • Local councils are empowered to make policies on opening hours (which can be more restrictive) and ban liquor outlets from certain areas.
Kupu tāpiri
  1. Alcohol in our lives: curbing the harm: a report on the review of the regulatory framework for the sale and supply of liquor. Wellington: Law Commission, 2010, p. 34. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Paul Christoffel, 'Liquor laws - Radical reform', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/liquor-laws/page-4 (accessed 21 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Paul Christoffel, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Dec 2014