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National Party

by Colin James

The National Party was formed in 1936 by the merger of the two main conservative parties of the time. The electoral politics of the 20th century were dominated by two parties – National and Labour. In 2023 National had held office in New Zealand for 47 years, longer than any other party.

Formation and rise

The National Party is New Zealand’s most successful political party. By 2023 it had been in government for 47 of its 87 years in existence, a longer tenure than any other party.


At the founding conference in 1936 there was a long debate about what to call the new party. Gordon Coates suggested Unionist Party. Many thought the name ‘National’ had been discredited by the failure of the National Political Federation in the 1935 election. But the Unionist tag was defeated, and a motion by Mrs J. Aston of Wellington suggesting the name ‘The New Zealand National Party’ was unanimously adopted.


The National Party was formed in May 1936 through the fusion of the two main conservative parties of the time, Reform and United.

Reform, backed by farmers and business, was the senior partner. Set up in 1905, it had governed from 1912 to 1928. United was a remnant of the Liberal Party, which had governed from 1891 to 1912. After two changes of name and several changes of leader and policy platform, United formed a minority government in 1928, with support initially from Labour but, as the 1930s economic depression deepened, increasingly from Reform. From September 1931 United governed in coalition with Reform.

In 1935 the two parties campaigned together as the National Political Federation. Labour won in a landslide, and the federation gained only 19 of Parliament's 80 seats (with 32.9% of the vote). The right-wing splinter Democratic Party received 7.8% of the vote but won no seats.

National Party created

Merging the two parties had been debated but rejected in 1922 and 1925. Reform leader Gordon Coates (prime minister from 1925 to 1928) opposed formal fusion in 1925 and during the 1931–35 coalition, and remained sceptical in 1936. In the new Parliament, United leader George Forbes (prime minister from 1931 to 1935) was leader of the opposition and therefore the effective head of the National Party. He was replaced as party leader by former Reform and coalition minister Adam Hamilton at the end of the parliamentary session, in early November 1936.

In 1938, the Labour government was re-elected with 55.8% of the vote. Hamilton was replaced, at the party executive's initiative, by Sidney Holland on 26 November 1940. Holland withdrew National’s support from the war cabinet set up in 1940, though Hamilton and Coates stayed on it. Holland gradually brought most other right-of-centre splinter groups into National – many Democrats joined after 1936 – and in successive elections increased his party’s share of the vote. In November 1949 his efforts were rewarded when he led his party to victory.

Holland’s creed

Holland was a conservative – a Baptist and a British Empire loyalist who called himself ‘a Britisher through and through’.1 He was the co-owner of a Christchurch engineering business and had been active in the New Zealand Legion, an anti-socialist business lobby. He believed in ‘[i]ndividual freedom, individual responsibility, individual initiative, individual opportunity, individual enterprise and individual reward’.2 Holland was finance minister as well as prime minister in the new government. He intended to liberalise the economy. However, he made only limited changes, leaving in place compulsory unionism, quotas on imports (intended to foster local industry and manage the external balance of payments) and extensive regulation-making powers. ‘Conservative’ in practice meant keeping the mixed economy of both private and public enterprise, in which the state was a major actor through a welfare state, nationalised industries and regulation.

Gaining dominance

National’s share of the vote rose from 40.3% in 1938 to 42.8% in 1943 and 48.4% in 1946. In 1949 it took office with 51.9% and a majority of 12 seats. In 1951 National won 54.0% of the vote, which gave it 50 seats and a majority of 20. For the rest of the 20th century, National was in government much more often than out of it.

Holland to Holyoake

In September 1951 Holland called a snap election in which he received a strong mandate. The result reflected both widespread public support for his handling of the recently ended waterfront labour dispute – the most costly in New Zealand’s history – and an economic boom fuelled by very high wool prices.

Three years later lower export prices and rising inflation had taken the gloss off. In the November 1954 election National's vote share fell to 44.3% (just ahead of Labour's 44.1%) and its majority was halved. A rural populist party, the Social Credit Political League, received 11.1% of the vote but won no seats.

Just three months before the November 1957 election Holland, in failing health, resigned under pressure. He was replaced by Keith Holyoake, who had been deputy prime minister. National lost in 1957 but then won four elections in a row in the 1960s.

