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Liquor laws

by Paul Christoffel

The law around the sale and purchase of alcohol changes as society’s attitudes change. In the early 20th century the strength of the temperance movement nearly led to prohibition. In the second half of the century liquor laws became more liberal. In the early 2000s concern about alcohol abuse has led to calls to tighten liquor laws once again.

Early liquor laws

First liquor laws

In Britain, where New Zealand’s legal system originated, a licence has long been required to sell alcohol. A New Zealand licensing system was adopted in 1842 (between 1840 and 1842 New Zealand came under the jurisdiction of laws operating in New South Wales, Australia) and licensing has been a feature of the law ever since. Standard opening hours for bars was another innovation adopted from Britain.

Between 1852 and 1876 New Zealand had provincial government and liquor laws were largely left up to provincial councils, which placed varying restrictions on alcohol. Most provinces banned the selling of alcohol on Sundays. An 1873 act imposed a new national system of liquor licensing, but otherwise left provincial laws untouched.

Lingering discrimination

In 1948, following pressure from Māori returned servicemen, Parliament repealed most discriminatory measures which restricted access by Māori to alcohol. However, a 1962 law allowed Māori wardens to expel Māori from bars if they were drunk or disorderly. This provision was still on the books in the 21st century. 

Specific national laws applied to Māori, who were thought at the time to be particularly susceptible to alcohol. Several acts were passed between 1847 and 1878 to restrict Māori access to liquor.

The popularity of imported spirits encouraged the government to impose high taxes on them to raise revenue. After spirits sales fell in the 1870s the government began to tax the growing beer industry.

Licensing Act 1881

The abolition of provincial government in 1876 left New Zealand with inconsistent liquor laws. The comprehensive and national Licensing Act 1881 replaced nearly 50 national and regional statutes.

No dancing girls please

The Licensing Act 1881 banned some entertainments, including dancing girls. Section 127 stated: ‘Whereas a practice exists in certain parts of the colony of hiring women and young girls to dance in rooms and places where liquors are sold: any contract by which any females shall be hired to dance in any such room or place shall be null and void.’ Proprietors risked having their establishment identified as a ‘disorderly house’ (a brothel), receiving a fine or losing their liquor licence if they hired dancing girls.

The act imposed restrictive measures due to the growing influence of the anti-alcohol temperance and prohibition movement. It established local licensing committees elected annually by ratepayers. Committees could licence new outlets only if voters approved an increase in three-yearly polls.

The act imposed an age limit of 16 to buy liquor to drink in a bar, although no age limit was placed on buying liquor to take away. Sales were banned, in most circumstances, on Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. It imposed penalties for those serving inebriated persons, permitting ‘riotous conduct’ and allowing prostitution. These provisions established the principle, still observed in the 2000s, that those serving alcohol are responsible for customer behaviour.

The temperance influence

Temperance movement

Temperance means moderation in or abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages. In the early 19th century social reformers in the United States and Britain linked alcohol with a host of social problems, including poverty and ill health. Temperance ideas were exported to New Zealand and the movement gained traction later in the century.

Many temperance campaigners wanted to ban the production and consumption of alcohol. The first national temperance group that campaigned for prohibition was the New Zealand branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1885. This was swiftly followed by the New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Traffic in 1886.

Banning bars

Prohibition campaigners achieved major victories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Following a visit by temperance campaigners, King Country Māori requested a ban on liquor sales in their area, as provided for by the Licensing Act 1881. In 1884 the King Country consequently became New Zealand’s first major dry district.

Stuck in a dry area

No electorates voted to ban liquor sales after 1908, yet the proportion of New Zealanders living in ‘dry’ districts grew. Electoral boundary reviews created new dry electorates and shifted towns between wet and dry areas. Many places were left stranded, with no way of restoring liquor sales. Geraldine, for example, was denied bars for decades, despite its residents never having voted for prohibition. In 1945 Parliament froze licensing district boundaries to prevent them moving with electoral boundaries. Later, special polls for ‘stranded’ dry towns were provided for, which enabled them to go ‘wet’.

Under an 1893 act voters could reduce the number of liquor outlets in their electorate, or ban them altogether, in referendums held every three years. After 1895 these were held on the same day as general elections. Premier Richard Seddon allowed Liberal Party MPs a free vote on the 1893 act, establishing a tradition of ‘conscience’ votes on liquor matters that has persisted.

Between 1894 and 1908, 12 of the 76 general electorates banned liquor sales, and 484 hotels lost their licences. By 1910 it was almost impossible to open a new bar.

Other restrictions

In 1893 Parliament banned the sale of takeaway liquor to children under 13. The drinking age in pubs was raised to 18 in 1904, and to 21 in 1910. In 1914 those under 21 were banned from buying takeaway liquor.

In 1895 Parliament prohibited Māori women from buying alcohol unless they were married to a European. From 1904 Māori men in most parts of the North Island were prohibited from purchasing takeaway liquor.

To remove temptations to drink, most entertainments were banned from bars and women were forced out of the liquor trade. In 1893 most women who were not already licensed were barred from holding liquor licences. A 1910 law banned new barmaids and further restricted drinking hours.

