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Temperance and Prohibition in New Zealand

IV — The First Colonial Local Option Poll

page 71

The First Colonial Local Option Poll

In the year 1893 Mr. Seddon introduced into the House of Representatives an Electoral Bill which included Womanhood Suffrage. While the Bill was before the House Sir John Hall presented the women's petition, praying for enfranchisement. Of this petition it may be said that it was the third on this question from the women of New Zealand and contained 31,871 signatures of women over twenty-one years of age, that it was the most numerously signed petition ever presented to any Parliament in Australasia, and that it was signed by nearly one third of the total number of adult women in the colony.

Fearing Womanhood Suffrage was jeopardized by being included in the Government's Electoral Bill, Sir John Hall introduced a separate Woman's Suffrage Bill. After a stormy debate, the Government Bill was passed. In the Upper House there was a heated debate which lasted several days, after which the third reading was carried by a majority of two. The ‘die-hards’ then petitioned the Governor to withhold his assent to the Bill. Petitions were prepared by the brewers and publicans and forwarded to Lord Glasgow. The women appealed to the Governor to give his assent to the Bill. For about a week there was great excitement in the country but at a quarter to twelve on September 19, 1893, His Excellency the Governor page 72 assented to the Bill, and every adult woman in New Zealand was enfranchised. Many women worked hard in the campaign to secure the franchise, but first place must be given to their earnest and gifted leader, Mrs. K. W. Sheppard, Franchise Superintendent of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. It is at this time amusing to read the arguments advanced by the opponents of women's franchise. They vehemently shouted that it was unwomanly, degrading and unsexing for women to vote, that she was ignorant of and indifferent to politics, that her house would be in disorder while she was voting, and that at the polling booth she would be insulted and assaulted. Time has proved how false were the prophets. By the general election which was held on November 28, and only a little over two months after the granting of the franchise, 109,461 women had been enrolled, and 90,290 recorded their votes, or eighty-two per cent. of the total enrolled. There were also 177,701 names of male electors on the rolls, and of that number 124,439 voted, or seventy per cent. of the total enrolled. The election was the most orderly ever held, and the ‘morale’ of the new House was much higher than that of any former one. These results were generally attributed to the entrance of women into politics.

The first Local Option poll in New Zealand was held on March 21, 1894. There had been previous contests when Licensing Committees were elected upon a ratepayers' franchise. Among the powers possessed by these committees was that of refusing to renew licenses, which was done in a number of cases. For instance, one committee in Auckland closed ten hotel bars, and in Roslyn four were closed, while because the Sydenham Licensing page 73 Committee exercised this power the great fight took place which resulted in a demand for an Act giving the people power by their vote to close the hotels. Members of Licensing Committees had in some cases been boycotted and harrassed, and sometimes taken to court for exercising their powers, and because of this men hesitated to accept the responsibility of the position. It was the good work done by these committees and the temperance work on moral suasion lines which made victory at the first Local Option polls possible.

The new Act under which the Local Option poll was to be taken was unpopular with the temperance people, as it contained some very unfair provisions. Half the number on the electoral roll had to record their votes to make a valid poll. A three-fifths majority of those voting was necessary before the No-License vote could become effective. It was anticipated that the members of the liquor party would urge their supporters not to vote—and this actually happened in some electorates. On the same day as the Local Option poll the people had power to elect members of the Licensing Bench, but remembering the experiences of the Sydenham committee members, in some electorates the No-License people refrained from nominating candidates. If reduction were carried the committee had power to reduce licenses up to twenty-five per cent. in the electorate.

So great were the handicaps and so numerous the pitfalls that some of the temperance people were inclined to ‘let the whole thing slide.’ Others again advocated voting for reduction only as a moderate step, giving as a reason that the country was not ready for Prohibition. Among the advocates of this course were some well-known page 74 ministers of the gospel. Others again were in favour of voting No-License only. The New Zealand Alliance's advice was to strike out the top line and so vote for No-License and Reduction, but it did not advocate nominating candidates for the Licensing Committees. The Alliance issued a ‘Voters' Guide and Wall Almanac,’ which was largely and freely circulated, twenty-one reasons being given for voting ‘No-License.’ In The Prohibitionist twelve reasons were printed showing what reduction could not do in reducing the evils connected with the liquor traffic. There was great danger lest the party should suffer because of these diversified views. As polling day drew near a set policy was clearly evolved, and ‘Strike out the top line, only the top line’ became the slogan of the campaign. If ‘No-License’ were not carried then the votes for that issue were added to those for Reduction. If Reduction were carried and a temperance committee elected, twenty-five per cent. of the hotel bars in the electorate could be closed.

