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.
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.
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.