Conservatism in New Zealand, though related to its counterparts in other Western countries, developed uniquely over time. Advocates followed a political ideology that emphasised the preservation of traditional beliefs, institutions and practices.
Initially conservatism was a philosophy used by the "men in possession" of a new country, but most of all it espoused the spirits of individualism akin to Herbert Spencer's theories. Prior to the mid-1870s, New Zealand's political factions were based less on ideologies and more on provincial allegiances. This was to change however, with members of parliament becoming more identifiable as one of two groups—"Conservative" or "Liberal"—akin to Britain. The labels often walked hand in hand with each MP's stance on land policy. Nearly all those calling themselves conservatives supported freehold policy, while those labelled as liberals advocated for leasehold legislature.
From 1876 to 1890 the conservative factions dominated the House of Representatives. The so-called "Continuous Ministry" governed almost this whole period, with two breaks from October 1877 to October 1879 and August 1884 to October 1887, when "Liberal" ministries were formed under George Grey and Robert Stout, respectively. The Continuous Ministry was governing once again in 1887–88, the worst years of the Long Depression, when Premier Harry Atkinson became very unpopular, even with the wealthy his erstwhile supporters. The ensuing election in 1890 was a disaster. An ailing Atkinson resigned and a new ministry was formed under John Ballance and his recently formed Liberal Party.
The beginning of party politics in New Zealand was a setback for conservative-oriented politicians, worsened by the accession of the immensely popular Richard Seddon to the premiership. His opponents struggled to set up an equivalent full-scale organisation in competition to the Liberal Party. Conservative politicians operated under various banners in this period such as the Political Reform Association (1887–91), the National Association (1891–99) and the Political Reform League (1905), with Leader of the Opposition William Massey accepting endorsement from the latter in the 1905 and 1908 elections. The conservatives struggled to contrast with appeal against Seddon and his Liberal political vehicle. William Pember Reeves, when asked of what differentiated the Conservatives from the Liberals in parliament, phrased them as "parties of resistance and progress" respectively.
Atkinson had some respite, stacking the Legislative Council with fellow conservatives, to control the Liberals from the upper house (often compared to the period 1906–11 in Britain where the Liberal government was blocked by peers in the House of Lords). Ballance eventually got his way with the Governor General by limiting the term of a MLC from life to seven years. However, the Liberals were not able to fully claim the upper house from the Conservatives until 1899. The beginning of the 1900s was the weakest point in New Zealand conservatism. Helped by jingoism in the Second Boer War, Seddon was at the height of his power, reigning supreme over parliament. By contrast, the Conservatives were disorganised, demoralised and, by 1901, leaderless. In 1902 a Sydney newspaper said of the Conservatives:
They have hardly [in 12 years] carried even a snatch division on a question about a culvert on a back country road. They could hardly remember how to draft a bill now, and they have forgotten what success looks like.
The Conservatives began to improve, with many initial supporters of the Liberals now defecting upon having now received the reforms they wanted in the 1890s. In the election of 1908 election, the Conservatives improved remarkably, gaining ten seats. Of further aid to the Conservative cause was the emergence of independent Labour parties who were leeching away supporters from the Liberals, particularly in cities.
In February 1909 Massey announced the formation of the Reform Party, New Zealand's first true right-wing political party, in his attempts to establish a credible vision to there being a possible alternative government to challenge the long established Liberal dominance. The name "Reform" was not new, but it served its purpose to efface the "Conservative" branding and party-image with which Massey's supporters were viewed.
The plan worked and following the 1911 election, the Liberals were ousted from power in a no-confidence motion, 41 votes to 33 on 5 July 1912. Massey became Prime Minister and formed the first non-Liberal government in 21 years.
|No.||Name||Portrait||Term of Office||Prime Minister|
|1||Harry Atkinson||1 September 1876||1878||Atkinson 1876–77|
|2||John Hall||1878||21 April 1882|
|3||Frederick Whitaker||21 April 1882||25 September 1883||Whitaker 1882–83|
|(1)||Harry Atkinson||25 September 1883||24 January 1891||Atkinson 1883–84|
|4||John Bryce||23 January 1891||31 August 1891||Ballance 1891–93|
|5||William Rolleston||31 August 1891||8 November 1893|
|6||William Russell||26 June 1894||3 July 1901|
|7||William Massey||11 September 1903||11 February 1909|
- Historic liberalism in New Zealand
- History of New Zealand
- Politics of New Zealand
- List of political parties in New Zealand
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Conservatism in New Zealand.|
- Sinclair, Keith (1988). A History of New Zealand. Pelican Books.
- Gardner, William James. "Reform Party". In McLintock, A. H. (ed.). An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Ministry for Culture and Heritage / Te Manatū Taonga. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
- Bassett, Michael (1982). Three Party Politics in New Zealand 1911–1931. Auckland: Historical Publications. ISBN 0-86870-006-1.
- Bassett, Judith (1975). Sir Harry Atkinson. Auckland: Auckland University Press. ISBN 0-19-647934-7.
- Bassett, Judith (1968), "Sir Harry Atkinson and the Conservative Faction in New Zealand Politics, 1879–90", New Zealand Journal of History, 2 (2): 130–147
- Dalziel, Raewyn (1987), "The 'Continuous Ministry' revisited", New Zealand Journal of History, 21 (1): 46–61