The New Zealand National Party had its genesis in the decision, in September 1931, of the United Party, then the government (Right Hon. G. W. Forbes, Prime Minister), and the Reform Party (Right Hon. J. G. Coates, Leader and former Prime Minister, 1925–28), to form a coalition government. With a minority of members in the House, the United Government retained office precariously after the general election in 1928, when the Reform Government had been defeated. For some years the United Government had been supported in the House by the Labour Party, but the world-wide depression, with its stringent economy measures of the Government, resulted in the defection of Labour, and the United Party turned to their traditional rivals, Reform, for support.
In the general election in 1931, following shortly after the decision of the two parties to coalesce temporarily, the Coalition Government won no fewer than 51 seats. But thereafter its popularity began to decline rapidly while that of the Labour Opposition increased. In 1935 the Coalition Government decided to go to the country again as a united body, under the banner of the National Political Federation. The Federation's candidates sustained a crushing defeat, gaining only 19 seats; thenceforth, they were hopelessly outnumbered by the newly elected Labour Government, which won 53 seats (increased the next year to 55 by the admittance to the Labour Party of two Maori members). It was clear to the opposition parties that a major factor behind Labour's victory lay in the disunity of their opponents. Only by combining, it was contended, could they hope to regain office. At a meeting of the Dominion Executive of the National Political Federation, held in February 1936, it was decided to convene a conference at which the executive would recommend that a new party be formed. This conference (presided over by C. H. Weston, K.C.), was held in Wellington on 13 and 14 May 1936 and was addressed by the Right Hon. G. W. Forbes and the Right Hon. J. G. Coates, both of whom emphasised the gravity of the situation and the need for the greatest possible degree of unity and cooperation between non-Labour groups. The Federation's recommendation, that a new party be formed, was unanimously agreed to. Subsequently, after alternative names had been discussed, it was decided that the name “The New Zealand National Party” be adopted. The objectives of the party were stated to be: “To promote good citizenship and self-reliance; to combat communism and socialism; to maintain freedom of contract; to encourage private enterprise; to safeguard individual rights and the privilege of ownership; to oppose interference by the State in business, and State control of industry”. An entirely new form of organisation was drawn up and the rules of the new party were adopted. These have remained virtually unaltered.
Hopes that the new arrangement would attract wider public support were borne out by the results of the 1938 general election when National won 25 seats. In 1939 the party's activities were curtailed owing to the outbreak of war. The party organisation, however, remained in being throughout the war years. Two members of the Parliamentary Party, Coates and Hamilton, joined the War Cabinet at the invitation of the Government. The National Party's official stand was that political differences should be avoided for the duration of the war, and that both National and Labour should combine to form a coalition government. The Labour Party did not accept this proposal, and in 1943 another general election was held. From National's point of view the main issues were: (a) high taxation; (b) the direction of the war effort, and particularly Labour's unwillingness to form a coalition government for the duration of the war; (c) industrial unrest; (d) shortages, due at least in part to industrial unrest; and (e) controls which, National contended, were far too numerous and restrictive. Labour's socialist ventures were also strongly criticised, but, in the atmosphere prevailing at the time, it is doubtful whether National's charges had much impact. As a result of the election, the National Party's representation increased to 34, while Labour's declined to 45. Several marginal seats were saved for Labour by the soldiers' votes from overseas. Prior to the election (in 1940), the National Party had elected a new leader, S. G. (later Sir Sidney) Holland), with whom the party's eventual success is popularly associated. Holland remained the leader for 17 years, until his resignation from parliamentary life a few months before the general election in 1957.
Prior to the election in 1946, National won another seat (Raglan) in a by-election. This victory, however, was more than offset by a change in the electoral laws which brought about the abolition of the “country quota”, thereby reducing the number of rural and semi-rural electorates where National traditionally polled heavily. Nevertheless, National's representation increased this time to 38. The last of the Independents disappeared and, since 1946, all members in the House have belonged either to the National or the Labour Party.
As in the case of every election since 1935 (with the exception of 1951), there was no outstanding issue for National in the 1946 contest. The party's election policy was based on their 1943 manifesto, with modifications to allow for altered circumstances; more emphasis was given to the desirability of easing or abolishing a number of wartime controls. The advantages of home ownership as opposed to State tenancy were also strongly stressed. Moreover, National promised denationalisation of State industries and an end to industrial turmoil, particularly on the waterfront where strikes and “go-slow” actions had become commonplace.
During the war, for various reasons, the party's organisation, though not neglected, had not been improved. Following the cessation of hostilities in 1945 and the return to civilian life of thousands from the armed forces, the organisation soon expanded and was stronger than at any previous period in the history of the party. To this, in some measure, electoral gains made in 1946 could be ascribed. Three years later, in the general election held on 30 November, National won 46 seats and, for the first time since its establishment 13 years before, the party became the Government. Holland was Prime Minister, his deputy being K. J. Holyoake.
