The New Zealand National Party was formed in Wellington on May 13 and 14, 1936. It grew out of the coalition government of the Reform and Liberal parties, which had formed the wartime National Government in 1915.
The Reform Party had been essentially a rural based party, whereas the Liberals were dominated by city based concerns. These two parties united to form an alternative to the socialist Labour government. The name "National" was chosen as the new party sought to represent all parts of the community.
George Forbes, the United Party Leader opened the conference which formed the National Party in May 1936 and was Leader of the Opposition until October 1936 when Adam Hamilton was elected as the first Leader of the National Party.
The Party grew quickly and by the third party conference in August 1938, shortly before the general election, there were more than 100,000 members.
Hamilton led the Party into its first election in 1938. This election proved to be a disappointment with the number of National Members of Parliament rising from a mere 19 to 25 seats out of 80, well short of becoming government.
The onset of World War Two saw National MPs entering a War Cabinet with the Labour Government of Peter Fraser. In 1940 Sidney Holland was elected National Party Leader. He led the Party into the 1943 election with National reducing Labour's majority from 28 seats to just 12.
National's first woman Member of Parliament was Hilda Ross who won the Hamilton electorate in a by-election in May 1945 and went on to serve as a minister in the first National Government. She was made a Dame in 1956.
The 1946 election saw the removal of the "country quota", which had increased the number of rural seats, and this cost National victory. National won 38 of the general electorate seats, the same as Labour, but the four Maori electorates remained firmly in Labour's hands. In the wake of the defeat Keith Holyoake was chosen as deputy leader in 1947. At the first meeting of the Dominion Executive of the Party following the election in March 1947, a Marginal Seats Committee was formed. Eight Labour held seats were heavily targeted to take National to the Treasury benches.
National takes the reins
When New Zealand went to the polls in 1949, National swept in to power winning 46 of a possible 80 seats. After 13 years of opposition National finally took office.
The first National Government faced its gravest challenge in the 1951 waterfront dispute. The industrial unrest caused many difficulties for the Government. Holland consulted his cabinet and senior party officials and called a snap election. The campaign contrasted the strong leadership of Holland versus the older Labour leader Walter Nash. National won by a landslide with 54 per cent of all votes cast giving lifting the party’s majority to 20 seats from 12 the previous election.
The Government gradually deregulated the economy from the austerity of wartime. The Korean War meant a booming demand for New Zealand's products. However, the election in 1954 saw National's vote drop by nearly 100,000. This was largely due to the emergence of the Social Credit Political League. National retained its majority but lost five seats. Cabinet was reshuffled with many new younger faces brought in.
Holland became increasingly ill in 1956. Keith Holyoake was elected leader on 13 August 1957. Five weeks later Holland resigned as Prime Minister and Holyoake formed his own Cabinet on 20 September. Holland retired at the 1957 election and died four years later.
Holyoake: Over 11 Years as PM
Keith Jacka Holyoake had left school at the age of 12, when his father had become ill. He worked his father's farm and was educated by his mother at night. He later became very active in the community, particularly with rugby union and the Farmers Union. At the age of 53, he succeeded Holland. He was known as an extremely astute chairman of Cabinet and Caucus. He encouraged consensus and compromise in decision-making.
The 1957 election campaign was not successful for National. The late leadership change, Labour's promise of a 100 pound tax rebate, and a weaker National Party organisation resulted in Labour winning 41 seats to National's 39. The National vote dropped only slightly but Labour had taken votes at Social Credit's expense. Holyoake had been Prime Minister for just 70 days and he almost immediately set out to return to that office.
By mid-1958, Holyoake had Labour on the run. The Labour Government's Black Budget of 1958 saw a collapse in Labour's electoral support. Holyoake criss-crossed the country from May 1959 to take his message to the people. During 1960 he undertook a six-week tour of Asia as the Leader of Opposition and greatly improved our Asian relations. Heavy tax increases and vigorous National campaign unseated Labour. National was restored to power with 46 seats and a majority of 12. One of the new MPs was R.D. Muldoon from Tamaki.
