The gender cleavage in New Zealand society plays only a small role in party politics. Few political parties or candidates campaign on gender issues, and it appears unlikely that this social cleavage will become sufficiently politicised to make viable the establishment of a gender-specific political party. [Read more below]
Traditionally there has been a moderate gender split in New Zealand voting behaviour, with females voting more conservatively than males. For example, Levine and Robinson’s 1975 voter survey showed that women made up 55% of National’s vote, whereas women voters made up only 46% of Labour’s support and only 45% of the Values party vote (Levine and Robinson, 1976: p.131). The same survey also found that National had the support of 57% of ‘housewives’ (ibid: p.139).
More recently Labour has been significantly more attractive to women than men. For example, according to Levine and Roberts’ survey research, in 1996 Labour obtaining 61% of their support from women (Levine and Roberts, 1997). However, Labour’s strength in attracting the votes of women was largely a negative phenomenon: ‘The increasing Labour gender gap is the result not of increased female support for Labour, but rather of two dramatic slides in male support for Labour from 1987 to 1990, and from 1993 to 1996. Female support for Labour also slipped over the same period, almost as much as men’s from 1987 to 1990, but much less between 1993 and 1996’ (Vowles, 1998d: pp.33-34).
Analysis of NZES data for 1999 by Vowles showed that women were 9% more likely than men to vote Labour (Vowles, 2002d: p.93). Likewise, according to a Herald-DigiPoll survey at the end of the 2002 election campaign, Labour had the support of 45% of women, but only 32% of men (Collins, 2002).
Correspondingly, on the right flank of the political spectrum, it was male voters who dominated – Act’s 1996 support was very heavily biased towards men, with men making up 84% of the its vote (Levine and Roberts, 1997). In 1999 the party’s gender support was still heavily weighted towards males, but had improved significantly. According to Vowles, in 1999 Act had ‘a 9% vote among men but only 3% among women’ (Vowles, 2002d: pp.93-94). Alternatively, Nicola Reid reported that while 7% of men voted Act, only 4% of women did (Reid, 2001: p.266).
Although the gender cleavage is relatively insignificant, Vowles noted that because ‘women were 9% more likely to vote Labour than men’ ‘this gender effect is likely to be as strong, if not stronger, than class’ (ibid: p.93). But for the rest of the parties, support appears to be gender neutral – with National, the Alliance and New Zealand First all obtaining a relatively even shares of votes from men and women in 1996 (Bain, 4 Dec 1996: p.2). In 2002 United Future’s voter support was slightly biased towards women. According to a Herald-DigiPoll survey at the end of the 2002 election campaign, the party won 6.2% support from women but only 4.6% from men (Collins, 2002).
Compared with other legislatures around the world, the New Zealand Parliament has a high proportion of women parliamentarians. The number of women representatives has also increased under MMP; the party lists have increased the number of female MPs from 21 (out of a 99 MP Parliament) in 1993, to 34 (out of a 120 MP Parliament) in 2002.
The gender split varies greatly across the parties, and after the 2002 general election Act and the Green Party had the highest proportion of women MPs at 44% each. Labour had 35%, National 22%, United Future 13%; New Zealand First 7% and the Progressive Coalition no women MPs. The memberships of both main parties have tended to be made up equally of both sexes.
According to Alan Ware, the approximate proportion of party members who are women in the Labour Party is 52%, and in the National Party, 50% (Ware, 1996: p.82). This compares very favourably to all other western European countries where a much lower proportion of women is involved. For example, the female proportion of party members at the national level in Sweden is 30%, France 35%, Germany 30%, Italy 27%, and in Britain 42% (Widfeldt, 1995: p.155).
Most political parties also have gender specific policies, some of which probably reflect an attempt to target the gender cleavage. For example, in government the Alliance pushed policies like Paid Parental Leave. Similarly in the 1980s the Fourth Labour Government set up the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and passed the Pay Equity Act. (Mulgan, however, has commented that Labour’s gender strategies in 1990 ‘appear to have had little impact’ - 1997a: p.275).
The gender cleavage is generally not strong in New Zealand – it certainly hasn’t been strong enough to foster any successful gender-based political parties. In the transition to MMP a women’s party was created and momentarily obtained some national prominence, but was never heard of again. Then in 1999 Alliance-defector Alamein Kopu set up the short-lived Mana Wahine Te Ira Tangata, which was a party aimed at Maori women.