Political parties are an integral part of a well-functioning democracy. They draw people into the political process and provide electoral choices by creating and informing voters of policy alternatives. Parties compete to win office and form governments, and so provide a link between people and the state. The competition and interaction between political parties is what makes up a ‘party system’.
Although parties provided the organisational base for New Zealand political life both inside and outside Parliament, they were not a formal part of the constitutional framework until the Electoral Act 1993. With the introduction of mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), parties became an essential and formally recognised part of the political system.
New Zealand’s institutionalised party system arose later than in most other Anglo-American democracies. Until the late 19th century members of Parliament stood as independents. Some MPs became part of factions, but these usually formed around prominent individuals, such as Julius Vogel, after the MPs were elected to Parliament rather than before. As with other settler societies, these early parliamentary factions tended to centre on issues related to free trade versus protectionism and the regulatory role of the state.
The formation of the Liberal government in 1891 signalled the beginning of a more formal party system. The Liberals developed a network of branches and financial supporters and set out formal policies that constrained the behaviour of its party members in Parliament.
Initially the Liberals were the sole party, but in the 1900s their dominance was challenged by the creation of other formal parties on the right and left. The most significant was the Reform Party, created in 1909. More conservative than the Liberals, it focused on the interests of farmers and business. It won enough seats in the 1911 election to form a government in 1912.
The Labour Party formed in 1916 incorporated a number of small parties of the left that had emerged from the early 1900s. Several of them had held seats in Parliament.
By 1919 New Zealand’s party system was dominated by three parties: the Liberal (later United) and Reform parties on the right, and Labour on the left. These represented the defining social and economic dividing lines of the time – business, farmers and workers. This continued until 1935, when Labour won a landslide victory.
In the decade prior to Labour’s win it had become clear that the two parties on the right no longer had sufficient policy differences to justify competing against each other. Pragmatism overrode ideology when the United and Reform parties merged into one party – the National Party – in 1936.
Following the 1936 merger of the United and Reform parties, New Zealand shifted to a two-party system with National and Labour dominating politics and Parliament. Over the next 50 years the two-party system became embedded within New Zealand’s political culture. Between 1935 and 1978 it was not uncommon for the combined vote of National and Labour to be close to 100% of the total vote. Independents such as Harry Atmore (first elected to the Nelson seat in 1911) and candidates of smaller parties such as Social Credit were elected at times, but these interruptions were irregular and did little to undermine the two-party dominance.
From the 1950s until the mid-1980s National appeared to be the ‘natural’ party of government. Labour had held power for 14 years from 1935–1949 but only won two more elections prior to 1984 (in 1957 and 1972), and governed for only one term on both occasions.
There are several reasons why such dominance was able to prevail. Both parties had been able to consolidate their core support base, but had also widened their appeal to attract voters located around the centre. For National this meant creating an organisation and policies that was attractive to farmers and conservative urban white-collar workers.
Labour consolidated its inner-city support of blue-collar workers and public-sector white-collar workers. It also expanded its voter base with an alliance with the Rātana movement, which in turn delivered Labour all four Māori seats from 1943. While the two parties targeted different groups of voters, there was often little to distinguish their policies when they were in government. The legacies of Labour were also often reinforced by National in government. National and Labour grew and nurtured party identification and loyalty with little threat from alternative, smaller parties.
The nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system, in place until 1996, rewarded large, well-organised and well-resourced parties that had geographically concentrated support bases. Parties were important in practical terms under first past the post as it was identification with a particular party rather than an individual candidate that tended to influence voters’ choice at the ballot box. The candidate with the most votes was declared the winner of the seat.
Rural seats were easily won by National candidates, while Labour was able to retain inner-city seats, those in suburbs where working-class voters lived, and many provincial urban seats. Across the country minor parties could gain a significant percentage of the overall vote, but unless they had a candidate who got the most votes in an electorate they won no seats in Parliament. This was the major criticism of the first-past-the-post electoral system – the minor parties’ political support did not translate into representation in Parliament.
Between 1953 and 1978 Social Credit offered the strongest challenge to the two-party system, yet it was unable to gain a permanent place in Parliament. Social Credit, which was an international movement that began in Canada, originally appealed to people who believed banks and other financial interests conspired against workers and small-scale producers such as dairy farmers.
In New Zealand the party’s precursor, the Social Credit Association, was created in the early 1930s as a monetary-reform organisation. Its members set up the Social Credit Political League in 1953. The league promised government control of the monetary system and cheap loans. In its early years the organisation was also anti-semitic, but that ended in the 1970s under the more liberal leadership of Bruce Beetham.
