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Government in New Zealand

2 — The Electorate And Political Parties

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The Electorate And Political Parties

In Area New Zealand is slightly larger than the United Kingdom, about half the size of France, and larger than most of the Balkan states. Its population is approximately 1,650,000, which places it amongst the smallest independent states in the world.

Besides being small, the population is remarkably homogeneous. With the exception of 90,000 Maoris, there is no important racial or national minority. Census records up to 1936 indicate that no less than 95 per cent of the population (excluding Maoris) are of British origin. According to the 1936 census 80 per cent were born in New Zealand, 19 per cent in other British countries, and 1 per cent in foreign countries.

In 1936 slightly more than a third (36.6 per cent) of the total population lived in the four main urban centres, of which Auckland (212,159) is the largest and Dunedin (81,961) the smallest. Although New Zealand, like most other countries, is experiencing a trend towards urban aggregation, over the past decade the trend has been comparatively slow, and more than page 1140 per cent of the population is still classed as rural. On an approximately comparable basis of computation, the rural population of Australia is 36 per cent, Canada 48 per cent, and England and Wales 20 per cent.

The age grouping of the European population at 1 April 1939 is indicated in the following table:

Under 5 years 121,464
5 years and under 10 122,400
10 " " " 15 132,100
15 " " " 20 135,700
20 " " " 25 132,800
25 " " " 30 131,000
30 " " " 35 119,600
35 " " " 40 106,500
40 " " " 45 95,600
45 " " " 50 90,400
50 " " " 55 90,900
55 " " " 60 82,800
60 " " " 65 66,000
65 " " " 70 47,500
70 " " " 75 30,900
75 " " " 80 17,700
80 " " over 12,900
Total 1,536,264

South Africa and Canada have substantially, and Australia slightly, younger populations than New Zealand; England and Wales has a slightly older population. At 1 April 1939 the adult European population (which is, unimportant categories excepted, the electorate) comprised 65.06 per cent of the total. Of page 12the 999,464 adults, 504,995 were males and 494,469 females.

The occupations of those members of the population classed as actively employed are given in the following table, with comparative figures for certain other countries. Both sexes are included, but New Zealand figures are exclusive of Maoris:

Percentages Of Total Actively Employed
Industry Group New Zealand Australia England and Wales Canada
(1936) (1933) (1931) (1931)
Primary Production 28.5 24.4 12.1 34.5
Industrial 25.5 32.1 40.2 25.3
Transport and Communication 10.1 8.3 6.9 8.7
Commerce and Finance 16.2 16.7 15.9 12.8
Public Administration and Professional 10.5 9.5 12.0 10.2
Domestic and Personal Service 9.2 9.0 12.9 8.5
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Of those actively employed 79.4 per cent represent wage and salary earners, 9.1 per cent are employers of labour, and 11.5 per cent are engaged on their own account.

The following table, which includes both sexes and persons of all ages, gives some indication of the distribution of total private income:

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Income £ Per cent of total income
Under 52 5
52–103 13
104–155 13
156–207 13
208–259 15
260–311 9
312–363 5
364–399 4
400–499 5
500–599 3
600–749 3
750–999 3
1,000–1,999 5
2,000–2,999 2
3,000–3,999 1
4,000 or over 1
Total 100

Since there has been free and compulsory education for more than sixty years, there is practically no illiteracy. In 1937, of the children leaving primary schools, about 65 per cent went on to post-primary schools.

It will be seen from the figures quoted in the preceding paragraphs that New Zealand can be regarded as a relatively favourable field for the working of representative institutions. There is an even distribution of the population between town and country; there are no vast urban aggregations as in Australia; illiteracy is practically non-existent; there are no substantial national or racial minorities; wealth is as page 14evenly distributed as it is likely to be in a capitalist society; and a relatively large section of the population is within those age groups in which stability of judgment may be expected. In short, almost all those factors which in other countries have strained or distorted representative institutions are absent. Moreover the country is so small, both as to area and as to population, that the institutions of government are less able to develop those impersonal and bureaucratic qualities which in larger countries create a gulf between those who govern and those who are governed.

