The Rechabite, William Street, Perth. Once the site of prohibition movement meetings. Image from ABC News website.

Perth’s Rechabite Hall, which recently re-opened as an entertainment venue after extensive restoration work, now includes four bars. The media have been quick to see the irony of this. In the 1920s, when the hall was built, the Independent Order of Rechabites were staunch supporters of the temperance movement. Members took a vow of abstinence from alcohol. The Rechabites’ buildings around the state were regularly used for public meetings in support of prohibition.

In fact, I discovered recently that Western Australia has had four referendums on alcohol regulation and prohibition. That means the state has had as many referendums on alcohol licensing as on daylight saving. Who would have guessed?

The first two plebiscites were not simple “yes or no” affairs. The Local Option Vote in 1911 asked voters in each electoral district to answer three questions :

  • 1: Should the number of licenses existing in the district be increased?
  • 2: Do you vote that all new Publicans’ General Licenses be held by the State?
  • 3: Are you in favour of State Management throughout the District?

The poll coincided with two national referendums on trade and the nationalisation of monopolies. Voter turnout was small. Most districts rejected any increase in local liquor licenses but voted in favour of state control.

Cartoon from Western Mail, Friday 28 November 1913, page 28.
The caption reads “The Modern Canute and the Rising Tide”

The Local Option

The government made another attempt to introduce greater regulation of the sale of alcohol in 1921, with the Local Option Referendum. This time voters in each electoral district had to decide whether the number of liquor licenses in their area should increase, stay the same, be reduced, or be removed altogether.

The poll produced some anomalous results. Communities such as Perth and Fremantle, with “an execresence” of licensed premises and a perceived problem with drunkenness. voted not to change the number of licenses. The same was true of the mining towns. Other communities, such as Claremont and Subiaco, with fewer licenses to begin with, voted to reduce the number even further.

A poll every five years

In 1922 State Parliament passed a law that would have seen the prohibition question re-addressed every five years. Section 60 of the Licensing Act Amendment Act stated that “in 1925, and in every fifth year thereafter… there shall be taken a poll of the electors in every electoral district on the proposal that prohibition shall come into force in Western Australia”.

The first such poll was duly carried out in 1925. This time the question was simple: Do you favour Prohibition coming into force in Western Australia? The answer was ‘No!’ But after that, despite the legislation, there were no further polls until 1950. Again the state’s voters rejected prohibition. The government repealed the relevant section of the act in 1959.

I should add that all these referendums were only of relevance to the State’s settler population. Aboriginal residents had been barred from purchasing alcohol since 1843. Legislation introduced in 1880 further restricted the sale of alcohol to Aboriginal people and banned them from “loitering” on licensed premises. They did not have a vote and no-one asked what they thought of prohibition.

Western Australia rejects prohibition – four times
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