At its first election – 1954 – Social Credit stood candidates around the country in all but one electorate, and won 11.3% of the vote. Over the next 30 years its vote seldom dropped below 7%, and it peaked in 1981 at 20%. Support for the party declined in the later 1980s, despite several attempts at re-branding itself, including a name change to the New Zealand Democratic Party in 1985.
Despite their level of support, between 1966 and 1984 only four Social Credit candidates were elected to Parliament, including leader Bruce Beetham (1978 and 1981, representing the Rangitīkei electorate). In 1987 the Democratic Party was the only significant small party to contest the election.
Social Credit was a victim of New Zealand’s highly disproportional electoral system and the traditional dominance of the two main parties. There was also disharmony and division within the party, and competition for votes from other small parties such as the Values Party.
Most important was its failure to persuade voters that it was anything other than a protest party – a vehicle for those temporarily disillusioned with the National Party but unable to bring themselves to vote Labour. The party failed to generate a geographically concentrated vote based on significant political difference – essential for ongoing success in a first-past-the-post electoral system.
While Social Credit’s electoral success failed to fragment New Zealand’s two-party system, its sustained presence as a third party and its vote surge at critical points in electoral and economic cycles demonstrated that New Zealanders were not afraid of using their vote as a form of democratic protest against the two main parties.
In the 1970s the Values Party received a low vote share in three consecutive elections (2% in 1972, 5.2% in 1975 and 2.4% in 1978). The party did better in local-body elections, and a number of its candidates were elected to city councils.
Sometimes labelled the world’s first green party, the Values Party took a progressive position on a range of issues being championed by the peace, women’s and environmental movements. It appealed to young, middle-income voters, and its members tended to be younger than those of the other parties.
Values candidates continued to contest elections throughout the 1980s, even though the party organisation was largely defunct. In 1990, several of its long-time activists helped to establish the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.
The New Zealand Communist Party (1921–94) contested elections from 1923 to the 1990s. Although none of its candidates won a seat in Parliament, the party was more influential than this record or its small size suggests. Among its members were leaders within unions and, in the 1930s, the unemployed workers movement. Others took part in left-wing political causes and were prominent in publishing and writing for left-wing magazines.
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).
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.
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.
By 1990 two other parties had emerged. Jim Anderton, formerly a Labour MP and party president, formed the NewLabour Party in 1989. In the 1990 election it won 5.1% of the vote, and Anderton retained his electorate seat, giving NewLabour a presence in Parliament. The newly formed Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand also stood candidates in 1990, winning 6.8% of the vote but no seats.
The Christian Heritage Party, established in 1989, disbanded in 2006. The Christian Democrats suffered a similar fate – set up in 1995, they vanished into the small UnitedFuture coalition. Unlike some democracies, where God is frequently invoked in speeches, New Zealand party politics is largely secular and parties based on religious values have not fared well in elections.
In December 1991 NewLabour, the Green Party, Mana Motuhake and the Democratic Party (previously Social Credit) formed a new grouping called the Alliance. By pooling resources they hoped to enhance their chances of winning more seats in the 1993 election. The Alliance won two seats. In 1996, the first election under the MMP (mixed-member proportional) system, the Alliance gained 18.4% of the vote, winning 13 seats. A fifth party, the Liberal Party, formed in 1992 by two National MPs protesting against their government’s welfare reforms, also joined the Alliance.
The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand was formed in 1990, drawing its members from the environmental movement, the by then defunct Values Party, and a smattering of other left-wing interests.
In its structure and beliefs the party differed from the standard model. Opposed to centralised control and ‘presidential’ leadership, the Greens made decisions by consensus (when possible), gave electorate groups greater independence than was usual, and had a joint leadership (one male, one female) and a number of spokespeople.
Participation in the Alliance was strongly debated within the Greens, and in 1997 it left the Alliance. The Greens had been one of the strongest elements in the grouping, and when standing candidates on its own behalf in 1999 it won seven seats in Parliament. By then the party, which had been seen as a single-issue party, had broadened its policy base.
Following the 2017 election the Greens entered into a confidence and supply agreement with Labour, which formed a coalition government with New Zealand First. Following the 2020 election, the Greens’ two co-leaders accepted ministerial positions outside Cabinet in a government formed by Labour, which had won an absolute majority in the House.