In New Zealand, as in all countries calling themselves democratic, there is a gap between the electorate and the constitutionally established organs of government which is filled by political parties—organisations which in New Zealand are recognised by constitutional convention but not by the written law. It is through parties that the political opinions of the electors are effectively expressed; it is through parties that political representatives are chosen; and it is through parties that the membership and the tenure of office of the executive are determined.

The best way to describe the party system in New Zealand is to give its history; for its outlines are so constantly fluctuating that generalisations are dangerous. Between the establishment of representative and responsible government in 1856 and the abolition of page 15the provinces in 1876, neither in the General Assembly* nor in the electorate was there any semblance of political organisation by groups professing adherence to certain political principles. In the House of Representatives, what tendency there may have been to a true party division was stifled by local feeling. The members from each province were a group working for the interests of their province, sometimes in alliance with other provincial groups. Most historians find the beginnings of the party system in the recurring disputes over the powers of the provinces, which divided the House into centralists and provincialists. The leader of the provincialists in their final attempt to save the federal constitution was Sir George Grey, who in England might have been called a Gladstonian Liberal; and partly because of this the provincialists had what was vaguely called a 'Liberal' attitude to most public questions. They were not, however, called a Liberal party; nor had they any permanent organisation for parliamentary or electoral purposes. For the greater part of the period between the abolition of the provinces and the election of 1891, New Zealand was governed by the 'Continuous Ministry', which Reeves has described as 'an arrangement by which the Cabinet was from time to time modified page 16without being completely changed at any one moment.… The continuous process was rather the outcome of rapidly changing conditions than of any set plan of purpose.' The Continuous Ministry, it is clear, was a phenomenon made possible by the absence of organised political groups in the General Assembly. The governments of the period represented a natural colonial aristocracy of large landowners and upper middle class professional men. One observer notes that 'the fashionable clubs were then only the adjuncts of Parliament and the Cabinet; political leaders and Ministers were to be met there; and in spite of the somewhat advanced ideas of its leaders, the middle class was conscious that the preponderating influence was on its side.' It would be more accurate to say 'upper middle class', since trade and commerce were scarcely represented in the Parliaments and ministries of this period.

For the greater part of this period, there was no organised opposition party, either in the House of Representatives or in the electorates. This is usually attributed to Sir George Grey's defects as a leader and organiser. To some extent, however, it was due to the gradual disappearance of that community of aims and interests which, in the few years before and after the abolition of the provinces, had brought together a political group under Grey's leadership. Less than a decade after the Abolition Act, the provincialist-centralist division had lost its relevance; while the page 17Liberalism of Grey was a very different thing from the native radicalism which was being generated in the rural districts by land monopoly and in the towns by unemployment (the eighties were a period of acute economic depression) and sweated labour. The difference between the old Liberalism and the new is shown by the tariff issue. Grey and his associates, whose political principles were the product of an English rather than a colonial environment, were free-traders because it was to them unthinkable that liberals could be otherwise; the newer Liberals who began to make their presence felt in the House of Representatives in the mid-eighties, were pragmatic protectionists, seeing no other remedy for 'sweating' in the colony's secondary industries. And it was the tariff issue which, in 1888, brought the Liberals together in an organised group for the first time since the battle over the Abolition Bill, a development followed a year later by the election of John Ballance to be their leader. Ballance is the transitional figure between the two Liberalisms. To the end, he remained a provincialist, always ready to oppose measures likely to centralise political power; but on general social questions his views were the product more of actual colonial conditions than of the historic principles of Liberalism. Richard John Seddon, his chief lieutenant, was in every respect a man of the new political era that was dawning. Liberalism, which in England connoted laisser-faire, was in New Zealand under his leadership page 18to become associated with state socialism and state regulation of industry and commerce.

