New Zealand has had an elected Parliament since 1854. For the first few decades of New Zealand elected politics, there were no political parties.
The Liberal Party was organised as New Zealand’s first organised political party in 1891, when the party formed government for the first time. Conservative members of Parliament formed the Reform Party by 1909, and in 1912 Reform formed government.
The Reform Party held government from 1912 until 1928. The Liberal Party splintered in the 1920s, and the United Party was formed out of the remnants of the Liberal Party.
The Labour Party was formed in 1916, succeeding a number of social democratic, socialist and union-aligned political groupings which had run in elections over the previous decade.
In 1928, the United Party formed government with the support of the Labour Party. In 1931, the alliance broke down, and the United Party formed a coalition with the Reform Party. This coalition won the 1931 election, and governed until 1935.
1935-1949 – The First Labour Government
In 1935, the Labour Party won a majority in the Parliament and formed government for the first time, led by Prime Minister Michael Savage.
In 1936, the United Party and the Reform Party finally merged into the National Party.
Savage won a second term in 1938, and died in office in 1940.
Savage was succeeded as Prime Minister and Labour leader by Peter Fraser. He led Labour to two further victories in 1943 and 1946.
The First Labour Government won four terms, and at each successive election lost ground. In 1935, Labour won a huge majority with 53 out of seats. In 1936, Labour absorbed the Ratana movement, which held two seats. In 1938, Labour lost two seats to maintain 53 out of 80 seats.
In 1943, Labour lost eight seats, holding on with 45 out of 80 seats. In 1946, this majority was eroded further, with Labour holding 42 out of 80 seats.
1949-1972 – National domination
The National Party won government for the first time in 1949, winning a further eight seats to hold a 46/80 majority. The election ended fourteen years of Labour rule, including nine years of Peter Fraser as Prime Minister.
The new National government was led by Sidney Holland. He served as Prime Minister for eight years until 1957. In that time, National won a second and third term in 1951 and 1954 respectively.
Holland stepped down as Prime Minister shortly before the 1957 election, and was replaced as Prime Minister by Keith Holyoake.
Holyoake’s National government lost power at the 1957 election, after serving less than two months as Prime Minister.
The new Labour government was led by 75-year-old Walter Nash. The government only held the slimmest of margins, holding 41 out of 80 seats. The second Labour government lasted for only one term, losing power in 1960.
Keith Holyoake again became Prime Minister at the head of the second National government in 1960. Holyoake won four successive terms for the National Party in 1960, 1963, 1966 and 1969.
In early 1972, Holyoake stepped down as Prime Minister, and new National Party leader Jack Marshall became Prime Minister.
1972-1984 – Third Labour and Third National governments
At the 1972 election, the Marshall National government lost power, and Labour’s Norman Kirk became Prime Minister.
Kirk died in 1974, and was replaced as Prime Minister by Bill Rowling.
In 1975, Labour lost power after one term, and Robert Muldoon led the National Party back into government.
Muldoon led the National government through three terms, winning elections in 1975, 1978 and 1981. By 1984, when Muldoon lost power, National had been in power for 29 out of the last 35 years.
1984-1996 – Rogernomics, Ruthanasia and the shift to MMP
Labour won power in 1984, led by David Lange. The new government undertook a neoliberal agenda of liberalisation and privatisation, led by Finance Minister Roger Douglas. These policies were nicknamed ‘Rogernomics’.
The policies were rather controversial, and the New Zealand government moved more aggressively and faster than other governments in Australia and the United States.
Labour won a second term in 1987. In 1988, there was a fall-out between Lange and Douglas, and Douglas moved to the backbench.
In 1989, Labour MP Jim Anderton resigned from the party after refusing to vote with the government to sell the Bank of New Zealand. He formed the NewLabour Party and was re-elected in 1990. Anderton and his party eventually joined with a number of left-wing parties to form the Alliance.
In 1989, David Lange was replaced as Prime Minister by Geoffrey Palmer. Palmer served as Prime Minister for one year. During that time, the Labour Party agreed at its conference to the holding of a referendum on a change to the “Mixed Member Proportional” (MMP) electoral system.
Shortly before the 1990 election, Palmer was replaced as Labour leader and Prime Minister by Mike Moore, who led the Labour government into the election.
At the 1990 election, Labour lost to the National Party, led by Jim Bolger.
Bolger had promised a referendum on electoral reform, and in 1992 New Zealanders voted in favour of a change to the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. This was confirmed by a binding referendum at the same time as the 1993 election (which saw the National government re-elected). Read more about the MMP electoral system.
