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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 7. 1967.

Academics query referendum

Academics query referendum

Salient Reporter

Three members of the Political Science department have suggested changes in the form of the proposed liquor referendum to be held later this year.

They are Professor R. Brookes, Professor Roberts and Dr. A. Robinson. Their submissions to the statutes Revision Committee given last Tuesday are as follows:

The main objectives in devising the issues on the voting paper should be: (a) to make the choices clear, so that every voter understands them; (b) not to make the choices too specific. The first point is obvious. The second calls for some explanation.

The committee will be well aware that, if any change in hours is to be made, a wide range of alternative possibilities is open. If a uniform closing time is to be maintained over the whole country, that time could be fixed at 7pm, or 8pm, or 9pm, or 10pm, or later, or at any intervening point; later closing could mean that the duration of hours of sale would be increased by the additional period, but it need not do so, since the increase could be offset in whole or in part by providing for one or more Periods at other times when bars would be closed; these in turn could be stipulated (e.g. a 6-7pm "meal-break"), or they could be left to the discretion of each licensee subject to an overall limit on the duration of his hours of sale and to the specification of the earliest hour at which he might open and the latest at which he might close.

Even if the licensee was not granted such a wide discretion, he might be allowed to opt either to retain the existing hours, or to use part or all of the permitted evening period: and permission to use part of all of the evening period might be subject to the fulfilment of certain conditions which might be imposed e.g. by the Licensing Control Commission. And if the assumption of nation-wide Uniformity is relaxed, then the range of alternatives is even wider, both as to the closing time, and as to the provision of intervening breaks, while further questions arise as to the definition of areas or regions within which hours would be uniform, and to the authority responsible for fixing the hours.

It is obviously impossible that the voter should be asked to choose between all these alternatives; nor is it desirable that he should be. Technical as well as moral considerations are relevant (e.g. the practicability of enforcement, the economics of hotel operation, the willing-ness of hotel staff to work at the times specified), and it is unreasonable to expect the voter to develop an informed view on these aspects. The Government, or one of its agencies, would be much better qualified to do so; hence the ballot paper should be so designed that the voter can choose between the mainten-ance of existing hours, on the one hand, and approving in principle some extension, on the other, leaving it to the Government and Parliament to settle the details if new legislation is required. This is the more important in that it cannot be assumed that any of the alternatives, even if it commanded support at present, would continue in-definitely to suit a changing society, and it is surely not desirable that the Govern-ment should need to conduct another referendum to amend that alternative, as it might feel obliged to do if the ballot paper now is specific.

And while some might maintain that the public attitude can only be gauged if a; specific proposal (e.g. 10pm closing with a meal-break) is presented as an alternative to the present situation, there is a case at least equally strong for the contrary view: that there may well be a widespread feeling that some change is desirable, and that such a feeling would justify an experiment with extended or staggered hours, but that until some such experiment has taken place and been evaluated by the public it is unreasonable to expect a consensus on any specific change, and therefore unfair to make the possibility of change conditional on a present commitment to a specific alternative, especially if there is a presumption that the selected alternative would only be alterable by a further referendum.

Admittedly, if the Government has definitely resolved that (should a change be approved) it would be in the public interest that it take the form of 10 o'clock closing with a meal-break, and with no increase in total weekly hours, then that intention should be made abundantly clear during the referendum campaign, so that the voter will know what the immediate consequence of a vote for change would be. But it is equally important that the voter should know that the effects of the change would be reviewed after a trial period, and that Parliament should clearly have the right to amend the scheme in the light of experience, without laying itself open to the charge of flouting the wishes of the public as expressed in the referendum. Accordingly, we suggest that the first issue on the ballot paper take the following form:


Please strike out from the following pair of statements the one which you wish to reject:

(a)I favour no change in the closing time for hotel bars.
(b)I favour a change to allow hotel bars to be open in the evenings, within such hours and subject to such conditions as Parliament may from time to time approve.

A further question of principle may justify the inclusion on the ballot paper of a second issue, on which the public may well feel they are entitled and competent to express an opinion, and on which Members of Parliament may well wish to ascertain the public's views. Should a uniform closing time be maintained over the whole country, or should the hours of sale vary according to the needs of particular localities (and possibly according to the wishes of licensees) within such limits as to total hours and permitted periods of opening as Parliament may fix? Once again, the issue should not be confused by including matters of detail, though if uniformity were abandoned these would immediately arise. (Within what areas should uniformity be maintained? How much variation should be permitted?) These matters could be better dealt with by the Government and Parlia-ment, and the details might well need to be changed from time to time without thereby incurring an obligation to hold a further referendum. Accordingly, we suggest that the second issue on the ballot paper take the following form:


Please strike out from the following pair of statements the one which you wish to reject:

(a)I favour uniform trading hours for hotel bars throughout the country.
(b)I favour trading hours for hotel bars being fixed (after public hearings by the Licensing Control Commission) to suit the requirements of particular localities, within limits to be laid down from time to time by Parliament.