The New Zealand National Party is the largest (by membership) political party in New Zealand. It is the second largest party in parliament, and the largest party in Opposition.
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The National Party is the most significant right-wing party in New Zealand. It is typically described as "centre-right", and presently pursues policies of reducing taxes, reducing social welfare payments, promoting free trade, and maintaining traditional defence and security alliances. The party's policy documents contain commitments of "doubling" New Zealand's economic growth, giving welfare payments only to "those in genuine need", and "speedy, full and final settlements to historic Treaty claims."
The National Party was officially founded in 1936, but its basis extends considerably beyond that. The party was formed as the result of a merger between the United Party (known as the Liberal Party until shortly before the merger) and the Reform Party. The United Party was based in the cities, and drew upon businesses and middle class voters for support, while the Reform Party was based in rural areas, and received substantial support from farmers.
Initially, both parties competed against each other, but from 1931 until 1935, a coalition between the United and Reform parties held power in New Zealand. The coalition went into the 1935 election under the title the National Political Federation, a name adopted to indicate that the new group would serve New Zealanders from all backgrounds (in contrast to the previous situation, where United served city-dwellers and Reform served farmers). The new coalition, however, was beaten by the Labour Party, the rise of which had originally prompted the alliance.
A new party, called the New Zealand National Party, was formed at a meeting held in Wellington on May 13 and 14, 1936. Former members of the United and Reform parties made up the bulk of the new party. George Forbes, the Prime Minister from 1930 until 1935 and United Party Leader opened the conference which formed the National Party in May 1936 and was Leader of the Opposition and the New Zealand National Party until October 1936 when Adam Hamilton was elected as the Leader of the New Zealand National Party. Hamilton led the Party into its first election in 1938. Adam Hamilton was elected leader, primarily as a compromise between George Forbes (leader of United) and Gordon Coates (leader of Reform). Hamilton, however, was not able to effectively counter Labour's popular Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage. This, along with perceptions that he was too much under the control of Coates and a lack of real support from his party colleagues, saw Hamilton fail to prevent Labour's reelection in 1938.
In 1940, Hamilton was replaced by Sidney Holland. The 1943 election saw Labour's majority reduced, but did not remove it from power. In the 1946 elections, National also failed to unseat Labour. However, in the 1949 elections, thirteen years after the party's foundation, National finally won power. Holland became Prime Minister.
Under Holland, the National Party won reelection twice (in the 1951 elections and the 1954 elections). Towards the end of the third term, however, Holland became increasingly ill, and stepped down from the leadership in 1957. Keith Holyoake, the party's long-standing deputy leader, took Holland's place.
In the election later that year, Holyoake was defeated by Labour's Walter Nash. However, Nash's government proved to be unpopular, primarily due to matters of economics and taxation. After only one term in office, Labour was defeated by Holyoake in the elections of 1960. Holyoake's government lasted fifteen years, being reelected three times (in 1963, 1966, and 1969). He retired at the beginning of 1972, and was replaced by Jack Marshall.
In the 1972 elections, the National Party lost heavily to Labour, led by the popular Norman Kirk. In response, National removed Marshall as leader and replaced him with Robert Muldoon, who had previously been Minister of Finance. Muldoon assumed the leadership in 1974. The expected contest between Kirk and Muldoon, both formidable politicians, was predicted to be intense.
Kirk, however, died in office. His replacement, Bill Rowling, performed poorly against Muldoon, and National won office in the 1975 elections. The Muldoon administration, which favoured interventionist economic policies, is looked upon with mixed opinions by the free-market adherents of the modern National. The "Think Big" initiatives, designed to invest public money in major projects, are also in contrast to the party's modern views. It was Muldoon's interventionist economics, increasingly unpopular with both the public and the party, that caused an attempted leadership change in 1980. Led by ministers Derek Quigley, Jim McLay, and Jim Bolger, the challenge against Muldoon aimed to replace him with Brian Talboys, his deputy. However, the plan collapsed as the result of Talboys' unwillingness, and Muldoon kept his position.
Dissent against Muldoon continued to grow, however. Rebel MPs Marilyn Waring and Mike Minogue were of particular concern to the leadership, threatening National's thin majority in parliament. When, in 1984, Marilyn Waring refused to support Muldoon's policy over nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships, Muldoon called a snap election. Muldoon made the television announcement of this election while visibly inebriated, and some believe that the decision was later regretted. National lost the election to Labour's David Lange.
Shortly after this loss, Muldoon was removed from the party leadership. Jim McLay, who had replaced Brian Talboys as deputy leader shortly before the election, was elevated to the leadership. McLay, however, failed to restore the party's fortunes, partly due to being undermined by a bitter Muldoon. In 1986, Jim Bolger took over the leadership.
In the 1990 elections, National defeated Labour and formed a new government. However, the party lost support when it continued the economic reforms which had damaged the previous Labour government - these policies, started by Finance Minister Roger Douglas, were based around privatization of state assets and the removal of tariffs and subsidies. These policies alienated traditional Labour supporters, who saw them as a betrayal of the party's left-wing character, but were not entirely accepted by the right-wing National party either. Many more conservative National supporters preferred Muldoon's more authoritarian and interventionist policies over the free market liberalism promoted by Douglas. However, the new National Party Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson, was a strong supporter of the ideas, actually believing that Douglas had not gone far enough.
Nevertheless, National retained office in 1993 due partly to a strongly recovering economy. At the same time as the 1993 election, however, there was a referendum which established the MMP electoral system for future use. This was to have a significant impact on New Zealand politics. It was as a result of the change that New Zealand First, led by former National MP Winston Peters, held the balance of power after the 1996 elections. After a prolonged period of negotiation, in which New Zealand First played National and Labour off against each other (both parties negotiated complete coalition agreements), New Zealand First entered into a coalition with National.
Under the coalition agreement, Peters became Deputy Prime Minister, and had the post of Treasurer especially created for him. New Zealand First extracted a number of other concessions from National in exchange for its support. The influence of New Zealand First angered many National MPs, particularly Jenny Shipley. When, in 1997, Shipley toppled Bolger to become leader, relations between National and its coalition partner deteriorated. When Peters was sacked from Cabinet in 1998, the New Zealand First party split into two groups - half the MPs followed Peters out of the coalition, but remainder broke away, establishing themselves as independents or as members of new parties. It was from the latter group that National gained enough support to continue in government.
In 1999, however, National lost the election to Labour's Helen Clark. Shipley continued to lead the party until 2001, when she was replaced by Bill English. English, however, was unable to gain traction against Clark, and National suffered its worst ever electoral defeat in the 2002 elections. Many hoped that English would be able to rebuild the party, given time, but a year later, the party was performing only slightly better than in the election. In October 2003, English was replaced by Don Brash, a former governor of the Reserve Bank who joined National in the 2002 election. Within a week the leadership change resulted in more positive poll results for the National Party, although this has not lasted. A dispute in which English supporter Nick Smith was replaced as deputy leader by Gerry Brownlee probably contributed to the lack of significant progress.
The following is a complete list of National Party leaders.