With United Future MP Gordon Copeland announcing that he's jumping ship to set up yet another new Christian political party, the public must be thinking that the Christian politicians are the most flaky around. And they’d be right. Copeland is simply following a long line of controversial Christian politicians that include: Graham Capill (leader of Christian Hertitage Party, now in jail for sex crimes), Graeme Lee (National MP who left to set up the Christian Democrats), Frank Grover (Alliance MP who left to join the Christian Heritage Party), Merepeka Raukawa-Tait (Christian Heritage candidate well known for her anti-smacking, pro-gay views, and notorious for attending strip clubs), and Philip Field (Labour MP also currently setting up a Christian Party), and then there’s the Destiny Church party. All of these Christian parties are a recent phenomenon... [Read more below for a recent history of Christianity in NZ Politics]
Christian Heritage Party
The New Zealand party system had been relatively unaffected by religion, lacking overtly religious parties, although some parties have, however, at times had strong religious internal elements and electoral support. This changed with the creation in July 1989 of the Christian Heritage Party (CHP). The CHP was initially a hard-line party of the right, with very conservative social policies and extreme free-market economic policies. This traditional Christian party was generally judged at this time to be ‘considerably to the "right" of National’ (James, 1993j: p.140). It was a classic ideologically-motivated cause party. According to Trotter, the impetus for the founding of Christian Heritage ‘came from the evangelical churches’ experience of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill debate in the late 1980s…. This failure prompted a number of fundamentalist and conservative Christians, especially from the Baptist community, to try their luck in the electoral marketplace’ (Trotter, 2000b: p.15). Reflective of these more traditional and conservative churches, the party published a manifesto in 1990 that was remarkably right-wing. Even party leader, Graham Capill commented a decade later that, ‘Our original manifesto sometimes put things very harshly and lacked compassion’ (quoted in Bain, 2000a: p.12). Colin James characterised the party as Christian ‘fundamentalist’ James (1993p: pp.106-107).
The 1990 election platform was strictly biblical and made a strong pitch for the conservative family values vote (Campbell, 1996b). The manifesto showed the party to be anti-abortion, pro-censorship, anti-homosexual, and in favour of the death penalty. The party was fiercely anti-collective in ideology, and this was reflected in its economic policies, where the party wanted the new right reforms carried much further. For example, the CHP wanted a negligible welfare safety net, and public health replaced by a compulsory health insurance scheme. In the 1990 election, Christian Heritage stood in 18 electorates, winning 9591 votes or 0.5 percent of votes cast. It improved its vote in 1993, standing in 98 seats, winning 2 percent of votes, and performing very well in the regions.
The more irrelevant that the Christian Heritage Party became after 1996 – when it came closest to getting into Parliament – the more it moved away from its extremist values and policies in order to gain office. By 2002 the party had dropped most of its far-right economic policies, and also gave less emphasis to its more conservative moral positions. In relation to this shift, party leader Graham Capill declared ‘We’re not changing our stance but it’s a question of emphasis’ (quoted in Mold, 2002a). Capill also announced that Christian Heritage had broadened its view on many issues, and that ‘He wanted the party to be judged on its "big ticket" policies like health, education and defence rather than just its moral stance’ (ibid).
Probably indicating its increasing office-seeking motivation and its shift from the extremes, in 2002 the party recruited the chief executive of Women’s Refuge, Merepeka Raukawa-Tait. This was very surprising because Raukawa-Tait was well-known as being anti-smacking, sympathetic to gay rights, and notorious for visiting a Wellington strip club. That the party knew of her liberal stances and not only accepted her as a member but also made her the deputy leader of the party and an election candidate, spoke volumes about how far Christian Heritage had come in recent years and how much further it was willing to moderate. In fact Christian Heritage used Raukawa-Tait’s selection to indicate its intention to ‘mainline more’, focusing on broader economic issues rather than just moral values (ibid).
Like United Future, Christian Heritage focused much of their 2002 election campaign on the family, and proposed the establishment of a Commission for the Family, something which the Labour-led government agreed to after the election, providing further evidence that the Christian Heritage Party was no longer entirely outside the new consensus. Nonetheless the party was still painted as an extremist one, especially alongside its much more moderate Christian rival, United Future. This was reflected in the expert survey for 2002 which located the party at 8.2 on the 0-10 left-right scale. Unsurprisingly, the 2002 general election result – 1.35 percent of the party vote – was Christian Heritage’s worst outcome in its 13 years contesting five elections.