    • Quoted in Barry Gustafson, The first 50 years: a history of the New Zealand National Party. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, p. 41. Back
    • Quoted in The first 50 years, p. 40. Back

Consensus and division

Prosperity and protest

National dominated Parliament and politics through the 1960s, with an average vote share of 45.9% and an average majority of nine seats. It was a decade marked by rising prosperity for most – but also, from 1965, by protests from the post-war baby-boom generation then reaching their 20s. They demanded more moral and social freedoms and greater conservation of the natural environment.

Challenging values

The 1960s were a time of substantial social change, with the introduction of the contraceptive pill and freer sexual morals, growing protest against the Vietnam War and playing rugby with apartheid South Africa, and an emerging environmental movement. This last group caught National ministers off guard in 1970 when it forced them to scale back plans to raise Lake Manapōuri to generate electricity for an aluminium smelter. National’s assumption that their policies reflected a general consensus among New Zealanders was challenged.

A powerful inner cabinet of Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, Deputy Prime Minister Jack Marshall, Labour Minister Tom Shand and Justice Minister Ralph Hanan underpinned National's ascendancy. Holyoake progressively promoted able younger MPs into senior roles, notably future prime minister Rob Muldoon and two future deputy prime ministers, Brian Talboys and Duncan MacIntyre.

Holyoake’s consensus

Holyoake was a fourth-generation New Zealander who saw himself as heading an independent nation, no longer subordinate to Britain. He was ‘a New Zealander who could not – and would not – call himself British’.1 Holyoake resisted United States pressure to join the Vietnam War, although following lobbying from pro-American members of his cabinet, he conceded a small contingent. In economic policy, he maintained the mixed economy, despite pressure, led by Shand, to liberalise. Hanan initiated a number of modest liberal moves, notably in liberalising liquor laws and abolishing the death penalty. Holyoake was a consensus politician who was always attuned to public opinion. His guiding principle was National’s 1963 election slogan, ‘steady does it’.

Hanan and Shand both died in 1969, weakening the cabinet. Marshall replaced Holyoake as prime minister in February 1972, but in November National lost the election to Labour in a landslide. Marshall was ousted as leader in July 1974 by Muldoon, who reversed the 1972 landslide in 1975 (47.6% of the vote and a 23-seat majority). National won 10-seat and two-seat majorities in 1978 and 1981 – both times with fewer votes than Labour.

‘Rob’s Mob’

Robert Muldoon drew on the ‘ordinary bloke’ for his inspiration, changing the voting mix by recruiting many wage workers from Labour. He dubbed them ‘Rob’s Mob’. A long-time National Party activist said, ‘I could have gone into a room and known it was a National Party gathering just by glancing around but [after Muldoon became leader] I'd go to the National Party gatherings and think I was at the local [rugby] football club.’2

Muldoon creates division

Though he was initially highly popular in the party and with voters for his personal power, decisiveness, contempt for cant and ability to discuss complex issues in simple language, over time Muldoon proved divisive. He fell out with both liberals and conservatives in his party (and outside). Many liberals disliked what they saw as his autocratic style and aggressive attacks on opponents, both in and out of politics, and his impatience with constitutional and legal niceties.

Muldoon frustrated both liberals and conservatives by intervening extensively (and ineffectively) in the economy as New Zealand’s terms of trade worsened, at a time when younger National MPs were espousing free-market policies and deregulation. He also upset many older conservatives by pitching his policies to, and taking his cue from, what he called the ‘ordinary bloke’. In short, he was a populist, a pitch encapsulated in National’s 1975 election slogan, ‘New Zealand – the way you want it’.

1984 defeat

In 1984 many activists and voters defected from National, some to a new free-market party, the New Zealand Party, formed, financed and led by Muldoon’s former friend, property investor Bob Jones. As economic problems mounted, and after backbench MP Marilyn Waring supported a Labour move for nuclear-free legislation, Muldoon called a snap election on 14 July 1984. National lost in a landslide to the Labour Party, receiving just 35.9% of the vote. The New Zealand Party won 12.3%, but no seats.

    • Barry Gustafson, Kiwi Keith: a biography of Keith Holyoake. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007, p. 1. Back
    • Quoted in Barry Gustafson, The first 50 years: a history of the New Zealand National Party. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, p. 125. Back

The Bolger and Key years

Bolger becomes leader

National Party deputy leader Jim McLay, an urban economic liberal, replaced Muldoon following the disastrous 1984 election, but he in turn was ousted by Jim Bolger, a conservative farmer, in 1986. Bolger returned National to power in October 1990 in a landslide victory.