The general election of 1890, which brought the newly-organised Liberal party into power, marks the beginning in New Zealand of the stable, two-party system of government. In the period between 1854 and 1891, the average life of a ministry was a little more than a year; Seddon was Prime Minister for thirteen years, and during the whole of this time had the support of a compact and obedient party in the House of Representatives.

The history of the opposition during the Seddon regime is of very considerable interest. At first, it consisted of the remnants of the large landowning and upper middle class professional interests (now usually called 'Conservatives') who had constituted the main strength of the Continuous Ministry. But as time went on it gradually lost its vitality and its cohesion; and in 1901 its leader Captain (later Sir) William Russell announced to the House of Representatives that 'as an organised body, the Opposition had ceased to exist'. Two years later the opposition reorganised itself under the leadership of William Ferguson Massey, the name 'Conservative' being allowed to drop. The meaning of the change of leadership is clear enough. The Liberals had come into power as the opponents of land monopolies and, with the leasehold tenure as their instrument, had assisted in the creation of a class of small landowners. As happens in so many page 19revolutions, the beneficiaries, anxious to consolidate their gains, turned conservative. Those whom the leasehold had put on the land now demanded the freehold. Massey, himself a farmer, was the representative of this new class of conservative small proprietors, a class from which, towards the close of the century, the opposition drew its main strength.

Seddon died in 1906, and although the Liberal Government outlived him by six years, the foundations on which it was built had already begun to crumble. In the early nineties it was easy enough for the lower middle classes and the trade unions to make common cause against land monopolies; and as late as 1904, Siegfried believed Seddon to be 'secure in the solid and double basis of his majority of small-holders and working men'. But in fact the growing conservatism of the small holders and the growing militancy of the trade union movement was destroying what had never been a very real synthesis. The Government, influenced by falling prices for primary products and by consequent budgetary difficulties, drifted gradually to the right. The emergence, in the 1905 election, of an independent Labour party, spelled its doom. In the election of 1911 it lost its majority and after the brief interlude of the Mackenzie Government, Massey (his group had chosen the name Reform party) became Prime Minister. The twenty-one years between the fall of the Liberal Government and the general election of 1935, which brought the Labour page 20party into power, are, as far as party government is concerned, a period of confusion and instability. As their electoral platforms show, the Liberal and Reform parties no longer differed on any important issue. They continued as separate organisations only for personal and historical reasons and because the Labour party at first progressed so slowly that the right wing forces did not feel the need of consolidation. From 1911 until 1926 the Reform party had a slight majority over the Liberal opponents and the Labour party combined. During the Great War a coalition government representing the two main parties was formed out of deference to popular demand for a semblance of national unity; but when peace came there was a return to the three-party struggle. In 1926 the Reform party, led by Joseph Gordon Coates, who had succeeded Massey, won its first sweeping victory at the polls; and it was confidently assumed that the Liberal remnant, which had in desperation taken the name United party as the 1929 election approached, would pass out of existence. But an electoral whim, which is not easily explained, deprived the Reform party of its majority and placed in power a United party ministry led by Sir Joseph Ward, now old and in ill health. Ward's death in 1930 and the onset of the economic depression, forced that amalgamation of the two parties of the right which the logic of events had demanded for at least a decade; and until the general election in 1935 New Zealand page break
Graph showing percentage of votes recorded for Parliamentary parties 1908–1938.

Graph showing percentage of votes recorded for Parliamentary parties 1908–1938.

page 21was governed by a coalition the supporters of which became by gradual stages the National party. In the meantime the Labour party had been making steady though slow progress and in the general election of 1931 secured twenty-one seats, mostly representing urban constituencies. New Zealand has now returned to the two-party system which existed before the emergence of the Labour party.