United Future and Future New Zealand
Since the establishment of the Christian Heritage Party, there have been various coalitions and mergers of Christian political forces – particularly involving the United Party and the Future New Zealand party. In 1995 United New Zealand was the more significant of the two parties – set up by four National MPs and three Labour MPs. The party deliberately sought to be a centre party that was market-orientated but socially liberal. Not only did the party lack a strong programmatic orientation but it also had no charismatic candidates or leaders, and largely had the appearance of a marriage of convenience to save the careers of its participants.
The other main component party – the Future New Zealand party – was formed by National MP Graeme Lee as a Christian party, and initially called the Christian Democrats. Lee formed it because he viewed the existing Christian party, the Christian Heritage Party, as being too extreme and fundamentalist. To Lee, the alignment between the Christian Heritage Party and the morally conservative churches made it narrow and extreme and thus unelectable. But unlike the Christian Heritage Party – and despite their name – the Christian Democrats never considered themselves a Christian party. (The party’s president, David Brown, pronounced: ‘We reject the label "Christian party". I think it’s fair to say that the party is informed by Christian values and ideas, but it’s no more a Christian party than my business is a Christian business’ (quoted in Heeringa, 1995: p.81).) This is largely because the party leaders believed that the collective Christian vote was not big enough to get the party into Parliament by itself. Correspondingly and unlike its rival Christian Heritage, the Christian Democrats welcomed non-Christians as members or even leaders (Heeringa, 1995: p.81). Their operating strategy revolved around the policy of ‘think biblically, speak secularly’ (James, 1995e: p.13).
In 1996 the Christian Democrats went into an electoral arrangement with Christian Heritage, called the Christian Coalition. The Coalition represented a move to much more moderate policies for Christian Heritage, as that party’s more extreme messages and ideas were shelved in order to expand their audience. This was apparent in the Coalition’s list of ‘non-negotiable principles’, which comprised, according to Campbell, ‘a bland set of statements about upholding the sanctity of life and promoting traditional marriage. Few could object’ (Campbell, 1996c). Clifton also pointed out the party was now pushing ‘a more generic brand of Christianity’, and rather than acting as ‘an avenging, Calvinist presence in the House’ the Christian Coalition was actually ‘putting as much work as possible into looking moderate’ (Clifton, 1996b: p.C3). On most of Christian Heritage’s former social policy goals, the Coalition had nothing to say. This included: the Homosexual Law Reform Act, the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, the restoration of capital punishment, nor even the right to discipline children by hitting them (Clifton, 1996b: p.C3). In the 1996 election, the Christian Coalition received 4.3 percent of the party vote – just below the MMP threshold of 5 percent.
The Christian constituent party of United Future, the Christian Democrats underwent an important transformation during this period. The party had still not coalesced with Peter Dunne’s United Party, but it broke away from the Christian Coalition, changed its name to Future New Zealand, and abandoned some of its more radical policies. The shift began with the retirement of its leader, Graeme Lee, after which a major re-organisation and re-orientation began. Most significantly, the party changed its name to Future New Zealand, began to further downplay its Christian-orientation, and Anthony Walton was elected as new leader. Dropping the term Christian from the party name was a central part of this moderation, with Walton believing that ‘the party cannot afford to be seen as extremist, but must promote a comprehensive range of policies "that can make this country rock", to win support’ (Bain, 2000a: p.12). According to the new Future New Zealand executive director, Murray Smith, ‘The Christian Heritage Party have effectively been a morals party and as a result they have not been able to get the numbers they need’ (Bone, 2002a: p.30). Smith said that the name change for the Christian Democrats, ‘was necessary to distance ourselves from the previous, unworkable, coalition and remove any remaining confusion. The previous name created incorrect labeling and caused many people to misunderstand the broad scope, intention and perspective of our party’ (Future New Zealand, 25 Nov 1998).
Summarising Future New Zealand’s new political programme, Clifton believed that instead of being to the far right of National, the party was merely pushing a more bland and cautious agenda than National:
Future New Zealand, like National, is moderately socially prescriptive, promotes a smaller state, low taxes, the Reserve Bank’s current monetary settings, lower public spending and free-market prices for goods and services, as well as the development of more social services from non-governmental organisations. Unlike National, it would promote home ownership, superannuation savings and trade development by financial incentives (Clifton, 1998f: p.27).
Meanwhile, the Christian Heritage Party stood alone at the 1999 general election, and polled 2.4 percent of the party vote. Party leader Graham Capill later admitted that his party had softened its policies in recent years, saying ‘We have toned down the extremist-type statements. Our original manifesto sometimes put things very harshly and lacked compassion. We have tried to balance those principles of personal responsibility with care and compassion’ (quoted in Bain, 2000a: p.12).