National’s most radical reformer was Ruth Richardson, finance minister in the 1990–93 Bolger government. Wanting to reduce the size of government and encourage individual self-reliance, she slashed welfare benefits and introduced the Employment Contracts Act 1991, which deunionised much of the workforce – leading critics to dub the reforms ‘Ruthanasia’. The reforms were a victory for the libertarian wing of the party, but caused a rift with conservatives and liberals. When National almost lost the 1993 election, Richardson was relieved of the finance portfolio.

New-right reforms

Under the influence of Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, Bolger’s government continued the free-market economic reforms initiated by the previous Labour administration. This agenda was more radical than the mildly right-of-centre approach expected by most National voters, many of whom defected to other parties. Many went to the populist New Zealand First party, led by Winston Peters, whom Bolger had sacked from his cabinet in October 1991. National barely retained power in 1993, helped partly by severe divisions on the left. A measure of voters’ disenchantment was their approval of a switch to a proportional representation electoral system, in referendums in 1992 and 1993.

Coalition government

Under the new mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system Bolger retained power in 1996, in a coalition with New Zealand First. But he was ousted as leader on 8 December 1997 by Transport Minister Jenny Shipley, who became New Zealand’s first woman prime minister. Shipley led the party to defeat in 1999 after breaking up the coalition in August 1998. Successive leaders Bill English (2001–3) and the neoliberal Don Brash (2003–6) failed to win office in 2002 and 2005. The party then turned to John Key, under whom National won 44.9% of the party vote in 2008, entering into confidence-and-supply agreements with the Māori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture. These agreements were renewed after the 2011 and 2014 elections.

Return to consensus

Key chose English as his deputy. By combining his own liberal leanings with English’s conservatism, he returned National to the positioning that had marked its 1950s and 1960s ascendancy – a constructive tension between its liberal and conservative strands. Key resigned as both party leader and prime minister in December 2016, and was succeeded by English. National won 44.4% of the party vote at the 2017 election, but lost power to a coalition of Labour and New Zealand First that was supported by the Green Party.

After several changes of leader and a campaign affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, National won just 25.6% of the party vote in the 2020 election – its worst showing since 2002 –  and remained in opposition.

Party principles

Vision and values

The party's principles, as revised in 2003, sought ‘a safe, prosperous and successful New Zealand that creates opportunities for all New Zealanders to reach their personal goals and dreams’, which ‘we believe ... will be achieved by building a society based on the following values: loyalty to our country, its democratic principles and our Sovereign as Head of State; national and personal security; equal citizenship and equal opportunity; individual freedom and choice; personal responsibility; competitive enterprise and rewards for achievement; limited government; strong families and caring communities; sustainable development of our environment.’1

Four tendencies

These principles encompassed a wide range of specific beliefs, among which four broad tendencies could be identified:

  • conservative – conserving the status quo, valuing the individual and the family as the foundations of a cohesive society, accepting moderate change at most and rejecting reactionary policies
  • liberal – comfortable with change, valuing (qualified) individual liberty including in moral matters, preferring markets and private enterprise over government involvement and intervention in commerce, and preferring smaller over larger government, while acknowledging the need for a welfare-system safety net and state-sponsored education
  • populist – responding to majority resistance to social and economic pressures, with a reactionary tinge at times
  • radical or libertarian – bold in style, celebrating individual liberty above social and collective activity, urging much lower taxes and government spending, more choice in education and health services and more individual responsibility for paying for them and for personal and family welfare.

Core beliefs

In 1959 Keith Holyoake spelled out National’s core beliefs: ‘The National Party believes in a property-owning democracy. … We believe in the maximum degree of personal freedom and the maximum degree of individual choice for our people. We believe in the least interference necessary with individual rights, and the least possible degree of state interference.’2

All four tendencies have been present in the National Party at all times, changing in policy detail, size and influence as circumstances have altered. Usually the conservative and liberal tendencies have been central and the populist and radical tendencies have been outliers; their adherents periodically leave National to found or join alternative parties.

Liberal–conservative tension

When the liberal–conservative tension within National is in or close to equilibrium, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s and again after 2008, the party’s ability to govern in tune with broad public opinion while also mildly shaping that opinion – thereby maintaining a large enough voting base to stay in government – is enhanced. When the equilibrium has been unsettled, as in the early 1970s and early 1990s, the outlier tendencies can gain traction, as when Robert Muldoon (a populist) was prime minister or Ruth Richardson (a libertarian) finance minister.