It will be seen from this brief historical survey that, although New Zealand took its political institutions ready-made from England there has been no inclination to follow English party divisions. One might say that the whole New Zealand electorate is oriented somewhat to the left of the English electorate, as is shown by the fact that no political party has consistently used the term conservative. Gladstonian Liberalism flourished briefly in the seventies; but the native Liberalism of the nineties was a political creed owing nothing to external influences. It is only with the rise of the Labour party that the party contest in New Zealand has begun to develop points of real similarity with the party contest in England, which may be another way of saying that in almost all countries the class conflict has become the main political cleavage. It will also be noted that party groupings, particularly those of the right, are relatively unstable, electoral defeats usually bringing changes of name and of leadership in an effort to recapture public favour. The Labour party, which has varied its organisation and page 22its formal principles little in more than thirty years, is in this respect exceptional. Although it is not less adroit than other parties in adapting its election programmes to the needs of the moment, these shifts take place against the background of a formal, if somewhat unreal, adherence to socialism and an intimate and stabilising connection with the trade union movement.

New Zealand has never developed that stability in party politics which in England is the product of long-established and vital political traditions and in America of powerful, efficient, and wealthy party organisations. One reason for this is that New Zealand people have not readily accepted party government as desirable and necessary. In 1891, the New Zealand Parliament set up a committee many of whose members were then, or subsequently became, important political figures, to report upon the working of party government in New Zealand. The committee after condemning, in vigorous and even violent terms a system which placed the executive in a 'whirl of political debauchery', recommended that the ministry should in future be elected by Parliament as a whole. Many subsequent attempts were made to persuade Parliament to sanction this change; and in 1912 an elective executive bill was defeated on the second reading by only one vote. It is perhaps true that not many of the members of the committee of 1891 really believed that what they were advocating was practicable, but it can hardly be doubted that what they said in condemna-page 23tion of party government had the enthusiastic support of a large section of the electorate. The feeling against party may be nebulous and unpractical; it should not on that account be ignored, since it has been a powerful factor in the development of the machinery of representative government in New Zealand.

An obvious and important correlation exists in New Zealand between the trade cycle and the fortunes of political parties. Generally speaking prosperity brings a swing to the left and economic adversity a swing back to the right. During the greater part of the period of the Continuous Ministry New Zealand was in the throes of a depression. The success of the Liberal-Labour party coincided with, and was to some extent made possible by, a recovery in prices for primary products on the world markets. The downward trend of prices which began in 1906 drove the Liberal Government to the right and was one factor in bringing the conservative Reform party into power. The upswing of the economic pendulum after the economic depression of 1929-34 brought New Zealand back, under the leadership of the Labour Government, to radicalism and social experiment.

The New Zealand Labour party might fairly be called the political superstructure of trade unionism; for, although in the last two elections it has gained a larger measure of electoral support than any party has gained since the days of Seddon and although its page 24present policy is not framed in the interests of a class, it is nevertheless true that the trade union movement provides its organisation, a majority of its leaders, a large part of its revenue, and a solid nucleus of electoral support. The national conference, which is held each Easter and is in theory the supreme authority in the party, consists of delegates from the party's branches and affiliations, including trade unions. Since the trade unions are more numerous than the branches and other affiliations and have larger memberships, their delegates are in a majority. The national executive, which is elected by the conference, consists of five members resident in the area where the party headquarters are situated and twelve members representing the divisional areas. The first group functions as a central executive, and in effect has great influence over the shaping of policy, the agenda of the national conference, and the selection of parliamentary candidates. The national executive meets only to discuss important business, though the twelve divisional representatives are freely consulted by post. The procedure for the selection of parliamentary candidates involves a nice compromise between central and local powers. All candidates must be chosen from a list of approved candidates drawn up by the national executive; and nominations to this list can be sent in by any six members of the party. For general elections, the selection of candidates is made by Labour representation committees which page 25control groups of electorates and consist of delegates from branches and affiliations. Like the national conference, these committees are dominated by the trade union delegates. Candidates for by-elections are selected by the national executive. In the selection of candidates for local body elections, the Labour representation committees have a free hand.

Party discipline, particularly in matters of policy, is fairly strict. Members are unequivocally pledged to support the existing policy of the party in all its details, and breaches of the pledge can be visited with expulsion. An interesting example of the degree of loyalty expected was given in 1934, when the national conference deleted from the party programme a clause advocating proportional representation. At that time the Christchurch City Council was elected on a system of proportional representation; and the Labour majority on the council, acting on instructions from the national executive, voted for a return to the first-past-the-post system, even though some of them were personally opposed to the change.