In November 2000 the United New Zealand party merged with the Christian party Future New Zealand, taking on the new combined name of United Future New Zealand. The Christian party was formerly known as the Christian Democrats and had been founded by defecting National MP Graeme Lee. This appeared to be little more than an office-seeking marriage of convenience – especially since Peter Dunne’s United party had consistently pushed an ideology of being economically conservative (or right-wing) and socially liberal, while Future New Zealand was more defined by being economically left-wing and socially conservative.
The new party fusion was judged by a ‘survey of experts’ for 2002 to be located at 6.8 on the 0-10 left-right scale. Compared to the 1996 results, this was slightly to the right of the United New Zealand score of 6.6 and significantly closer to the centre than the Christian Coalition’s score of 8.1 (which Future New Zealand was a part of).
Three United Future MPs had strong backgrounds in Christian organisations: deputy leader Gordon Copeland was financial administrator of the Catholic Church for 18 years, while Larry Baldock and Bernie Ogilvy have been directors of the evangelical Youth with a Mission (Campbell, 2002b: pp.22, 23).
Many of the socially conservative views of Future New Zealand that created headlines after the 2002 general election had in fact been expressed in the past rather than in the election campaign, and thus they were not necessarily representative of the modern United Future party. Apart from Dunne’s general slogan of ‘common sense’ and being ‘moderate’, United campaigned on the basis of vague promises to ease the ‘burden’ on working families. As well as emphasising ‘the family’ in the campaign, Dunne also made United Future a vehicle for multiculturalism. None of the conservative or right-wing views of the Christian candidates were allowed into the marketing of the party. The more extremist notions and ideas of the Christian party were apparently being moderated by the merger with United. This mainstream approach was temporarily popular, and in the election United Future won 6.7 percent of the party vote, and eight seats. All of the new MPs came from Future New Zealand.
Significantly, many of the United Future caucus were economically to the left of Dunne as well. Deputy leader Gordon Copeland, for instance, had for a long time been pushing for more left-wing economic policies. That United Future was prepared to support the Labour-led government was a further indication of how far the party had moderated itself. While both component parties had previously been seen as much more likely to align with the National Party (and Dunne had been a Minister in the National Government prior to the 1996 election), in 2002 they showed no hesitation in supporting the Labour Government. The merger of the two parties and United Future’s involvement in supporting Labour has fundamentally altered and moderated both components of the fused party. The ex-United element had become less economically right-wing and the Future New Zealand section less socially conservative. After proclaiming himself to be economically conservative and socially liberal when he set up United, Dunne leads a party that is now less economically right-wing, but more socially conservative.
The significance of the religious cleavage in New Zealand was demonstrated in 2002 when the Christian-oriented United Future party was elected to Parliament with 6.7 percent of the party vote. Six years earlier, the Christian Coalition won 4.3 percent of the party vote (falling just short of entering the first MMP Parliament). These performances suggest the existence of a reasonable-sized Christian voter base in New Zealand. Yet the religious cleavage has historically played a relatively small part in New Zealand politics. Its main expression has been in the tendency for Catholics to vote Labour and for Anglicans and other Protestant denominations to support National:
Historically, the two main political parties in New Zealand have drawn from two religious streams. The Catholic, Salvation Army and Baptist churches – reflecting their base in the Welsh and Irish migrant working class – were aligned first with the Liberals, then with the Labour Party. The conservative right, as political scientist Barry Gustafson says, drew spiritual solace from elsewhere. ‘Presbyterians and Anglicans by and large supported the more conservative parties. The Reform Party that evolved into the National Party was violently anti-Catholic’ (Campbell, 1998c).
Stephen Levine has suggested that the tendency of Catholics to vote Labour ‘may have been attributable to their working-class position’ and is therefore actually a consequence of the class cleavage (Levine, 1979: p.89). Richard Mulgan maintains that in the modern New Zealand party system, ‘Support for one religion or religious denomination rather than another is not reflected in political allegiance, with the minor exception of a slight tendency for Roman Catholics to prefer Labour’ (Mulgan, 1997a: p.275). There has also been a tendency for church-goers in general to vote National or New Zealand First, and those with no religious affiliation to vote Labour or the Alliance (ibid). Writing in the 1960s, Mitchell (1969a: p.30) maintained that ‘religious differences are unimportant’. See also: Vowles (1998d: p.40), and Gold (1992).
As will be explored in a future blog post, the alignments between the mainstream parties and the churches are also generally very weak. Neither National nor Labour are heavily influenced by the formal involvement of religious party members, and only United Future and Christian Heritage have any significant links with religious organisations. The more morally conservative Christian Heritage Party is somewhat identified with the ‘reformed churches’ – an ‘alignment’ that led to the establishment of the rival Christian Democrats in May 1995 (Boston et al., 1996b: p.51). In general the decline of mainstream established religions has had an impact on the right of the political spectrum – helping drain parties like National of its ideological substance.