The rise of smaller parties
From 1978 onwards there was a slow but significant drop in the combined vote for the two major parties, while the vote for small parties began to increase. The period between 1978 and the first mixed-member proportional (MMP) election of 1996 marked a transition from a pure two-party system to a multi-party system. Small parties challenged the major parties across the country, won a significant proportion of the vote (20% for Social Credit in the 1981 election) and in some cases parliamentary representation (Social Credit in 1981 and 1984, NewLabour in 1990, New Zealand First and the Alliance in 1993).
The New Zealand Party
Between 1983 and 1985 the New Zealand Party (NZP) had a brief but bright moment in political history. It was set up as a protest against the National government led by Robert Muldoon. There was disquiet within the National Party and the business community at the economic direction being taken by the government and the degree of state intervention.
McGillicuddy Serious Party
The McGillicuddy Serious Party formed in Hamilton in 1984, and had candidates in each general election until 1999 when it deregistered. A satirical party, it poked fun at elections and political parties. Its core policy was a ‘great leap backwards’ to a medieval way of life, and among its election promises were free dung, giving the vote to trees and a commitment to break their promises.
The primary aim of the NZP was not to win government but to dislodge National from office. Once in opposition, National could reinvent itself under new leadership as the private-enterprise free-market party of pre-Muldoon times. Despite the 1984 election being called early (in July) the NZP was sufficiently organised and well-resourced to stand candidates in every seat. NZP leader Robert (Bob) Jones, a prominent businessman, was its most identifiable candidate.
It won 12.5% of the vote (but no seats), and achieved its objective. National lost, and the fourth Labour government took office and proceeded to reform the economy in the way advocated by the NZP.
The following year Jones disbanded the party organisation, transferring his support to the new free-market Labour government. While a remnant of the party negotiated a merger with National in 1986, the New Zealand Party ceased to exist with Jones’s 1985 decision to withdraw his personal support.
Alongside the general electorates there were also challenges to the two-party system in the electoral contests for the Māori seats. Mana Motuhake o Aotearoa was founded in 1980 by Matiu Rata, a former Labour MP and minister of Māori affairs. Rata left the Labour Party (citing a lack of sensitivity to Māori concerns) at a time of considerable activism around land and cultural issues.
The first independent Māori political party for over 50 years, Mana Motuhake stood candidates in the Māori seats. The party proved a significant contender in the election of 1981, winning 15% of the vote in the Māori seats. High levels of support for the party in the Māori seats continued throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, peaking at 22.4% in 1990. However, this support did not translate into seats until 1993 when, as part of the Alliance, new party leader Sandra Lee won the Auckland Central seat.