A feature of the Labour party's organisation which has lately aroused much controversy is its financial connection with the trade union movement. Before the present Labour Government came into power in 1935, trade unions were free to use their funds for political purposes if their rules so provided. In 1936 the Labour Government made trade unionism compulsory and, by the Political Disabilities Removal page 26Act of the same year, empowered trade unions to make grants from their funds to a political party 'notwithstanding that there is no provision in the rules … authorising the use of its funds for political purposes.' Since only a few unions—mainly those in 'white-collar' occupations—have failed to take advantage of the right, the effect of these changes is that to become an employee in almost any industry is to become a contributor to the funds of the Labour party. Some unions make the contribution as a vote from their general funds; others impose a special political levy on members. To compel men, even though they are a small minority, to contribute financially to the support of a cause in which they do not believe, seems unwise and unjust. Granted that trade unions ought to be allowed to make levies on their members for political purposes, the right of 'contracting out', as provided for in the English act of 1913, seems a necessary safeguard of individual rights. The financial connection between trade unions and the Labour party must, however, be viewed in relation to the murky question of party funds generally as well as in relation to the rights of the individual. As Mr Ramsay Muir has pointed out, brewery companies find money for political purposes without taking a poll of their shareholders or giving them an opportunity to contract out.

The political organisation which has in recent years, under different names, given effectual political expres-page 27sion to the opinions of the more conservative sections of the electorate is not comparable in administrative efficiency, in active membership, or in certainty of constructive purpose with the Labour party. When, in 1931, the stress of the economic depression caused the United and Reform parties to enter a coalition and finally to amalgamate, the country was saved from the undoubted evils of the three-party system; but it would seem that this consolidation of anti-Labour forces has had the further effect of weakening the vitality of the political right. The National party, which is the result of the consolidation, has concentrated mainly on the negative task of uniting all the non-Labour elements in the electorate. On the one hand, it feels the need for holding in check the incipient tendency of the farmers to independent political action; on the other hand, it cannot do without the support of the commercial, financial, and manufacturing interests which contribute so largely to its funds. A policy which seeks to hold together these divergent interests is necessarily vague.

The electoral organisation of the National party differs from that of the Labour party in being less centralised and in imposing less rigid tests of political conformity. The unit of organisation is for most purposes the single electorate. The selection of candidates is in the hands of electorate committees composed of representatives of the branches in the electorate, the central organisation having no formal page 28power to intervene. There are five divisional areas, three in the North Island and two in the South Island, in which party affairs are controlled by divisional committees consisting of representatives of the electorate committees. Divisional committees and electorate committees have wide powers of co-optation. Each electorate is entitled to send four delegates to the annual conference, which elects the president, vice-presidents, and treasurer. The Dominion council consists of these officers, twenty-one members elected by the divisional committees, and five members elected by the National members of Parliament. There is a standing committee on policy consisting of three nominees of the Dominion council and three members of Parliament appointed by the parliamentary leader of the party, who acts as chairman.

The financing of party election campaigns is an obscure but important subject. Though the Electoral Act limits a candidate's expenses to £200, there are ways of circumventing this provision; and it is common knowledge that the amount spent by and on behalf of party candidates is normally greater. In by-elections, or in contests of special importance, the cost of a candidate's campaign will sometimes exceed £1,000. For a candidate of the right, the cost of contesting a seat in a general election is usually between £300 and £500. The Labour party, having a better administrative machine than its opponents, can run elections more cheaply. In addition to expendi-page 29ture on behalf of individual candidates, it is necessary to take into account divisional and national expenditure by the party organisations. In recent years, national expenditure by party organisations has grown rapidly, mainly because of the increased use of newspaper advertising and of the services of advertising experts. In the general election of 1938 the national advertising of both parties was handled by advertising agencies. In this election, the Labour party's expenditure from the centre, according to its balance-sheet, was £36,000, though it is not clear how much of this was used to assist individual candidates and how much on publicising the party as a whole and financing the electoral tours of its leaders. In the previous general election, however, when the Labour party-was in opposition, its expenditure from the centre was only £4,300. The remarkable increase in 1938 is partly explained by the increase in the number of trade unionists owing to the introduction of compulsory unionism and changes in the law governing political contributions from union funds.

