The National Party and conservative values: A clash of interests?

Thomas Cranmer, Contributing Writer

13 April 2023

Thomas Cranmer Common Room

Another reason for the National Party’s distancing from traditional conservative values is its shift away from traditional social values.

The New Zealand National Party describes itself as a centre-right political party and one of two major parties that dominate contemporary New Zealand politics, alongside its traditional rival, the Labour Party. While the National Party has historically represented the interests of the business and farming communities, this focus on economic policies has not always aligned with traditional conservative values. Conservatives emphasise a cautious approach to change, but the National Party has often supported policies that promote economic growth and development, even if it means breaking with tradition. As the pace of social change becomes more accelerated and, in some cases, radical, a lack of engagement on these issues risks leaving traditional National Party voters feeling disillusioned.

The National Party’s origins can be traced back to May 1936, when it was formed from a merger between the United Party and the Reform Party. However, the roots of these parties go back even further. The United Party, formerly known as the Liberal Party until 1927, had a primary base of support in the cities and drew heavily on businesses for funding and middle-class voters for electoral support. Meanwhile, the Reform Party was strongly supported by rural voters, particularly farmers, who made up a significant proportion of the population.

Given its origins, it could be argued that the National Party has never fully embraced conservative values. Rather, the party has historically been more focused on representing the interests of business and farming communities, promoting policies that favour free-market capitalism, lower taxes, and less regulation. This pro-business stance has often been at odds with traditional conservative values. Nonetheless, the National Party has remained the dominant political force on the right in New Zealand, in part due to its ability to appeal to these key economic interests.

Another reason for the National Party’s distancing from traditional conservative values is its shift away from traditional social values. In recent years, the party has become more liberal on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which has led to criticism from some of its more conservative members. While this shift is not surprising given the changing social attitudes in New Zealand, it has led to concerns that the National Party is no longer a home for those with traditional conservative values.

Furthermore, the National Party’s lack of engagement on cultural issues is another argument for why it does not hold traditional conservative views. Unlike conservative parties in other countries, the National Party has not engaged in the culture wars that have dominated politics in recent years. The party has been criticised for largely avoiding issues such as free speech and cancel culture, which are of great concern to many conservatives. Instead, the National Party has focused on more pragmatic issues such as economic policy, which has led to accusations that it is a party without a clear ideological compass.

To be fair, it’s not just the National Party that has faced criticism for shifting away from conservative principles. The UK Conservative Party has also been accused of abandoning some of its core values in favor of more liberal social policies and pro-business positions. Some traditional conservatives have expressed concerns that the party has become too focused on attracting metropolitan voters and abandoned its roots in rural and working-class communities. Critics argue that the party has become too “centrist” and has moved away from its traditional conservative policies, such as support for traditional family values and strong national borders.

No doubt the National Party’s shift away from traditional conservative values is a deliberate strategy to appeal to a broader base of voters, including younger and more progressive voters. This strategy has been driven by a belief that traditional conservative values are not as popular as they once were, particularly among younger voters who are more likely to be socially liberal.

In addition to the National Party’s shift towards more progressive policies, there is a growing perception among some in New Zealand that the party has moved so far towards the center that it is now indistinguishable from the center-left Labour Party on many issues.

This perceived lack of differentiation between the National Party and Labour has raised concerns among some of the party’s traditional conservative supporters, who feel that the party has lost its ideological moorings. These supporters argue that the National Party has abandoned its principles in pursuit of electoral success, and that it needs to return to its roots as a true conservative party.

Linked to this perception is the criticism that the National Party has become too tightly whipped, with MPs prevented from expressing their own opinions or the opinions of their electorates in ways that may vary from party policy. This has led to frustration among some party members, who feel that their voices are not being heard and that the party is not responsive to their concerns.

This discipline has been particularly evident in relation to social issues, with MPs such as Harete Hipango and Simon O’Connor being prevented from speaking out on issues such as Covid lockdowns and abortion rights. Most recently, Maureen Pugh was reprimanded by the party leadership for asking Green’s co-leader James Shaw to produce evidence to support some of his recent climate-related claims.

Similarly, the National Party has received some criticism for not meeting or engaging with the Parliament protesters in February last year. Although there was unease at the time that the protest was poorly organised and lacked focus, undoubtedly the primary grievance driving the protest was the Covid mandates. Stunningly, whilst parliamentarians were refusing to meet with the protesters, a judge in the Wellington High Court ruled that the police and NZDF mandates were unlawful.

These events have led to accusations that the National Party is not a truly conservative party, but rather a party that is afraid to engage in controversial issues for fear of alienating voters. Moreover, it appears to be afraid to let even one of its Members of Parliament express a view which may not align with party policy.

In response to these criticisms, some National Party members have called for a more open and transparent approach to policy development, with greater consultation with party members and a greater willingness to consider a range of views. Others argue that the party needs to return to its traditional conservative values and differentiate itself more clearly from the center-left Labour Party.

To be fair to the party leadership, in relation to the latest controversy – the visit to New Zealand of Kellie-Jay Keen – National Party leader, Christopher Luxon did defend Keen’s right to free speech. Luxon also matter-of-factly answered the question, “What is a woman?” with the response, “an adult human female”. The sky didn’t fall in and Luxon wasn’t subject to the global mocking that was directed at the Prime Minister for his stuttering, garbled response to the same question in a post-Cabinet press conference.

The next question, however, is where National stands on women’s sports and women’s only spaces. There is clearly differing approaches now being adopted at the international level. As Keen was touching down in New Zealand to begin her ill-fated visit, the President of World Athletics, Lord Coe was announcing that he was tightening rules relating to transgender women competing in events in order to “protect the female category”.

Coe announced that transgender women who went through male puberty can no longer compete in women’s events at international competitions sanctioned by World Athletics, the governing body for track and field and other running competitions.

It follows a similar decision taken by England Rugby to restrict transgender players from competing in women’s rugby on the basis of safety concerns supported by recent scientific studies on injuries in contact sport.

These decisions were not taken to prevent or limit the participation of transgender people in sports but merely to balance competing interests relating to fairness and safety.

New Zealand in many respects is an interesting contradiction of views. On the one hand, it has embraced universal suffrage, gay marriage and abortion rights but on the other hand, the country voted against decriminalising marijuana. In any event, the country is undoubtedly socially liberal with a long history of progressive social policies.

The National Party’s historic focus on business interests has served it well but in a time of rapid social change occurring at home and abroad it will either need to articulate clear positions on social issues or it will gradually lose support within its traditional base. Freedom of expression applies not only to members of the public but also to their elected representatives. Members of Parliament should be trusted to express personal views in a thoughtful manner even if they may vary from party policy. It may add to the workload of the party leadership and whips but it will demonstrate that the National Party is a broad church that can accommodate a range of views representative of New Zealand.

Thomas Cranmer is a lawyer with over 25 years experience in some of the world’s biggest law firms. He divides his time between the UK and NZ. He writes on Substack exploring issues facing NZ under his nom du plume, Cranmer.

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