Another splinter party, New Zealand First, established and led by Winston Peters, broke away from National prior to the 1993 election and won 8.4% of the vote and two seats. In 1996, after the first MMP election, the party had a ‘kingmaker’ role – the party it went into coalition with would become the government. Following a period of negotiations it chose to go with the National Party.
After a poor performance at the 1999 election (down from 13.4% of the vote and 17 seats in 1996, to 4.3% and 5 seats) New Zealand First staged something of a revival at the 2002 election (10.4% and 13 seats).
Following the 2005 election Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark made Peters her foreign minister in exchange for New Zealand First’s legislative support. This arrangement ended with the defeat of the Labour-led government and New Zealand First’s departure from Parliament at the 2008 election.
New Zealand First returned to Parliament in 2011. Following the 2017 election the party's nine MPs formed a coalition government with Labour that was supported by the Green Party. In 2020, New Zealand First won only 2.6% of the party vote and once again left Parliament.
Parties gained legal standing with the passing of the Electoral Act 1993. They were an integral part of the new mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system, first used in the 1996 election. Suddenly, any political party that won at least 5% of the vote or an electorate seat was represented in Parliament. Coalitions or support arrangements between large and small parties became the norm, with a post-election period of negotiation before a governing group was announced.
Under MMP each voter has two votes: one for an electorate candidate and one for a political party. This second ‘party vote’ determines the overall composition of the House of Representatives and, once deals have been done between parties, the make-up of government.
The Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act 2001 and the Electoral Finance Act 2007 directly affected the management of parties. The Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act aimed to stop ‘party-hopping’ (preventing MPs elected when members of one party joining a different party once in Parliament), but expired two years after being passed. The Electoral Finance Act limited the amount that could be donated to parties anonymously and spent on third-party campaigns. It was repealed in 2009.
Small parties have not prospered as coalition partners with either National or Labour governments. The first coalition, of National and New Zealand First, collapsed prematurely in 1998 when Winston Peters was sacked from cabinet. Subsequently eight New Zealand First MPs defected to National, allowing it to continue to govern. The Alliance also imploded before the end of its three-year term (1999–2002) as a coalition partner with Labour. Since this time, small parties have tended to avoid formal coalition arrangements, working instead as support parties on Budget and other specifically negotiated issues, while retaining a degree of independence.
Since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996, eight different small parties have gained parliamentary representation in addition to the two major parties: ACT, UnitedFuture, Greens, Mana, Māori, New Zealand First, Progressive and the Alliance.
The Māori Party (later Te Pāti Māori) was formed in 2004 in protest at Labour’s decision to pass the Foreshore and Seabed Act. In the view of the party’s founding co-leaders, Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, the new legislation violated Māori customary title over the country’s coastline. At the 2005 general election the Māori Party won four of Parliament’s seven Māori seats, and following the 2008 and 2011 elections Turia and Sharples became ministers in John Key’s minority National government. They retired from Parliament at the 2014 election and by 2017 Labour had regained all the Māori seats. In 2020 Te Pāti Māori won one back, and secured a second MP on the basis of its party vote.
As a result of personal and political differences, Māori Party MP Hone Harawira left to form the Mana Party in 2011. The party sought to represent the interests of Māori and the poor generally. Its leadership group included Pākehā political activists. In the 2011 general election Hone Harawira won Te Tai Tokerau seat for Mana and became its sole MP. In the lead-up to the 2014 election Mana entered into an alliance with the Internet Party. When Harawira lost his seat to Kelvin Davis, Mana was out of Parliament and the alliance was dissolved.
ACT (a party that appeals to voters of the libertarian right) was formed in 1993 as the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers by former Labour cabinet minister Roger Douglas and former National cabinet minister Derek Quigley. The party proper began in 1994. ACT won eight seats at its first election in 1996 but remained in opposition for the next 12 years. When the National Party formed a government in 2008, ACT's leader and deputy leader were offered ministerial posts. However, during this parliamentary term the party experienced internal conflict and its political fortunes declined. ACT had only one MP from 2011 until 2020, when 10 ACT MPs were returned.
Of all the minor parties, only the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand has consistently reached the required 5% party vote threshold since 1999, despite the presence in Parliament of up to five or six small parties at any one time. Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party (reinvented after the Alliance split in 2002) was represented solely on the basis of Anderton’s electorate seat, and the same was generally true for Peter Dunne’s UnitedFuture Party. Parties like this are unlikely to survive once their leader’s electorate seat is lost. When Anderton decided to retire from Parliament in 2011, the Progressive Party did not contest the election and was wound up the following year. Following Dunne's retirement in 2017, UnitedFuture did not win a seat at that year's election.
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