There were many public meetings and demonstrations. On the Sunday previous to the poll Sunday-School processions and open-air gatherings were held, but much of the organizing which exists to-day was not in existence in connexion with that first poll. The Churches had not become alive to their responsibility and opportunity, and did not take as active a part as in later years. There were no advertisements in the newspapers, no paid agents in areas or electorates, but there were many enthusiastic volunteer workers.

The day of the poll was fine, and this was favourable. For the first time in the history of New Zealand the women had the right at the page 75 polling booth to express their opinion of the liquor traffic, and it was realized that the eyes of the English-speaking world were upon them. The liquor dealers were greatly concerned and were afraid of the results.

Great were the rejoicings when the results of the poll were made known. At that time there was about 700,000 of a population in the colony. On the polling day 105,877 votes were cast as follows:

Continuance. Reduction. No-Licence.
41,165 15, 856 48,856

There were sixty-two electorates in the Colony, and in thirty-seven of them majorities had been polled in favour of No-Licence. Reduction had been carried in fifteen electorates. In thirty-five electorates half the number on the roll had not recorded their votes, hence such polls were void. Clutha carried No-License. The votes were:

Publicans' Continuance Licenses. Reduction No-License.
487 90 1,642

The majorities against accommodation and bottle licenses were even greater. In thirty-two out of the thirty-four polling places in the electorate there were majorities in favour of No-License. For months the temperance people had been hard at work. Amongst the local workers were the Rev. W. J. Comrie, Mr. A. S. Malcolm of Kelso, Dr. De Latour of Tapanui, Rev. J. V. Spence of Clinton, Rev. P. Ramsay of Knapdale, Rev. W. Scorgie of Tapanui, and the Rev. J. Kilpatrick of Warepa, Messrs. Gibson and Roseveare of Waiwera, Messrs. Hogg and Frank Ferran of page 76 Balclutha, and Mr. Ayson of Waikaka Valley; Messrs. A. S. Adams (now Mr. Justice Adams) and Mr. R. McNab (later the Hon. R. McNab) gave valuable assistance. The following are the names of the gentlemen returned as a temperance committee: Messrs. Bright, Johnson, Gibson, Taylor, Smith, Scott, Russell, and Stead. Even after such a decided victory at the poll and in opposition to the wishes of the committee, Mr. Hawkins, S.M., granted wholesale licenses to three ex-publicans. Later the licenses were squashed. The die-hards fought for some time but for thirty-six years Clutha has enjoyed the blessings of No-License.

Election of Committees. Throughout the Colony, twenty-two committees favourable to reduction were elected. The poll in Ashburton may be given as a typical one. Much temperance work had been done for years in Bands of Hope, Blue Ribbon Missions, and pledge-signing campaigns. A public meeting was held in the Wesleyan church of which the Rev. Samuel Lawry was minister. After considerable discussion and hesitation it was decided to fight the campaign on the following lines. To elect members of a Licensing Committee pledged to (1) Reduce the hours of selling liquor from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. (2) To refuse conditional licenses for use at races, weekly stock sales and agricultural shows. (3) To reduce the number of licenses in the electorate by twenty-five per cent. if reduction were carried, and to make every effort to carry No-License.

The following men were nominated as candidates for the temperance committee: Messrs. George W. Leadley, H. M. Jones, Murdoch Bruce, William Allen, James Wallace, Donald Williamson, and Rev. James Cocker. They were elected. The No-License poll was declared void by Judge Denniston page 77 because the ‘invalid votes could not be counted for any purpose in an election,’ and without counting such votes, half the persons on the roll had not recorded their votes. The Committee did good work, which was continued until No-License was won eight years later.

It was realized that this first colonial poll had not fully tested the strength of either the Prohibition or the liquor party. Upon the rolls there were the names of 179,539 men and 139,471 women, and only 105,877 votes had been cast.

Organization and education were continued in view of the coming 1896 poll.

Parliament passed an Act fixing the Licensing Poll on the day of the General Election. The results of the 1896 poll were:

Continuance. Reduction. No-License.
139,580 94,555 98,312

To the No-License party the results were disappointing. Owing to the three-fifths handicap, No-License was not carried in any electorate, and the Continuance vote exceeded that for No-License by 41,268. The publican party sneeringly referred to the prohibitionists as a ‘miserable minority’ to which they replied that they were not miserable, and hoped in a few years to be in a majority. Two polls later their hopes were realized. At the 1899 poll the Continuance majority was 23,430, but at the vote taken in 1902, the No-License majority was 3,075. The tables had been turned.