New Zealand's "Golden Years"
The new Holyoake Government worked to implement 215 Bills in its term. It brought through 156 in the first session. Government legislation ranged from revision of the Crimes Act to changes to the liquor laws. This led the 1963 election to be fought on memories of the unpopular Labour Government and the successful National Government. National only lost a net one seat.
From 1964 the Vietnam War began to dominate the news. Labour installed Norman Kirk as leader in 1966 and he decided not to use Vietnam as an issue in the 1966 election. This election campaign was Holyoake's stormiest. There were near riots at his election meetings in the main cities and TV began to play a part in the campaign. However, National lost a net of just one seat, not to Labour, but to Social Credit.
Muldoon enters Cabinet as Finance Minister
Muldoon was appointed to Cabinet in February 1967, three weeks later, Harry Lake then Minister of Finance died. Muldoon was appointed to the post. Not long after assuming the post Muldoon introduced his first mini-budget, which bore the hallmark of his piecemeal and interventionist style.
National tried to fight the 1969 election over the success of its National Development Conference. Again the Vietnam War dominated, protesters brawling with police and Holyoake was mobbed. Muldoon was used to attack Kirk and revelled in the higher profile he now had. In an increased Parliament of 84 seats, National won 45 and Labour 39.
Holyoake announced his retirement at Caucus on 2 February 1972. Jack Marshall, Holyoake’s long-time deputy, succeeded him. Marshall was highly respected for his work in negotiation for trade access with the European Economic Community. He took over a National Party in election year that was 16 points behind in the opinion polls, Muldoon was elected deputy leader.
The Labour Party under Kirk inflicted a severe defeat on the National Party in the 1972 election. Their "Time for Change" campaign and Kirk's television persona were too much for the more retiring Marshall. National was left with 32 seats out of 87. Among the new MPs elected that year was Jim Bolger.
Robert Muldoon, a former accountant and the MP for Tāmaki, became the leader of a shattered National Party in July 1974. The Caucus saw Muldoon as the man capable of taking on Kirk. Other major changes were made to the organisation. A new president was elected in George Chapman and a new director-general in Barrie Leay. They developed a highly successful advertising campaign for the coming election.
National barnstorms the nation in 1975
Kirk died in office and was replaced by Bill Rowling. Rowling lived in the shadow of Kirk. Muldoon barnstormed the country in 1975 with his most famous meeting of that campaign at the Wiri Woolstore where he spoke to a crowd of 6500. Muldoon, the master debater, was highly successful on television, which had come of age as a primary campaigning medium. A highly successful advertising campaign put National into power with a massive majority.
National’s 23-seat majority was an exact reversal of Labour's 1972 result.
Initially, Muldoon appeared to begin reforming the economy and eliminate the budget deficit. Soon Muldoon began moving toward a more regulated and interventionist approach. By the 1978 election, National's share of the vote fell from 48 per cent to 40 per cent. Only superior National organisation in key marginal seats resulted in the Party retaining power, albeit with 51 seats, a majority of just 10 seats, in the 92 seat Parliament. Social Credit gained one seat.
In October 1980, Muldoon's leadership came under challenge in the so called "Colonels' Coup." Three able young ministers Derek Quigley, Jim McLay and Jim Bolger looked to replace Muldoon with his deputy, Brian Talboys. However, Talboys was unwilling and once Muldoon returned from his overseas trip, he set about retaining power and managed to head off the challenge.
The 1981 election was dominated by the aftermath of the Springbok Tour and by the "Think Big" plans. Think Big aimed to invest public money into major energy projects that would provide alternatives to oil following the two oil price-hike shocks of the 1970s. National held 47 seats to Labour's 43, each party having 39 per cent of the vote, with Social Credit winning two seats (with a popular vote of 20 per cent). This lead to a majority of just one following the appointment of a Speaker who at that time had a no deliberative vote.
Muldoon as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance imposed his will on the economy through mini-budgets and a freeze of wages and prices.
However, there were some more reformist actions. In 1983 Jim Bolger introduced Voluntary Unionism legislation and also in the post of Minister of Labour he freed up shop trading hours. He was seen as a mix of Holland, Holyoake, and Muldoon and pushed for a more balanced approach to the economy.