Between the 1990 and 1993 elections, two significant minor parties were formed by breakaway elements from the major parties.
The Alliance was formed in 1991 by four separate political parties: NewLabour, the Democratic Party, Mana Matuhake and the Greens. NewLabour was formed by former Labour MP Jim Anderton, who had retained his seat in 1990. The Democratic Party had previously been named the Social Credit Party, and had held a small number of seats in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but had held no seats since 1987.
New Zealand First was formed in 1993 by independent MP Winston Peters. Peters had been a National MP and minister but had been denied preselection for the 1993 election.
At the 1993 election, Anderton and Peters both retained their seats, and both their parties won a second seat. The National Party won a second term as a majority government.
In the 1993-1996 parliamentary term, with the shift to proportional representation now locked in, a number of members of major parties left those parties to form minor parties.
United New Zealand was formed by seven major party MPs: four National MPs and three Labour MPs. Two National MPs and one Labour MP also joined New Zealand First.
Three other National MPs also left the party. Two formed the Conservative Party (one of whom then went on to become an independent), while a third formed the Christian Democrats.
Having lost nine MPs, the National Party was left in minority, and relied on minor parties to govern as a minority.
1996-1999 – The first MMP term
At the 1996 election, the number of seats in the Parliament was expanded from ninety-nine to 120, but the number of electorates was cut from ninety-nine to seventy-one. This resulted in substantial changes to electoral boundaries, and the change in the electoral system produced a substantially different Parliament. In addition to the changes to general electorate boundaries, for the first time since 1868 the number of Māori electorates changed, with the creation of a fifth Maori electorate.
Neither major party came close to winning a majority of seats – out of 120 seats, National won 44 and Labour won 37. New Zealand First and the Alliance both did well, winning 17 and 13 seats respectively. United managed to hold on to one seat, that belonging to former National MP Peter Dunne, and the party polled so poorly that he did not bring in any list MPs from the party. New Zealand First’s result included victory in all five Māori electorates, which had always previously been safe Labour seats.
One new party entered Parliament. ACT New Zealand was a right-wing free-market libertarian party formed by Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble, both former Labour ministers who were closely identified with the neoliberal reform agenda of the 1980s. Douglas was replaced as ACT party leader by Prebble before the 1996 election. ACT won one electorate seat and seven list seats.
After months of negotiations, National formed a coalition with New Zealand First, which included Winston Peters taking on the role of Deputy Prime Minister.
In late 1997, Jim Bolger resigned as Prime Minister and National Party leader as he faced a likely party room coup by Jenny Shipley. Shipley became New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister.
The relationship between the National Party and New Zealand First, and between Shipley and Peters in particular, was rocky, and in 1998 Peters was sacked from cabinet.
New Zealand First’s parliamentary team split, and a number chose to stay in government and leave the party. The remaining members moved to the crossbenches, led by Peters. Most of those MPs who continued to support the National-led government formed a new party named Mauri Pacific.
1999-2008 – The Fifth Labour Government
At the 1999 election, Labour gained twelve seats, while National lost five.
New Zealand First’s ranks were severely depleted, dropping from 17 seats to five. None of those who had left New Zealand First were re-elected, with Labour regaining all five Māori electorates, as well as a newly-created sixth Māori electorate. Winston Peters held on to Tauranga, without which the party would have been knocked out of Parliament due to winning less than 5% of the party vote.
The Green Party, which had previously been part of the Alliance and had held three seats in the previous Parliament, run as a separate party. The Greens narrowly crossed the 5% threshold, and narrowly won the seat of Coromandel. The remnants of the Alliance held on to ten of their seats.
ACT increased their seats from eight to nine, while United’s Peter Dunne continued to serve as the party’s only MP.
Labour, led by Helen Clark, formed a government in coalition with the Alliance. This government was two seats short of a majority, so the government relied on the Green Party for confidence and supply.
Jenny Shipley was replaced as National Party leader in 2001 by Bill English.
Towards the end of the 1999-2002 parliamentary term, the Alliance suffered a serious split, with leader Jim Anderton leaving the party to form the Progressive Coalition, along with a number of his parliamentary colleagues.
The 2002 election saw Labour gain three seats, and the National Party vote collapsed to a record-low 21%, and saw the party win less than a quarter of seats in Parliament. New Zealand First recovered, increasing its representation from five to thirteen seats. The Green Party also increased its seats from seven to nine, and ACT held on to their nine seats.
