The National Party is New Zealand’s most successful political party. By 2020 it had been in government for 47 years, more than any other party.
At the inaugural 1936 conference there was a long debate about what to call the new party. Gordon Coates suggested the 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 from Mrs J. Aston of Wellington suggesting the name ‘The New Zealand National Party’ was unanimously adopted instead.
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, initially with support 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 (32.9% of the vote). The right-wing splinter Democratic Party received 7.8% of the vote.
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 five-person war cabinet set up in 1941, 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 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.
National’s 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 a snap election 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 more often in government than out of it.
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.
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 from 1960 to 1969.
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.
The 1960s were a time of substantial social change, with the introduction of the contraceptive pill and freer sexual morals, growing protest against playing rugby with apartheid South Africa and against the Vietnam War, and an emerging environmentalist 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 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 the 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 lost the election to Labour in a landslide. Marshall was ousted as leader in July 1974 by Muldoon. Muldoon reversed the landslide in the 1975 election (47.6% and a 23-seat majority). National won 10-seat and two-seat majorities in the 1978 and 1981 elections – but both times with fewer votes than Labour.
Sir Robert Muldoon drew on the ‘ordinary bloke’ for his inspiration, thereby 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 football club.’2
Though initially highly popular in the party and with voters for his personal power, decisiveness, contempt for cant and ability to translate complex issues into 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 party 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 the 1975 election slogan, ‘New Zealand – the way you want it’.
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 Bob Jones. As economic problems mounted, and after back-bench 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.
National Party deputy leader Jim McLay, an urban economic liberal, ousted Muldoon following the 1984 general 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 during the 1990–93 Bolger government. Wanting to reduce the size of government and encourage self-reliance, she slashed welfare benefits and introduced the Employment Contracts Act 1991, which de-unionised 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 her 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 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 respectively. The party then turned to John Key, who won resoundingly in 2008 with a 44.9% party-vote share, and entered into confidence-and-supply agreements with the Māori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture. These agreements were made again after the 2011 and 2014 elections.
Key chose Bill English as his deputy. By combining his own liberal leanings with English's conservatism, he returned National to the positioning that marked its 1950s and 1960s ascendancy – a constructive tension between its liberal and conservative strands. In December 2016 Key resigned as both party leader and Prime Minister, and was succeeded by his former deputy. National won 44.4% of the vote at the 2017 election, but lost power to a coalition of Labour and New Zealand First that was supported by the Green Party.
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:
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.
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.
In the 1930s National first emulated and then outstripped Labour in building a large low-fee membership. By the mid-1970s it claimed to have around 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 National from becoming too ideological. In this way National could validly claim to be the ‘national’ party, widely representative of the nation. Some called it the natural party of government.
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 in that year, 13% were farmers, 27% were from business and 17% were lawyers.
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 had alienated many supporters. By 2000 the membership had dipped 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 electoral candidate list.
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 do not go on the Māori electoral roll. The latter group (about one-third of Māori in the early 2000s) has significantly affected the result in some general electorates.
Labour has had much more support in the Māori electorates, and National stopped contesting these seats. However, it has recognised that it needs wider connections with Māori. In 2008 Prime Minister John Key signed a support deal with the Māori Party, which then held five of the 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 since then have played a major role in canvassing 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. In 2020, 20 of National’s 55 MPs were women.
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 it changed its name to the Young Nationals and became more politically focused.
In 2011 the party organisation existed in cooperation with, but independently of, the parliamentary wing. It comprised:
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, made up of two representatives selected by the president, two from the regional chair, and five from the electorate; and thirdly, a selection committee of at least 60 party members is democratically appointed. These voting delegates then choose the candidate.
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, three other special-interest groups within the party provide policy input: the SuperBlues, for voters over age 60, the BlueGreens, an environmental advisory group, and Internats, for supporters living overseas.
Chapman, George. The years of lightning. Wellington: Reed, 1980.
Clark, Margaret, ed. The Bolger years, 1990–1997. Wellington: Dunmore, 2008.
Gustafson, Barry. The first 50 years: a history of the New Zealand National Party. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986.
Gustafson, Barry. His way: a biography of Robert Muldoon. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000.
Gustafson, Barry. Kiwi Keith: a biography of Keith Holyoake. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007.