The Clyde Dam Bill, which fast-tracked development of the hydro generating station, was among the actions that caused Muldoon to lose the support of a number of MPs. Maverick National MPs Marilyn Waring and Mike Minogue threatened the fragile majority. In March 1984, National elected Jim McLay deputy leader. He had strong appeal with more liberal sections of society and the business sector.
After falling to gain the support of Marilyn Waring over nuclear ship legislation, Muldoon called a snap election which was held on 14 July 1984. This was despite warnings from Party President Sue Wood that the party organisation was completely unprepared.
The New Zealand Party formed by former National supporter, Bob Jones took away traditional National support across the country, securing 12 per cent of the vote. Divisions and defections in National and the charismatic Labour leader David Lange took National's share of the vote to just 36 per cent of the vote and 37 of 95 seats.
In November 1984, Muldoon was voted out in favour of a new leadership team. Jim McLay became leader and Bolger his deputy. McLay took over a traumatised National Party. Muldoon undermined him in the media and his supporters put pressure on the McLay leadership.
McLay did not find television easy and he fell behind in the polls as he failed to put pressure on the Labour Government. In early 1986 James Brendan Bolger, MP for King Country, took over as Leader.
Outflanked on the right by Labour
He took National into battle against a Lange Government in full flight. Big business funded Labour's campaign as the sharemarket boomed. Urban, liberal New Zealand that had voted for the New Zealand Party in 1984, now voted Labour as they got rich quick.
While National gained 44 per cent of the vote in the 1987 election, winning 40 seats, 17 behind Labour with 48 per cent. National was only hundreds of votes from losing urban strongholds like Remuera, but held onto the likes of Timaru. However, soon after the election the sharemarket crashed and the economy slammed into recession. There was rapidly rising unemployment and negative economic growth. The new member for Ashburton elected in 1987 was Jenny Shipley.
The 1990s mandate
National came to the front of the polls and stayed there. In 1990, National won an astounding 67 seats of a possible 97. This was the largest majority in New Zealand's Parliamentary history. The fourth National Government took steps to rein in ballooning public spending and put the books in order. They succeeded and brought the Budget in to surplus in 1994. With an export-led recovery New Zealand began to boom and unemployment fell through the 1990s after peaking at 10.9 per cent in 1991.
During the first term of the fourth National Government, Cabinet Minister Winston Peters made public his disagreement with the direction of some of the Government's policy. In October 1991 he was dismissed from Cabinet. He resigned from the National caucus in October 1992, and was not selected to be the National candidate again in his Tauranga electorate. Winston Peters established a centrist party called NZ First.
The 1993 election was fought on the basis of the rapidly expanding recovery. While most pundits had National in with a comfortable majority, election night delivered a shock. It appeared that there would be a hung parliament, with National unable to establish clear majority. As Prime Minister Bolger said, "Bugger the pollsters". The return of special votes established that National's Alec Neill had in fact won the seat of Waitaki. Peter Tapsell the Labour Member of Parliament for Eastern Maori became the Speaker of the House and National had a majority of two, having won 50 of the 99 seats with 35 per cent of the vote. 1993 saw a combined third party vote of 27 per cent for NZ First and Alliance.
Also that night a referendum on electoral systems established that Mixed Member Proportional representation would be used for future elections, replacing First Past the Post. Thus the 1994-96 term of Parliament was dominated by manoeuvring in advance of MMP. Many new parties formed but only six were elected to Parliament in the 1996 MMP election.
Life under MMP
The election night results, as predicted, were inconclusive with National gaining 34 per cent, similar to 1993, and winning 44 out of the 120 seats in Parliament. After almost nine weeks of post-election coalition talks with NZ First which had won 13 per cent of the party vote giving it 17 seats, a coalition was agreed between the two parties and a National/NZ First Government was sworn in with 61 seats out of 120 in the House. The right-wing Act party had 6 per cent.
The public took some time to get used to consensus-style coalition government. The unpopularity of NZ First also rubbed off on National. National's public poll ratings reached record lows.
In December 1997 Jenny Shipley replaced Jim Bolger as Leader of the National Party and Prime Minister. Mrs Shipley became both the National Party’s first woman leader, and also New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister.
