Norman Kirk famously described Federated Farmers as ‘the National Party in gumboots’, and Austin Mitchell pointed out that Federated Farmers and National Party branch meetings often appeared to be ‘the same people sitting in different rooms at different times’. However, National’s relationship with organised farming and business interests has definitely dwindled since then. Similarly, although traditionally the party was allied to many powerful institutions in New Zealand society, National’s deep connections with civil society has been replaced by an organisational professionalism. This post looks in detail at the National Party’s various third party linkages over its history. [Read more below]
Ostensibly a party of the individual, National has few formal relationships with outside organisations. As Antony Wood has written, ‘National is a party of individualists in which groups and associations – however friendly their members may be to the party – have no voice and no role’ (Wood, 1989: pp.228-229). Although National has traditionally had many institutional contacts and relationships, compared to Labour these relationships have tended to be less formalised. Nevertheless, traditionally there have been many powerful institutions in New Zealand society that have expressed values in line with those of National. Just as the Labour Party leadership used to consult with their counterparts in the union movement, in the 1940s Lipson wrote, ‘so do National party leaders with representatives of the banks, the Farmers’ Union, the Manufacturers’ Federation, and chambers of commerce’ (Lipson, 1948: p.250). Similarly, the established churches, the media, the military, the judiciary and other elites have all helped ensure that National was the dominant political party in the second half of twentieth century New Zealand. But now, as all these ties and associations wither, the situation is less clear-cut and stable.
Of all the New Zealand parties, the National Party has traditionally had the most well-connected, organic linkages to society. Their large mass membership was the main reason for this. James argues that in the 1950s and 1960s National ‘had a large membership, many of whom were also members of the vast interlocking web of organisations that represent, organise and regulate New Zealanders at work and play’ (James, 1993b: p.93). This integration into the array of organisations had an extremely beneficial effect on party-voter communications:
The result was an effective circle of political information, both shaping the party and its policies within the relaxed boundaries of liberal-conservatism and carrying that liberal-conservative message back out through the networks to a vast proportion of New Zealanders in such a way as to suggest that was the ‘normal’ way to conduct the government (ibid).
Those personal networks have, however, largely been severed. This process began during the 1970s and early 1980s, when Muldoon often bypassed the party organisation and appealed directly to ordinary voters. Then in the early 1990s party membership fell dramatically, which also severely curtailed National’s reach into civil and elite society. The radicalism of the Fourth National Government in the 1990s also served to disconnect the party from many of its traditional supporters. Its implementation of radical neo-liberal policies lost it members and alienated it from its more conservative allied networks and organisations. The party’s strength had previously been its all-encompassing conservatism, and by moving so distinctly to the right National lost its ability to unite various constituencies.
This reach has also been eroded by the neoliberal economic programme, which through the restructuring and down-sizing of the state, has removed one of the party’s natural advantages, the apparatus of the state: ‘The withdrawal of the Government from much of the detailed administration has also weakened the potential for direct connection with and transmission of the National Party’s message through the administrative boards and committees’ of the state (ibid: pp.93-94). Replacing National’s deep connections with society is an organisational professionalism. As James has written, with its networks eroded, the National Party now relies on market research: ‘The search for the middle ground on which to base administration and regulatory decisions is now electronic rather than human’, utilising public opinion surveys and focus groups (ibid: p.93).
The decline of National’s linkages to society is also clear in the case of farmers. Farmers have traditionally been to National what trade unionists were to Labour. The official links have been fewer, but a real organic link has nonetheless existed. Farmer organisations have traditionally had a very strong relationship with New Zealand’s conservative parties. The Farmers’ Union began life in 1902 and despite the organisation’s motto of ‘Principles Not Party’, it ‘became little more than an unofficial extra-parliamentary wing of the Reform Party’ after that party emerged in 1909 (Bremer, 1993: p.110). New Zealand farmers, according to Graham, ‘have never been a neglected group, nor have they ever been forced, as farmers were in Australia, to form a sectional party to express their grievances. In the period from 1890 to 1912 the Liberal Party took good account of small farmers demands; in later decades, first the Reform Party and then the National Party, despite their connections with urban interests, made it their careful business to cater for the farming electorate’ (Graham, 1963: p.175).
Then when Federated Farmers was formed in 1944, it developed a very close, but unofficial, connection to the National Party. Norman Kirk famously described the organisation as ‘the National Party in gumboots’, and Austin Mitchell pointed out that Federated Farmers and National Party branch meetings often appeared to be ‘the same people sitting in different rooms at different times’ (Mitchell, 1969a: p.41). With the high cross-over between the memberships of the two organisations, it has been common for leaders of the Federation to eventually go onto political careers with the National Party (Vowles, 1992a: p.352).