Prohibition referendums

As the reforms appeared to have little effect on drinking, prohibitionists pushed the government for a poll on nationwide prohibition. In 1910 Parliament legislated for a new referendum to be held in conjunction with every general election. In 1911, 56% of voters supported national prohibition, just short of the 60% Parliament had decided would be required to ban alcohol. However, support for prohibition in national and local polls fell in 1914 to less than 50%.

War influence

The First World War boosted temperance support world-wide – the liquor trade was seen as wasting resources needed for national war efforts. In 1917 the National Efficiency Board (NEB) recommended a ban on liquor sales after 6 p.m., as had already happened in four Australian states. To cut liquor consumption, Parliament imposed temporary ‘six o’clock closing’ of bars.

Licensing trusts

When Invercargill voted to end 37 years of prohibition in 1943, a lobby group successfully campaigned for new outlets to be owned by a community trust. Eventually the law allowed a vote on whether any proposed new liquor outlets anywhere should be run by a trust. Many local licensing trusts were set up as a result, chiefly in former dry areas. Some still existed in the early 21st, including in Invercargill and Masterton.

Subsequent referendums

Licensing referendums were cancelled after 1914 due to the First World War. Because of this the NEB successfully recommended a special one-off prohibition poll. The Licensing Amendment Act 1918 provided for a referendum to be held in April 1919. For this and subsequent national polls, Parliament reduced the majority required to introduce prohibition to 50%.

If prohibition failed to achieve a majority in April 1919, a referendum would be held alongside the next general election, and at every subsequent election. If prohibition won, liquor sales would be banned six months later, without compensation to the liquor industry. As a concession to the industry, Parliament added a third option, ‘state purchase and control’, to the ballot paper.

While debating the act, Parliament made six o’clock closing permanent. It also abolished local prohibition polls, but retained polls enabling dry districts to restore licences.

Referendums were held in April and December 1919, the second alongside the general election. Prohibition was almost carried in both – support was 49% in April and 49.7% in December – and polled over 47% in 1922 and 1925. The ‘state control’ option had no effect. However, the depression and the end of prohibition in America saw support for prohibition drop to 29% in 1935.

Loosening of liquor laws

Post-Second World War changes

The freeze on the number of liquor outlets, along with six o’clock closing, led to unpleasant drinking conditions and crowded bars in growing towns and cities, as people tried to drink as much as they could in a short time. A royal commission that reported in 1946 recommended changes, some of which were enacted in 1948.

Parliament established the Licensing Control Commission (LCC) to issue new licences where they were scarce, and close down hotels where they were plentiful. The LCC was hampered by legal problems, lack of funding and the fact that objectors could block new bars by forcing a local poll.

Parliament allowed clubs such as RSAs (for returned servicemen) to legally sell liquor by removing the freeze on new chartered clubs imposed in 1908. It also abolished discriminatory provisions relating to Māori and provided for a national referendum on licensing hours. Voters opted to retain six o’clock closing in the resulting 1949 referendum.

The 1950s saw minimal change, although in 1952 Parliament lifted the ban on women holding liquor licences. Alcohol consumption rose significantly in the post-war economic boom. However, the rise was stalled for several years after the 1958 ‘Black Budget’ doubled taxes on beer and spirits.

The 1960s

During the more liberal social climate of the 1960s major reform occurred. Law changes in 1960 and 1961 allowed a limited number of licensed restaurants, and ended the ban on barmaids. These and other reforms were incorporated in the Sale of Liquor Act 1962. Taverns, which sold alcohol without providing overnight accommodation, could be licensed under the new act, providing landlords paid a hefty tax on business turnover. The LCC was given greater powers.

In 1967 another referendum on licensing hours convinced Parliament to end 50 years of six o’clock closing. The drinking age was lowered to 20 in 1969.

Big booze barns

Suburban taverns were small in number but large in size and were often surrounded by huge car parks. The main bar of the Bush Inn in Christchurch had a floor area of 6,500 square feet, and the Johnsonville Licensing Trust built two taverns of 5,000 and 8,000 square feet. In 1968 New Zealand Breweries was granted approval to build a massive tavern on 14 acres of land at Māngere Bridge in Auckland – the tavern’s four bars totalled 15,800 square feet.

The 1970s

From 1971 Parliament allowed a tiny number of cabarets to serve alcohol until 11.30 p.m. with food and entertainment. New taverns were established under the reforms of the 1960s, although continued restrictions meant taverns were few in number and large in size. The drunkenness, violence and drink-driving associated with such venues earned them the nickname ‘booze barns’.

Another royal commission was convened, and Parliament implemented its main recommendations in the late 1970s. It established the Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC) in 1976 to encourage responsible use of alcohol. Restaurant licences became easier to get and a new BYO (‘bring your own’) permit was introduced. Sports clubs were allowed liquor licences, resulting in thousands of additional licensed outlets. Parliament also further liberalised drinking hours.

Radical reform

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.
    • 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

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Paul Christoffel, 'Liquor laws', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Paul Christoffel, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013, updated 1 o Tīhema 2014