A New Conservative Party for New Zealand?

New Zealand is often viewed a socially progressive version of Australia. They point to the fact that it legalized same sex marriage way back in 2013 under a conservative National Party government as an example.

However this is a false perception, the reality is that New Zealand has a political class who are social progressive but ignore the largely conservative citizenry of the nation. The polls on same sex marriage during the parliamentary debate showed the nation was split on it, if as some had advocated the issue had gone to a referendum a no vote had a good chance of prevailing.

Referendums in New Zealand have delivered conservative outcomes. A citizen initiated referendum in 2007 seeking to overturn the government’s ban on parental corporal punishment delivered an 87.9% vote against the ban of a voter turnout of 56.09%. New Zealanders also rejected changing the New Zealand flag in 2016 with 56.6% voting in favour of keeping their current flag which features the Union Jack out of a voter turnout of 67.8%.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during the September election made it a key pledge of hers to legalize abortion and euthanasia in New Zealand. There was significant grassroots backlash to this pledge and contributed to the diminishing of her momentum in the campaign which saw Labour only obtaining 36.9% of the party vote.

New Zealand’s significant Maori and Pacific Islander community are also known for being very conservative on social issues even though more often than not they vote for the Labour Party.

Despite New Zealand having a significant conservative constituency and the fact that the nation’s MMP electoral system makes it easier for minor parties to gain representation with 5% of the party vote it has not seen a socially conservative party gain representation in its parliament.

Social conservatives nearly gained representation in 1996 under the first MMP election under the Christian Coalition where it obtained 4.4% of party vote. The closest conservatives have recently got was in 2014 with the Conservative Party of New Zealand gaining 3.97% of the party vote. However, in the just passed election they only obtained 0.2% of the vote as in the previous election cycle their party founder Colin Craig resigned amidst inappropriate conduct allegations.

However this lack of representation could change by the time the next New Zealand election is due in 2020. After New Zealand First was widely viewed as betraying many of their conservative voters by backing Jacinda Ardern’s Labour/Green alliance to form government, and the consistent poor performance of its long time Coalition partners the libertarian ACT Party socially conservative members of the National Party have been considering if there is a gap for a new socially conservative party.

Given that under MMP no major party has been able to gain an absolute majority in a general election the National Party would need a reliable Coalition partner to return to government. A report from Politik states that National is planning to crush New Zealand First at the next election for its perceived betrayal and provide informal sponsorship to a new socially conservative party.

As Australia has shown strong conservative parties have been born by politicians leaving major parties. Pauline Hanson was initially a Liberal Party candidate and we saw Senator Cory Bernardi earlier this year leave the Liberal Party to start Australian Conservatives. However Conservative Party founder Colin Craig has warned that setting one up as a National Party proxy would set it up for failure as conservative voters want a genuine conservative and independent right-wing party.

One thing that can be agreed on is that conservatives in New Zealand deserve better. While Australians have been spoilt for choice over the years with conservative voting options and representation in both minor and major parties New Zealand conservatives have been disenfranchised.

If the right in New Zealand get their act together in time for the next election the conservative issues that have been ignored by the political class could finally be part of the nation’s policy agenda.

Tim Wilms

Tim Wilms is Editor-in-Chief of The Unshackled and host of The Unshackled Waves podcast. He is based in Melbourne, Victoria where he also does field reports.