In August 1998 Winston Peters was sacked as Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister. NZ First left the Coalition Government. However, a number of MPs resigned from NZ First and were committed to supporting the Government.
National continued in power as a minority Government, similar to many in Europe, with the support also of Act, United, and independent MPs. Despite these challenges National successfully enacted further important reforms, enabling greater competition and consumer choice across a number of industries.
The change of leadership, coupled with a major Cabinet re-shuffle in January 1999, saw National entering the election campaign with a fresher and more centrist team.
In October 2001 Bill English became National's Leader and Roger Sowry the Deputy Leader. By October 2003 a mood for change resulted in the election of Don Brash as Leader of the National Party, with Bill English moving to a front bench seat. After a short period as Deputy Leader, Nick Smith was replaced by Gerry Brownlee.
At the 2005 election National came agonisingly close to taking power after Don Brash and his team managed to almost double National's party vote and number of MPs.
In late 2006, Don Brash decided to step down as leader. Finance Spokesman, John Key, was elected Leader and Bill English as Deputy Leader.
Choose a brighter future
Under John Key’s fresh leadership, National went into the 2008 general election campaign with a large lead in the opinion polls. The Party ran a strong, disciplined and relentlessly positive campaign that focused on the issues that mattered to New Zealanders fed up with nine years of an increasingly ‘PC’ Labour Government.
National asked New Zealanders to ‘Choose a Brighter Future’ and voters responded by delivering John Key and National a resounding victory of 45 per cent of the vote (to Labour’s 34 per cent) – the highest ever party vote percentage achieved under MMP.
Despite National’s healthy election margin John Key forged confidence and supply agreements with partners to the right and left, including the Act, United Future, and Maori parties to deliver New Zealanders a strong, stable centre-right Government.
During its first term in office, the National Government faced extraordinary challenges from the global economic crisis to the two Canterbury earthquakes and the Pike River Mine Disaster. John Key dealt with these events swiftly, skilfully, and with immense compassion. And through it all the National-led Government has continued to work hard to deliver on its election promises, help Kiwis get ahead, and build a brighter future for New Zealand.
The voters returned National to the Treasury benches in 2011 with National renewing its supply and confidence agreements with the Act, United Future, and Maori parties.
Building a Brighter Future
National’s second term in office saw it build on the successes of the first. Under John Key’s leadership, New Zealand continued to prosper and become one of the fastest growing countries in the OECD. It was becoming a more confident, outward looking nation where Kiwis wanted to live and Kiwis overseas wanted to return home to – a far cry from the stadium of departures John Key highlighted in the 2008 election campaign.
National’s 2014 campaign for a third term saw it take its track record of economic success and ongoing commitment to back all New Zealanders’ hard work. Its pledge to keep working for New Zealand saw it returned to Government, with 47% of the vote, alongside its confidence and supply partners Act, United Future and the Maori Party.
Delivering for New Zealand
National's third term in office continued to deliver on its economic strength, with a focus on delivering the Business Growth Agenda across New Zealand. Other key issues of focus were returning to surplus after careful management of the books since the Global Financial Crisis and Christchurch Earthquakes.
Under National, the public service continued to deliver well for Kiwis against the Better Public Service Targets with more people in work, fewer Kiwis on benefits, more timely delivery of health services, and greater achievement for our kids in education.
Late in 2016, after 10 years as Leader of the National Party and 8 years as Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key announced his resignation. Long serving Deputy Leader and Minister of Finance, Bill English, was subsequently elected Leader by the National Caucus and became the 39th Prime Minister of New Zealand on 12 December 2016.
The 2017 election was hard fought and National managed to once again be the most popular Party with 44.4% of the vote (compared to Labour on 36%). The election also delivered a record for MMP with National consistently increasing its amount of votes over 4 successive elections.
Election night delivered a bittersweet result with National unable to form Government with previous Coalition partners, as United Future Leader Peter Dunne had retired, and the Maori Party did not make it back into Parliament. National plus the Act Party delivered 57 Seats, and could not get there on their own. Once again Winston Peters and New Zealand First held the balance of power and decided to enter a formal Coalition with Labour.
For the first time in nearly a decade, National was back in opposition.
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