In government, National certainly advanced the interests of Federated Farmers. Largely through the party’s sponsorship and the corporatist-type governmental processes, Federated Farmers became enmeshed in the state. By 1973 the organisation was represented on 67 various statutory and organisational bodies (Jackson, 1973: p.96). And just as the Labour Party introduced compulsory unionism to the advantage of their allies in the trade union leadership, similarly in 1972 the National Government introduced a compulsory levy from slaughtered livestock to finance Federated Farmers’ head office (Vowles, 1992a: p.358). Alongside the National Party’s long-time opposition to compulsory unionism the double standard of the compulsory levy was briefly raised when a National government abolished compulsory unionism in 1983. Yet the compulsory financial support for Federated Farmers by non-members as well as members has continued (Vowles, 1992a: p.359). Various training schemes run by the federation have also been funded by National governments. See, for example, Wood (1988: p.93), who points out that the National Party in government has even provided financial assistance to Federated Farmers: ‘Government, for example, in the early 1980s was paying over a million dollars a year to Federated Farmers as a contribution towards a farm cadet training scheme’.
This close relationship has, however, become strained over recent years. Now the two organisations are not so closely intermeshed, and another party, Act, has forged significant links with Federated Farmers and their supporters. The first substantial cracks in the National Party-Federated Farmers relationship appeared during the early 1980s, when the farming group grew exasperated with National’s interventionist and trade protectionist economic framework. As Bremer points out, Federated Farmers became increasingly independent of National: ‘Certainly the Federation did not consider its hands tied by any National Party links when it formulated its 1984 election policy statements, rejecting Prime Minister Muldoon’s economic interventionism, and endorsing the free-market principles espoused by Labour finance spokesperson, Roger Douglas’ (Bremer, 1993: p.118).
Federated Farmers subsequently supported the economic reforms of the Fourth Labour Government, a stance which continued to cause problems for the organisation’s relationship with National, as the party was initially opposed to and concerned about the removal of subsidies and the affect on levels of agricultural production. During the mid-to-late 1980s Federated Farmers remained wary that National would return New Zealand’s economy to an interventionist framework. The party had largely been saying two things at once: some senior National MPs expressed their opposition to the effects of the Government’s economic policies while others suggested that a National Government would not do things very differently. It was the question of trade protection, in particular, that proved to be an issue of contention in the relationship, with the party divided between urban MPs like Philip Burdon, formerly a Manufacturers’ Federation activist who favoured a substantial degree of protection, and Ruth Richardson, a former adviser to Federated Farmers, who favoured rapid tariff removal (Bremer, 1993: p.123). A decade later another political issue that set the National Party apart from much of its farmer support base was the determination of much of the Parliamentary leadership, and especially Jenny Shipley and John Luxton, to reform the agricultural producer boards.
The influence of Federated Farmers within the National Party has also declined due to the decline of the size and relevance of the farmers’ organisation. Like trade unions and most other sectoral organisations, the federation has been waning for many years. In the early 1950s it had 48,000 financial members, but by 1990 this had declined to about 23,000 (Bremer, 1993: p.116). By 2003 membership was only 18,000 (New Zealand Federated Farmers, 2003).
Being the traditional ‘party of private enterprise’, National has also had strong links with the organised business community. Private groups of businesspeople have often rallied behind the National Party at election time, particularly to provide funds for their campaign. An example of this was Bob Jones’ Capital Club, which in the 1970s financed and ran large-scale advertising campaigns in support of National (Cleveland, 1977: p.115). Commerce associations, such as regional chambers of commerce in particular, have normally been very supportive of the party and it has had a very close relationship with the Employers Federation and the Manufacturers Federation (which are now merged as Business New Zealand). For example, prior to National’s election in 1990, the Employers Federation ‘played a significant role in developing the party’s industrial relations policy of deregulating the labour market’ (Mulgan, 1997: p.226). The links between the two organisations are many. For example National’s spokesperson on labour relations and later minister of labour, Max Bradford, came to Parliament from a senior position with the Employers Federation. And in 1996 the Federation provided National with $1.3 million of television advertising by promoting the advantages of the Employment Contracts Act. Again in 1999 it ran a pro-Employment Contracts Act and anti-ACC advertising campaign in the media.
