Historic conservatism in New Zealand

Last updated

Conservatism in New Zealand , though related to its counterparts in other Western countries, developed uniquely over time. Advocates followed a political ideology that emphasised the preservation of traditional European beliefs, institutions and practices.




Initially conservatism was a philosophy used by the "men in possession" of a new country, but most of all it espoused the spirits of individualism akin to Herbert Spencer's theories. Prior to the mid-1870s, New Zealand's political factions were based less on ideologies and more on provincial allegiances. [1] This was to change however, with members of parliament becoming more identifiable as one of two groups—"Conservative" or "Liberal"—akin to Britain. The labels often walked hand in hand with each MP's stance on land policy. Nearly all those calling themselves conservatives supported freehold policy, while those labelled as liberals advocated for leasehold legislature. [2]

From 1876 to 1890 the conservative factions dominated the House of Representatives. The so-called "Continuous Ministry" governed almost this whole period, with two breaks from October 1877 to October 1879 and August 1884 to October 1887, when "Liberal" ministries were formed under George Grey and Robert Stout, respectively. The Continuous Ministry was governing once again in 1887–88, the worst years of the Long Depression, when Premier Harry Atkinson became very unpopular, even with the wealthy his erstwhile supporters. The ensuing election in 1890 was a disaster. An ailing Atkinson resigned and a new ministry was formed under John Ballance and his recently formed Liberal Party. [3]

Opposition to the Liberals

The beginning of party politics in New Zealand was a setback for conservative-oriented politicians, worsened by the accession of the immensely popular Richard Seddon to the premiership. His opponents struggled to set up an equivalent full-scale organisation in competition to the Liberal Party. Conservative politicians operated under various banners in this period such as the Political Reform Association (1887–91), the National Association (1891–99) and the Political Reform League (1905), with Leader of the Opposition William Massey accepting endorsement from the latter in the 1905 and 1908 elections. [4] The conservatives struggled to contrast with appeal against Seddon and his Liberal political vehicle. William Pember Reeves, when asked of what differentiated the Conservatives from the Liberals in parliament, phrased them as "parties of resistance and progress" respectively. [5]

Atkinson had some respite, stacking the Legislative Council with fellow conservatives, to control the Liberals from the upper house (often compared to the period 1906–11 in Britain where the Liberal government was blocked by peers in the House of Lords). Ballance eventually got his way with the Governor General by limiting the term of a MLC from life to seven years. However, the Liberals were not able to fully claim the upper house from the Conservatives until 1899. [6] The beginning of the 1900s was the weakest point in New Zealand conservatism. Helped by jingoism in the Second Boer War, Seddon was at the height of his power, reigning supreme over parliament. By contrast, the Conservatives were disorganised, demoralised and, by 1901, leaderless. In 1902 a Sydney newspaper said of the Conservatives:

They have hardly [in 12 years] carried even a snatch division on a question about a culvert on a back country road. They could hardly remember how to draft a bill now, and they have forgotten what success looks like. [7]

The Conservatives began to improve, with many initial supporters of the Liberals now defecting upon having now received the reforms they wanted in the 1890s. In the election of 1908 election, the Conservatives improved remarkably, gaining ten seats. Of further aid to the Conservative cause was the emergence of independent Labour parties who were leeching away supporters from the Liberals, particularly in cities. [8]

The Reform Party

In February 1909 Massey announced the formation of the Reform Party, New Zealand's first true right-wing political party, in his attempts to establish a credible vision to there being a possible alternative government to challenge the long established Liberal dominance. The name "Reform" was not new, but it served its purpose to efface the "Conservative" branding and party-image with which Massey's supporters were viewed. [4]

The plan worked and following the 1911 election, the Liberals were ousted from power in a no-confidence motion, 41 votes to 33 on 5 July 1912. [9] Massey became Prime Minister and formed the first non-Liberal government in 21 years.


Below is a list of the leading figures among the right wing members of parliament from the forming of the Continuous Ministry until the establishment of the Reform Party.


   Conservatives    Liberals    Liberal Party

No.NamePortraitTerm of OfficePrime Minister
1 Harry Atkinson Sir Harry Albert Atkinson, ca 1885.jpg 1 September 187629 July 1878 Atkinson 1876–77
Grey 1877–79
2 William Fox Portrait of Sir William Fox.png 29 July 18786 September 1879
3 John Hall Sir John Hall, ca 1880.jpg 6 September 187921 April 1882
Hall 1879–82
4 Frederick Whitaker Frederick Whitaker.jpg 21 April 188225 September 1883 Whitaker 1882–83
(1) Harry Atkinson Sir Harry Albert Atkinson, ca 1885.jpg 25 September 188324 January 1891 Atkinson 1883–84
Stout 1884–87
Atkinson 1887–91
5 John Bryce JohnBryce.jpg 23 January 189131 August 1891 Ballance 1891–93
6 William Rolleston William Rolleston (cropped).jpg 31 August 18918 November 1893
Seddon 1893–1906
7 William Russell William Russell Russell.jpg 26 June 18943 July 1901
8 William Massey William Ferguson Massey, 1905.jpg 11 September 190311 February 1909
Hall-Jones 1906
Ward 1906–12

See also


  1. Sinclair 1988, p. 108-9.
  2. Sinclair 1988, p. 164-5.
  3. Dalziel, Raewyn (2008). "The 'Continuous Ministry' Revisited" (PDF). New Zealand Journal of History. 21 (1): 46–61. Retrieved 30 January 2022.
  4. 1 2 Gardner 1966.
  5. Sinclair 1988, p. 169.
  6. Sinclair 1988, p. 170.
  7. Sinclair 1988, p. 190.
  8. Sinclair 1988, p. 206-7.
  9. Bassett 1982, p. 3-14.

