Temperance movement

Page 5 – The decline of prohibition

Alcohol remained an important issue after the First World War, and the prohibitionists slogged it out with the liquor trade throughout the 1920s. The campaigns dragged on bitterly, with each side lambasting the other with cartoons, advertisements, posters, leaflets, pamphlets, and even cinema and radio advertising.

The liquor trade argued that prohibition would lead to raised taxes because of lost revenue and the cost of enforcement, and that 6000 people would be made unemployed if breweries and liquor outlets closed down. Prohibitionists argued that tax losses would be offset by a more efficient and prosperous society. National prohibition was narrowly missed on several further occasions, touching 48.6% in the 1922 poll, and 47.3% in 1925.

Visit of ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson

American prohibitionist 'Pussyfoot' Johnson sailed into Wellington Harbour on 11 September 1922. He spoke to businessmen at the YMCA at lunchtime and to a packed audience at the Wellington Town Hall that evening. He encouraged his listeners to vote for prohibition because it had improved America’s moral tone. Read more about Pussyfoot Johnson's visit to NZ

The US example

The American experience of prohibition was a key point of reference for the New Zealand debate. If it worked in the United States, then surely it would work here? Perceptions of failure or success tended to depend on who was quoting which statistic. Prohibitionists argued that the US economy boomed under prohibition, while their opponents alleged that crime and racketeering were rife as people tried to dodge the law.

The tide gradually turned against American prohibition. Social problems remained. The illicit booze trade boomed and organised crime reaped the benefits. The Great Depression struck in 1929, and it was obvious that alcohol had not made the country prosperous and trouble-free. Pressure mounted for the repeal of prohibition, and American bars and breweries opened again in 1933. Almost all the countries that had introduced prohibition during or after the First World War had abandoned it by the mid-1930s.

Prohibition in retreat

The failure of American prohibition was a huge blow to the New Zealand movement. Enthusiasm for the cause was flagging by the late 1920s: the prohibition vote slipped to 40.1% at the 1928 election and to 29.6% in 1935 (no poll was held in 1931 due to Depression cutbacks); it never again topped 30%.

The cause retained support for many years – even in 1987 one out of five voters backed prohibition – but it soon slid from the wider public consciousness. The national licensing poll was finally abolished in 1989. Many of the no-license electorates had reopened their bars by the 1940s, although the last three – Eden, Roskill and Tawa – did not vote to go ‘wet’ again until 1999.