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
These principles encompassed a wide range of specific beliefs, largely divided among four broad tendencies:
- conservative – conserving the status quo, valuing the individual and the family as the foundations of a cohesive society, accepting moderate change at most but 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 a 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 educational and health services and more individual responsibility for paying for them and for welfare benefits.
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 or develop alternative parties.
When the liberal–conservative tension with National is in equilibrium or close to equilibrium, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s and again after 2008, it enhances 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. When the equilibrium has been unsettled, as in the early 1970s and the late 1980s, 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 National’s 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 the Vietnam War.
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.