New Zealand votes for prohibition – until soldiers’ votes are counted

10 April 1919

Special votes by soldiers tipped the balance against prohibition
Special votes by soldiers tipped the balance against prohibition (PapersPast)

A special liquor referendum initially gave prohibition a majority of 13,000 over continuance (the status quo), raising the hopes of those who had for decades campaigned against the manufacture and sale of alcohol.

However, the special votes of nearly 40,000 troops still overseas, aboard ships, or in camps or hospitals in New Zealand were still to be counted. Fighting for King and country was clearly thirsty work, as 32,000 of these men voted to retain the right to drink. When all votes were counted, continuance won by 264,189 votes to 253,827.

This was the first – and last – time that the question would be decided by a simple majority in a nationwide poll. A second referendum held alongside the December 1919 general election included a third option: state purchase and control of the sale of alcohol. This time prohibition came within 1600 votes of victory. Although the prohibitionist cause remained strong until the 1930s, New Zealand would never again come as near to banning the bottle as it did in the twin referendums of 1919.