Following the industrial upheaval in New Zealand in 1951, when the Government's handling of the strike was severely criticised by its political opponents, Holland decided to dissolve Parliament to secure public endorsement of what the Government had done. This result was a victory for National, its representation in the House increasing to 50. In 1954 the party lost five seats, and in 1957, when it lost another six seats, it returned to the Opposition benches after eight years in office. But at the 1960 general election the party won 46 seats and so regained the Treasury benches. K. J. Holyoake, who became leader of the party and Prime Minister a few weeks prior to being defeated in the 1957 general election campaign, had acted as Leader of the Opposition. He now became Prime Minister, his deputy being the Hon. J. R. Marshall.
The objects of the party, as set out in its rules are:
To unite all men and women of good will who are unswervingly loyal to her Majesty the Queen, who realise the immense political, financial, commercial, and cultural advantages which accrue to New Zealand from close association with the other nations of the British Commonwealth, and who desire to promote the political and economic unity of the Commonwealth.
To maintain an efficient system of national defence.
To formulate and carry out policies designed to benefit the community as a whole, irrespective of national interests, particularly to bring about cooperation between the country and city interests, and between employers and employees.
To encourage the growth of private enterprise and healthy competition.
To encourage the development of individual effort and initiative and to take such steps as will grant the greatest possible measure of personal freedom and to foster the growth of good will between all sections of the community.
To encourage, wherever possible, for our mutual interest and safety, close contacts with Australia and other portions of our Commonwealth.
To arouse and maintain interest in political matters, to advocate the policy of the party, and to oppose subversive and other doctrines which are contrary to the principles and policy of the party.
To pursue a policy of progressive, social, and humanitarian legislation.
To encourage and assist the candidature for Parliament of able, honourable, and loyal supporters of the party.
To carry out educational and organising work in furtherance of the foregoing aims and objects.
To keep in touch with and, as may be deemed practicable, to cooperate with other organisations which have similar aims.
Support for the Party
The party has consistently affirmed that it strives to represent all sections of the community, and is strongly opposed to special privileges for any group or groups. Among its most active supporters and workers are many in the low-income bracket, including social security beneficiaries. It is beyond question, however, that the party is most strongly entrenched in rural and semi-rural areas. National holds practically all these seats, but also 13 which could be classified as purely urban. It has not held a Maori seat since 1943, when the late Sir Apirana Ngata was defeated for Eastern Maori.
In the general election in 1960, National contested 76 European seats and four Maori seats, winning 46 European seats but no Maori seats. The total vote for National was: European votes, 549,097; Maori votes, 7,792. Grand total, 556,889, or 47·59 per cent of valid votes cast. The Labour Party, which was the only other party to win seats in the House, polled 484,956 European votes and 23,090 Maori votes, a grand total of 508,056, or 43·42 per cent of valid votes cast. Labour won 30 European seats and four Maori seats. The present National Government has, therefore, a fairly comfortable majority of 12.
Membership of the party is open to all citizens who subscribe to its principles. The membership fee is a minimum of 2s. 6d. per annum. At the present time, membership totals over 200,000. The party is strongly organised, having over 1,300 branches situated in all parts of the country. With but a few exceptions, all offices in the party are elective, and this includes candidature for parliamentary honours.
The party is organised as a pyramid. At the base are the branches, each with a membership of 20 or more. These elect representatives to electorate committees, though in city electorates the divisional committees may permit electorate committees to be elected at a general meeting of members. There are five semi-autonomous divisions (Auckland, South Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, and Otago-Southland). Divisional committees comprise representatives elected by each electorate committee in the divisional area, and divisional executives are appointed by their respective committees. The Dominion council of about 50 comprises the president, the leader, the vice-presidents, the Dominion treasurer, all divisional chairmen, and such number of members elected by annual meetings of the divisions on the basis of one member for every four electorates, or part of four, within their respective boundaries, and five members elected by the National members of Parliament. The Dominion executive of about 20 is elected by the Dominion council from its number. The Dominion conference is held annually and comprises four delegates from each electorate, the members of the Dominion council, and those members of Parliament who are members of the party. The president and vice-presidents are elected at the annual Dominion conference. Branch members are eligible for nomination for selection as the official candidate for Parliament, and are eligible for selection as a representative of the branch on the selection committee to select the official candidate. The party constitution also makes special provision for representation by women's and junior sections. Party headquarters, consisting of the general director and the research and publicity officers, together with their respective assistants, are situated in Wellington. The party publishes a monthly newspaper, Freedom.
by Martin Joseph Silvester Nestor, M.COM., Chief Research Officer, New Zealand National Party, Wellington.
- Constitution and Rules of the New Zealand National Party (1951)
- Handbook on Organisation, New Zealand National Party, Dominion Headquarters, (1949).