Related Research Articles

John Ballance Prime minister of New Zealand from 1891 to 1893

John Ballance was an Irish-born New Zealand politician who was the 14th premier of New Zealand, from January 1891 to April 1893, the founder of the Liberal Party, and a Georgist. In 1891 he led his party to its first election victory, forming the first New Zealand government along party lines, but died in office three years later. Ballance supported votes for women. He also supported land reform, though at considerable cost to Māori.

Richard Seddon Prime minister of New Zealand from 1893 to 1906

Richard John Seddon was a New Zealand politician who served as the 15th premier of New Zealand from 1893 until his death. In office for thirteen years, he is to date New Zealand's longest-serving head of government.

William Massey Prime minister of New Zealand from 1912 to 1925

William Ferguson Massey, commonly known as Bill Massey, was a politician who served as the 19th prime minister of New Zealand from May 1912 to May 1925. He was the founding leader of the Reform Party, New Zealand's second organised political party, from 1909 until his death.

Robert Stout New Zealand politician

Sir Robert Stout was a New Zealand politician who was the 13th premier of New Zealand on two occasions in the late 19th century, and later Chief Justice of New Zealand. He was the only person to hold both these offices. He was noted for his support of liberal causes such as women's suffrage, and for his strong belief that philosophy and theory should always triumph over political expediency.

This article gives an overview of historic liberalism in New Zealand. It is limited to liberal parties with substantial support, mainly proved by having had representation in parliament.

The New Zealand Liberal Party was the first organised political party in New Zealand. It governed from 1891 until 1912. The Liberal strategy was to create a large class of small land-owning farmers who supported Liberal ideals, by buying large tracts of Māori land and selling it to small farmers on credit. The Liberal Government also established the basis of the later welfare state, with old age pensions, developed a system for settling industrial disputes, which was accepted by both employers and trade unions. In 1893 it extended voting rights to women, making New Zealand the first country in the world to enact universal adult suffrage.

The Reform Party, formally the New Zealand Political Reform League, was New Zealand's second major political party, having been founded as a conservative response to the original Liberal Party. It was in government between 1912 and 1928, and later formed a coalition with the United Party, and then merged with United to form the modern National Party.

Joseph Ward New Zealand politician (1856–1930)

Sir Joseph George Ward, 1st Baronet, was a New Zealand politician who served as the 17th prime minister of New Zealand from 1906 to 1912 and from 1928 to 1930. He was a dominant figure in the Liberal and United ministries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Harry Holland New Zealand politician (1868–1933)

Henry Edmund Holland was an Australian-born newspaper owner, politician and unionist who relocated to New Zealand. He was the second leader of the New Zealand Labour Party.

1922 New Zealand general election Election in New Zealand

The 1922 New Zealand general election was held on Monday, 6 December in the Māori electorates, and on Tuesday, 7 December in the general electorates to elect a total of 80 MPs to the 21st session of the New Zealand Parliament. A total number of 700,111 (87.7%) voters turned out to vote. In one seat there was only one candidate.

Bill Veitch New Zealand politician

William Andrew Veitch was a New Zealand politician. He began his career in the labour movement, but became a strong opponent of more militant socialism, and rejected the radical views held by many of his colleagues.

George Warren Russell New Zealand politician

George Warren Russell was a New Zealand politician from Christchurch. He served as Minister of Internal Affairs and Minister of Public Health in the wartime National government, and was responsible for the New Zealand government's response to the 1918 influenza epidemic.

The Reform Government of New Zealand was the government of New Zealand from 1912 to 1928. It is perhaps best remembered for its anti-trade union stance in the Waihi miners' strike of 1912 and a dockworkers' strike the following year. It also governed during World War I, during which a temporary coalition was formed with the Liberal Party.

11th New Zealand Parliament

The 11th New Zealand Parliament was a term of the Parliament of New Zealand.

21st New Zealand Parliament

The 21st New Zealand Parliament was a term of the New Zealand Parliament. It was elected at the 1922 general election in December of that year.

Continuous Ministry (New Zealand) Former government of New Zealand in the 1870s and 1880s

The Continuous Ministry was the government of New Zealand from 1876 to 1890, except for 1877 to 1879 and 1884 to 1887.

The Wellington North by-election of 1918 was a by-election held in the Wellington North electorate during the 19th New Zealand Parliament, on 12 February 1918. It was caused by the resignation of incumbent MP Alexander Herdman of the Reform Party, who was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court, and was won by John Luke with a majority of 420.

1913 New Zealand Liberal Party leadership election

The New Zealand Liberal Party leadership election 1913 was held on 11 September to choose the next leader of the New Zealand Liberal Party. The election was won by Awarua MP and former party leader Joseph Ward.

1889 New Zealand Liberal Party leadership election

The 1889 New Zealand Liberal leadership election was held on 6 July to choose who would lead New Zealand's parliamentary opposition and, ultimately, decide the inaugural leader of the New Zealand Liberal Party. The election was won by Wanganui MP John Ballance.


Further reading