The Business Roundtable was probably even more influential on National’s 1990 industrial relations policy, and it was generally very influential in National’s 1990-93 term in government. According to ex-National MP and leader of New Zealand First, Winston Peters, National’s industrial relations policy was actually written in 1987, 1988, and 1989 by the Roundtable (Scherer, 1995: p.3). Likewise, Tenbensel maintains that the Roundtable ‘provided many of the ideas that underpinned changes such as the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act… and the 1991 Budget (Tenbensel, 2001: p.329). As an illustration of this, Ruth Richardson has written that, ‘The Business Roundtable put a great deal of effort into trying to educate Bill [Birch] on the concept of free contracting, with some limited success’ (Richardson, 1995: p.65). Since this time, however, it seems that National’s relationship with organised business interests has dwindled again. Many business interests have shifted their loyalties back to the Labour Party – although the shift in alignment is not as severe as in the mid-1980s. More than ever before, business organisations are no longer tied to any particular party, and shift between parties as it suits them.
The National Party does, however, develop relationships with groups other than business and farmers. For example, in the 1970s a liberal ginger group, Pol-Link was influential within National, attempting to reverse the party’s increasing social conservatism under Muldoon’s leadership (James, 1986a: pp.39-40). Later in the post-Muldoonist mid-1980s National’s extra-parliamentary leadership sought to reinvigorate the party’s organisation by creating the National Political Centre, which was intended to promote new ideas and concepts for the party. The organisers – Hugh Templeton, Sue Wood and Barry Leay – had the objective of creating ‘something attached to the party but semi-independent’ (Klinkum, 1998: pp.424-425). A contemporary party-manufactured alignment is National’s ‘Bluegreens’ environmental policy task force formed in July 1998. Created by then Minister of the Environment, Simon Upton, and the Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith, this new group was to be an organisation that existed outside of the party but would feed ideas, direction and energy into National. The organisation was headed by Auckland businessman Rob Fenwick, who was not a member of the party but had previously led the (now-defunct) Progressive Green Party. The exact relationship of the task force to the National Party was never made public, but press releases about it stressed that the organisation was separate to the party and that membership of it was not confined to members of the party. The Bluegreens was clearly the property of the National Party, but the task force would attempt to create its own identity, aided by its own logo, environmental experts and spokespeople from outside the party (English, 31 Jul 1998: p.A5).
Similarly, since the late 1990s, National has been closely connected to an organisation called the New Zealand Free Enterprise Trust, which is a front organisation for the distribution of donations from individual businesses and businesspeople to the party. Former party president, Geoff Thompson has said the Trust also funds other organisations and parties, but he refused to say which, and no other party has declared any donations from the Trust (Gardiner, 12 May 2000). The records of the Electoral Commission show that the party received $700,000 from the Trust between 1998 and 2001. A related organisation named the Southern Free Enterprise Trust also declared donations of $86,000 to various National Party electorate organisations. Then in 2002 the Waitemata Trust, ‘a private trust set up to support right-wing parties’, gave the National Party $123,000 (Venter, 2003b).
In the 1980s and 1990s, National had ties to various Christian groups. During the mid-1980s New Zealand’s ‘moral majority’ group, the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, ran a campaign to encourage its supporters – who largely came from fundamentalist and evangelical Christian churches – to join the National Party, attempt to influence its moral direction, and depose ‘liberal’ National MPs. Encouraged and coordinated by MP Graeme Lee, the coalition decided to enter the party following the unsuccessful campaign against homosexual law reform (McLoughlin, 1986a: p.1). The next Christian organisation to become involved with the party was the internally-created Christian Voice group. The group was established with the consent of party leaders in August 1998 ‘as a special interest group with equivalent status to Young Nationals, the women’s committee and the Maori committee’ (Speden, 1999c: p.14). The chairman of Christian Voice, John Stringer, had been the campaign director for the rival Christian Coalition in the 1996 general election. Seven other Christian Voice members stood for the National Party in the 1999 election (ibid). Overall, Christian Voice does not appear to play a significant role in the party.
The National Party has also been advantaged by supportive institutions within the state. National has certainly sought to turn various state institutions into partisan institutions – for example positions on the board of the old New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) were used for party patronage in the past. Throughout the 1960s, according to Keith Jackson, the NZBC Board consisted ‘of appointees who were predominantly National Party sympathisers’ (Jackson, 1973: p.189).
Privately-owned media have also traditionally been among National’s more important allies. At the middle of the last century, according to Lipson, the National Party enjoyed ‘the strategic advantage of controlling virtually every newspaper’ (Lipson, 1948: p.250). Mulgan and Vowles, too, have argued that although the media is not heavily partisan, newspapers and their proprietors have generally either favoured National or opposed Labour (Mulgan, 1997a: pp.300-301; Vowles, 2002b: p.425). Arguably this media partisanship has changed more recently because of the erosion of ideological differences between the major parties.