Peter Dunne led his United Future party (formed after United merged with the Future New Zealand party) to an impressive result, winning seven list seats in addition to his electorate seat. Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition won only two seats, and the Alliance failed to cross the threshold, and were thus knocked out of Parliament.
After the 2002 election, Clark’s Labour-led government, which included Anderton’s Progressives, relied on the support of United Future to govern.
Bill English was replaced as Leader of the Opposition in 2003 by Don Brash, a former Reserve Bank Governor who was seen to be on the right-wing of the party.
In 2003, the High Court ruled that New Zealand’s foreshore and seabed could be subject to native title claims. In 2004, the Labour government passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act, declaring that this land was Crown land. The legislation was very controversial in Māori communities, and it resulted in Labour minister Tariana Turia resigning from the Labour Party.
Turia resigned from Parliament in early 2004, triggering a by-election in her Māori electorate of Te Tai Hauāuru. Turia founded the Māori Party and became one of the party’s two co-leaders (along with Pita Sharples), and comfortably won back her seat as a Māori Party candidate.
At the 2005 election, the National Party recovered all of its 2002 losses, and came quite close to an election-winning position. New Zealand First dropped from thirteen to seven seats, and the Green party dropped from nine to six seats, and both parties were within 1% of dropping below the threshold and being eliminated from Parliament. Peters lost his electorate of Tauranga, which put New Zealand First in danger of complete elimination.
The Māori Party won four out of seven Māori electorates, including Turia’s seat and three others. Peter Dunne’s United Future dropped from eight to three seats.
ACT New Zealand, under new leader Rodney Hide, was in serious danger of being eliminated from Parliament to low poll numbers. The party focused all of its attention on winning the inner-Auckland electorate of Epsom, then held by the National Party. Hide won the seat, ensuring that ACT would stay in Parliament, but a drop in the party vote saw the party drop from nine to two seats.
The Labour-led government formed alliances with New Zealand First and United Future, with both Peters and Dunne taking on ministerial roles in the government. Anderton continued to serve as a minister (now as the sole Progressive MP), and the Green Party supported the government on confidence and supply.
2008-2014 – The Fifth National Government
In 2006, Don Brash was replaced as Leader of the Opposition by John Key.
In 2008, Key’s National Party won ten seats, giving the party 58 out of 122 seats. Labour lost six seats.
The Green Party gained three seats (for a total of nine), the ACT Party gained three seats (for a total of five), and United Future lost two out of their three seats. Anderton was re-elected as the sole Progressive MP. Both Dunne and Anderton were now the sole representatives of their party in the Parliament. The Māori Party won a fifth electorate seat off Labour.
Roger Douglas, who had last held a Parliamentary seat as a Labour MP, returned to Parliament as an ACT list MP.
Winston Peters’ New Zealand First failed to win any seats, having won only 4.1% of the party vote and failing to regain an electorate seat.
In the new Parliament, the National Party needed only five other MPs to give them a majority. The five ACT MPs was enough to prevent any possibility of the Labour-led government surviving. In addition to ACT, National also formed alliances with the Māori Party and Peter Dunne. Hide, Dunne, Turia and Sharples all took on ministerial roles in the new government.
In early 2011, Rodney Hide was replaced as ACT leader by Don Brash, the former National Party leader, who was no longer a member of Parliament. Hide stepped down as a candidate for the upcoming election, and ACT preselected John Banks to run in Epsom. Banks was a former Mayor of Auckland and a National Party cabinet minister in the 1990s.
Also in 2011, Māori Party MP Hone Harawira was suspended from the party, and resigned before being expelled. Harawira formed the Mana Party, and then resigned from his seat of Te Tai Tokerau, triggering a by-election.
Harawira was elected as the Mana candidate at the Te Tai Tokerau, facing no serious opposition.
At the 2011 election, the National Party came very close to winning a majority, winning 59 out of 121 seats, only two seats short of a majority.
The Green Party increased its representation from 9 to 14 seats. New Zealand First returned to Parliament, winning eight seats.
The Māori Party lost one of its seats to Labour, as well as losing Hanawira’s seat to the Mana Party.
ACT’s Epsom candidate, John Banks, retained the seat, but the party polled so poorly that they lost all four of their list seats, and Don Brash did not win a seat in Parliament.
While eight parties maintained representation in Parliament, three of those parties (Mana, United Future and ACT) only held a single electorate seat.
In the current Parliament, the National Party has continued in government, maintaining its alliances with the single United Future and ACT MPs, and the three Māori Party MPs.