New Zealanders were given the chance to vote for national prohibition for the first time in 1911. This referendum was a coup for the temperance community, who had finally convinced Parliament to offer this option a year earlier. But prohibition would only be introduced if 60% of the voting public wanted it. At the 1911 poll, prohibition mustered an impressive 55.8%, but it wasn't enough.
The temperance community was a powerful lobby group. The New Zealand Alliance urged its supporters to abandon voting on party lines for members of Parliament, and to vote only for those candidates who had a record of supporting prohibition. Temperance-friendly MPs were invited to meet Alliance leaders, and together they schemed about how to influence senior ministers to favour prohibition. The Alliance published its own newspaper, and considered purchasing one of the major daily newspapers to promote the temperance message.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the question of temperance seemed set to recede into the background. At that December's general election, support for prohibition dropped to 49%. Licensing polls were suspended for the remainder of the war. The Alliance remained active, campaigning against the sale of alcohol to troops and bombarding them with leaflets and newspapers about the evils of liquor. When the King announced he was banning liquor from the Royal household due to wartime stringencies, the Alliance tried to persuade soldiers to follow their monarch's example.
The temperance community demanded that the government ban liquor sales for the duration of the war in the interests of ‘national efficiency'. The Alliance presented several petitions to Parliament, and the government's National Efficiency Board – appointed in 1917 – also recommended an end to liquor sales. The government responded that year by closing all bars at 6 p.m. each evening. Initially a temporary wartime measure, six o'clock closing was made permanent in 1918, and would not be abolished until 1967.
In 1918 the government agreed to hold a special nationwide licensing referendum in April 1919, with the threshold dropped to 50% of voters; similar polls would be held alongside each succeeding general election. Prohibition was missed by a whisker, with 49% of the vote. Victory for the temperance community had seemed assured until the votes of 40,000 troops still overseas or on ships were counted.
In December 1919 another poll was held in conjunction with that year's election. To complicate matters, a third option was now added to the ballot paper – state control of the liquor industry. Local ‘no-license’ polls had also been abolished, except in existing dry electorates (there were then 13), where every three years voters could choose whether to restore licenses. In December the prohibition vote reached an even more tantalising 49.7% – no one knew it at the time, but this would be the closest New Zealand would ever get to introducing prohibition.
Meanwhile, war and its aftermath had brought total or partial prohibition to several countries, most notably the United States, which introduced nationwide prohibition in 1919. New Zealanders watched with interest to see how prohibition worked in other countries, and whether it really healed the woes of the world.