Story: History

Page 6. The later 20th century

All images & media in this story

National in power

After Labour lost power in 1949, the conservative National Party ruled the country until 1984, interrupted by single-term Labour governments in 1957–60 and 1972–75. National Party Prime Minister Sidney Holland used the bitter 1951 waterfront dispute to consolidate his power by calling a snap election.

The British connection

New immigrants, still mainly British, flooded in while New Zealand remained prosperous by exporting farm products to Britain. The country’s culture remained based on Britain’s. In 1953 New Zealanders took pride that a countryman, Edmund Hillary, gave Queen Elizabeth II a coronation gift by reaching the summit of Mt Everest.

Royal visits

The first member of the British royal family to visit New Zealand was Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, in 1869–71. In 1901 the Duke and Duchess of York toured, the first visit by a future monarch (George V). In 1920 the Prince of Wales (who became, briefly, Edward VIII) dropped by and in 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York paid a visit. But it was not until 1953 that New Zealand hosted a reigning monarch. The people greeted the freshly crowned Queen Elizabeth II with delirious enthusiasm. Towns and cities were decorated and huge crowds turned out.

Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. New Zealand had already diversified its export trade, but the loss of an assured market for farm products was a blow. The first oil shock of 1973 contributed to the fall in 1975 of a Labour government which had been led until his death by Norman Kirk. After the second oil shock of 1978, the National government of Robert Muldoon tried to keep New Zealand prosperous by so-called ‘think big’ industrial and energy projects, and farm subsidies. The economy faltered as the fall of oil prices in the early 1980s made these schemes unsound. Inflation and unemployment mounted.

The ‘revolution’ of 1984

The fourth Labour government was elected in 1984. The minister of finance, Roger Douglas, was an ardent advocate of economic liberalisation. He removed most controls over the economy, privatised many state enterprises and called aspects of the welfare state into question. Many saw these measures as an assault on New Zealand’s egalitarian traditions.

In foreign affairs, Labour’s anti-nuclear policy ruptured relations with the United States.

National and Labour

The National government of 1990–99 pursued similar policies to Labour’s, passing the controversial Employment Contracts Act which opened up the labour market and diminished the power of trade unions. The government also mounted a more sustained attack on the welfare state, most obviously by cutting benefits.

After the 1996 introduction of a new voting system (mixed member proportional representation), minority or coalition governments became the norm, but National and Labour remained the major parties. Labour’s Helen Clark was prime minister from 1999 until 2008. She was succeeded by National’s John Key, who stepped down in 2016. A Labour-led government headed by Jacinda Ardern took office in 2017.

Māori in the 20th century

Most Māori continued to live in remote rural communities until the Second World War. But Māori society was dynamic. The Kotahitanga movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was evidence of Māori resilience. So were the land development work of Apirana Ngata and the revitalisation of the Māori King movement by Te Puea Hērangi. In the early 1920s Wiremu Rātana founded the Rātana Church.

Post-war Māori migration into the cities, together with Māori anger at their economic deprivation and concern about their mana and continuing loss of land, pushed race relations and the place of the Treaty of Waitangi into the forefront of national life.

Politics and sport

For many, sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa became a touchstone of race relations. During the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, New Zealand experienced divisive unrest. After the tour, attention turned to domestic race relations and to the need for New Zealanders to have a better understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Māori resurgence

Māori became more assertive. Some, alleging breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, wished to reclaim Māori sovereignty. The Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 to consider contemporary claims and address grievances. In 1985, the tribunal was empowered to look at breaches of the treaty since 1840. By 2020 more than $2 billion had been paid to iwi and hapū in acknowledgement of Crown breaches of the treaty.

Bicultural and multicultural

A Māori cultural renaissance, including efforts to foster the Māori language in the early 1980s, increased awareness that New Zealand society was bicultural. At the same time, more immigrants were arriving. Almost before it had been properly acknowledged that New Zealand was bicultural, it became multicultural – first in the composition of its population, more slowly in how it ran its national life. The country’s new Pasifika and Asian citizens were testament to the fact that New Zealand was no longer, culturally or economically, the offshore island of Europe it had seemed to earlier generations.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'History - The later 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Apr 2020