What is a referendum?

A referendum is a vote on a question. A referendum can be started by a citizen or by the government. If you are enrolled to vote, you can vote in a referendum. Referendums are an important part of New Zealand’s democracy.

If a citizen starts a referendum, it’s called a 'citizens initiated referendum'. If a government starts one, it’s called a 'government initiated referendum'.

Citizens initiated referendum

Any New Zealand citizen can start the process for a nationwide referendum.

A referendum starts with a petition

To begin the process, a citizen submits a proposal to the Clerk of the House of Representatives asking to promote a referendum petition.

The Clerk then advertises the proposed referendum question, inviting the public to have a say on what the final wording should be. This process takes about 4 months.

Once the final wording of the question is decided, the petition organiser has 12 months to gather signatures in support of holding a referendum on the question. 

If the petition succeeds, the referendum goes ahead

If at least 10% of registered voters support the referendum petition, a referendum can go ahead. 

A citizens initiated referendum can be held with a general election or at a stand-alone poll. It can also be held by postal vote. 

The referendum will ask voters a question. There is often strong public debate on a referendum question. 

The government does not have to act on the results

The results of a citizens initiated referendum are indicative only — they are not binding. The government doesn’t have to act on or implement the referendum result.

Government initiated referendum

A government initiated referendum is promoted by the government.

A government initiated referendum can be held with a general election, at a stand-alone poll or by postal vote. 

The government must pass legislation to enable the referendum to be held, unless the referendum is conducted by postal vote. The wording of the referendum question is decided as part of this legislative process.

The legislation will also contain rules for advertising that supports or opposes the possible outcomes of the referendum, including caps on spending. 

A government initiated referendum can:

  • be binding or indicative (non-binding).
  • ask more than one question or have questions with more than two possible answers. 

About the referendums in 2020

At the 2020 General Election, you could vote in two referendums. You could vote on whether the recreational use of cannabis should become legal. You could also vote on whether the End of Life Choice Act 2019 should come into force, giving people with a terminal illness the option of requesting assisted dying.

Find out more about the referendums in 2020

Starting a citizens initiated referendum

For details on how to start a citizens initiated referendum, go to the following pages on the New Zealand Parliament’s website.

Seek a referendum - New Zealand Parliament

Guide for petitions - New Zealand Parliament

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