In New Zealand, as in the United States, elections are rarely fought on specific and practical issues like tariff policy. The party leaders are, where public opinion is concerned, not leaders but followers. The party programmes, being as it were sails set to catch the breeze, differ in emphasis rather than in substance. If the left has a national health scheme, the right must have one too, even though it is committed to reduce page 30taxation. If the left has a scheme to assist dairy farmers, the right will not allow its prejudice against state intervention in industry to prevent it from having one that is more or less similar. If the right proclaims itself the defender of the farmer's freehold against socialism, the left will not find its theoretical attachment to socialism an obstacle to the promise of measures to safeguard the farmer's equity in his land. It is true that, on certain matters of principle, there is apparently a sharp division. The Labour party stands committed to socialism; the right vociferates its determination to uphold the freedom of private enterprise. But there is an implicit understanding that a Labour government will not set about the immediate and wholesale expropriation of private enterprise and that a government of the right, far from attempting a return to laisser-faire capitalism, will merely slow down the extension of the powers of the State. The left's formal adherence to socialism and the right's championing of private enterprise are not, however, meaningless; they show that the present party system in New Zealand has its ultimate origin in an economic conflict between classes. The reason why parties do not carry their principles to a logical conclusion and even abandon them on occasions is that the class conflict, as expressed in the party conflict, is restrained and complicated by a variety of factors. In the first place, there is a clear understanding that the party conflict takes place within the conventions of the page 31existing politico-economic system. These conventions are, as it were, the ropes of the ring, and the spectators know well enough that the contestants, for all their bawling and thumping, are not fighting it out to the death. When they enter the ring, they accept the rules of the game. In the second place, the tendency of the party conflict to become a class conflict is restrained by the uncertainty of large and electorally important sections of the community as to where their class interest lies. This is particularly true of the small farmers of New Zealand, who tend to become conservative in periods of prosperity. Finally, the desire to gain control of the State, and to retain this control when it has been gained, modifies the attachment of party representatives to class interests.

Since 1879, parliamentary elections have been held in New Zealand every three years, with the exceptions that during the Great War the life of the 19th Parliament was extended to five years and that in the economic depression the life of the 24th Parliament was extended to four years. In the great majority of electorates, the contests are between candidates representing the two main parties.

At the census of 1936 New Zealand had 1,491,484 European inhabitants, of whom 826,804 lived in the sixty-four cities and boroughs with more than 2,000 inhabitants, leaving a rural population of 627,290. For electoral purposes, the total of rural population is increased by 28 per cent, or 175,641. This gives a page 32nominal population of 1,667,125. The number of European seats in the House of Representatives is seventy-six, so that the quota figure taken by the Representation Commission, which re-defines electoral boundaries after every census, was in this case 21,936.

The heavy 'weighting' of the rural population for electoral purposes in a country which is, in most respects, ultra-democratic, is somewhat curious. In part it is a matter of convenience. In the country areas, many electorates are even now of an unwieldy size. The conservative governments who first introduced the principle were in addition swayed by the belief that the economic and political stability of New Zealand was in the hands of the landowners, the men with 'a stake in the country'. The survival of the country quota is perhaps an indication that New Zealand is a democracy of small capitalists rather than a proletarian democracy. In this connection it may be noted that the county franchise still provides for plural voting on a property basis.

* The term 'General Assembly' is the proper legal and official description of the legislature of New Zealand; and since the legislature has a distinct title, the more correct use of the term 'Parliament' is in its restricted sense to indicate the personnel of the General Assembly during a particular period running from one general election to the next. Even in official usage, however, this distinction is not consistently observed.