A liberal conservative

Early 1970s National Party leader Jack Marshall personified both liberal and conservative strands. He combined liberal views, including support for property rights, tolerance and a limited welfare state, with conservative beliefs – he was a devout Christian who believed in the death penalty and backed New Zealand intervention in the Vietnam War.

Power principle

National’s strongest principle is unstated: to exercise power. The party generally leans in the direction of its principles – but only so far as it is convinced that voters will broadly accept. At the same time, the party attends (usually) to the values and visions of its evolving voter and activist support base.

    • National Party, ‘Vision and values.’ (last accessed 14 July 2011). Back
    • Keith Holyoake, New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 14 July 1959, vol. 319, p. 406. Back

Party composition and organisation

A ‘national’ party

In the 1930s National emulated and then outstripped Labour in building a large low-fee membership. By the mid-1970s it claimed to have 200,000 members. There were party members in almost every society and group. These networks kept a wide pool of non-party people informed of party and government actions and thinking – and kept the party in touch with a wide range of views and special interests. This two-way interaction affirmed National as a party of power and legitimacy, and restrained it from becoming too ideological. In this way National could validly claim to be the ‘national’ party, broadly representative of the nation. Such was its electoral success that some called it the natural party of government.

Fewer farmers

Of National MPs elected from 1936 to 1986, 40% were farmers, 20% in business, 17% lawyers and 6% accountants. By 2005 farmers had lost ground: of the MPs elected that year, 13% were farmers, 27% were in business and 17% were lawyers.

Membership declines

National’s networks weakened from the 1970s. New Zealand society became more mobile and diverse, party membership declined (as with other mass parties in democracies), and Robert Muldoon alienated many supporters. By 2000 membership had fallen to about one-tenth of its peak. In 2005 membership numbers and vitality had revived somewhat, but National’s membership lacked the diversity of wider New Zealand society. From 2008 there were concerted attempts to include minorities in its candidate list.

Broadening National’s appeal

National had earlier attempted to broaden its appeal to Māori, women and youth.


National has drawn support, and MPs, from Māori of two sorts: those with high iwi rank and those who choose not to go on the Māori electoral roll. The latter group (nearly half of those of Māori descent enrolled in 2018) has significantly affected the result in some general electorates.

Labour has had much more support in the Māori electorates, which National stopped contesting until 2023. However, it recognised that it needed wider connections with Māori. In 2008 incoming Prime Minister John Key signed a support deal with the Māori Party, which held five of the seven Māori electorates, and made the two party co-leaders ministers outside cabinet. Among the concessions were Whānau Ora – a whānau-based health initiative.


Women attended the party’s founding conference and have played a major role in canvassing for new members, raising funds and organising social activities. In 1976 Dorothy McNab became the first women to chair a party division – Otago-Southland. In 1982 Sue Wood was elected as National’s first woman president. Before the 2020 election, 20 of National’s 55 MPs were women; only 10 (of 33) women remained after the election.


A junior division of the National Party emerged in the late 1930s and by the late 1940s was booming. Social events – dances, barbecues, debates and outings – were key attractions, but by the late 1950s membership was falling. In 1967 the junior division changed its name to Young Nationals and became more politically focused.

Party organisation

In the early 2020s the party organisation exist in cooperation with, but independently of, the parliamentary wing. It comprises:

  • an executive board and president, selected at the party’s annual conference with a two-year term for members, and consisting of the leader, a National MP and seven elected party members, one of whom is chosen as president by board members
  • five semi-autonomous regions, led by a regional chair, with each council consisting of representatives elected by electorate committees
  • electorate committees in every electorate, which canvass support for their local MP and the wider party, and choose their MPs through a democratic process
  • a national headquarters in Wellington, comprising a general manager and a small group of operational staff.

Choosing candidates

Electoral candidates have to go through a three-stage process before representing the party. Firstly, the board approves nominations; secondly, a pre-selection committee is set up, comprising two representatives selected by the president, two by the regional chair and five from the electorate; and thirdly, a selection committee of at least 60 local party members is democratically appointed. These delegates vote to choose the candidate.

Annual conference and policy formation

The party holds an annual conference to elect its executive board, hear from senior MPs and discuss policy remits from regional conferences. These are then fed through to the parliamentary wing for consideration. As well as the Young Nationals, special-interest groups within the party provide policy input. These include the SuperBlues, for voters over the age of 60, and the Bluegreens, an environmental advisory group.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Colin James, 'National Party', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Colin James, published 20 June 2012, updated 1 July 2020