Out-of-Parliament Experiences: The Rise and Fall of Democratic New Zealand


Participants at the last United Women’s Convention – Photo by Marti Friedlander.
Participants at the last United Women’s Convention – Photo by Marti Friedlander.
HOW OFTEN do we see democracy at work in New Zealand? Outside of Parliament and our city councils, how common is it to witness citizens engaged in the debate and resolution of substantive issues? How often do we see people voting for or against policies which they expect the rest of us to take seriously? The answer, sadly, is: “Not very often at all.”

It was not always so. As recently as the 1980s, out-of-parliament democratic experiences were commonplace in New Zealand.

In early May of every year, until its dissolution in 1987, New Zealand’s peak trade union organisation, the Federation of Labour (FoL) would gather for its annual conference in the Wellington Town Hall. A complicated formula determined how many delegates each of the unions affiliated to the FoL were entitled to register. For the larger unions it could be more than a dozen. Smaller affiliates brought only two or three. But, by the time the President of the FoL brought down his gavel and called the conference to order, 400-500 workers were generally present in the hall.

These numbers made New Zealand’s 80-member Parliament look rather puny. Certainly, for the three days it was in session, the FoL Conference provided the public with a vivid snap-shot of the problems, preoccupations and principal objectives of the New Zealand working-class.

Delegates debated how large the cost of living adjustment needed be if their wages were to keep pace with inflation. Proposals were floated about the future of New Zealand industry. The seafarers union, for example, consistently promoted the creation of a state-owned shipping line. In 1965 the FoL staged a major debate on whether or not New Zealand troops should be sent to Vietnam. (It voted against.) In 1968 a Special Conference was called to protest the infamous “Nil Wage Order” handed down by the Arbitration Court, and unions were advised to seek a minimum five per cent increase “through all available channels”. In 1980, after several years of lively discussion and debate, the FoL voted to adopt “The Working Women’s Charter” – including the controversial clause demanding: “Sex education and birth control advice freely available to all people. Legal, financial, social and medical impediments to safe abortion, contraception and sterilisation to be removed.”

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The men and women who participated in these conferences were very far from being novices in the practice of democracy. Since the late Nineteenth Century, most of New Zealand’s major cities hosted a “Trades and Labour Council” in which the local trade unions gathered to debate the industrial, economic, social and political issues of the day. When the FoL was formed in 1936, these Trades Councils became an integral part of its national structure. Most of the delegates attending the FoL’s annual conference were regular participants in the monthly meetings of these local “workers’ parliaments”.

The country’s largest workers’ parliament was the Auckland Trades Council (ATC) whose 150-200 delegates were nationally renowned for both their radicalism and their militancy. Led by its communist President, Bill Andersen, the ATC had imposed the country’s first “Green Ban” in support of Ngati Whatua’s occupation of Bastion Point. In 1981 it called what amounted to a regional general strike in support of the right to picket. Not surprisingly, the rest of New Zealand’s unionists (only half-jokingly) referred to the ATC as the “Auckland Soviet”.

ORGANISED LABOUR was not the only force capable of staging impressive out-of-parliament experiences. In the 1970s New Zealand feminists staged a series of truly huge “Women’s Conventions” – attracting at their peak, in 1975, approximately 2,000 participants (with hundreds turned away for lack of space). In the words of one young student of the New Zealand women’s movement:

“I’ve seen lots of photos in old Broadsheets of predominantly young women huddled together in draughty-looking YMCAs on those uncomfortable wooden chairs that I remember from school assemblies in the 80s. The organization looked spontaneous and ad-hoc. Mass outpourings of consciousness raising material were haphazardly scotch-taped to the walls. Back in the 1970s the United Women’s Convention was cool: it was rebellious, it was transgressive, it was utopian.”

The celebrated New Zealand photographer, Marti Friedlander, captured one of the last women’s conventions on film. The spontaneity and rebelliousness alluded to above are clearly present in just about every frame – recalling the famous lines of William Wordsworth:

O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, us who were strong in love!
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

STUDENTS, too, were well-versed in the processes of mass decision-making. The New Zealand University Students Association (NZUSA) which, by the early 1980s, was representing upwards of 100,000 university students, would gather every May and August to conduct its business. Scores of delegates from the seven varsities met in what were known as “Commissions” to thrash out the organisation’s official policies.

The debates of the “International Commission” which recommended the official student position on Vietnam, Apartheid, Palestine and Nuclear Disarmament were especially fiery. The range of political views in NZUSA stretched all the way from members of the Young Nats and Labour Youth to the comrades from Socialist Action and the Workers Communist League. Typically, the biggest scraps were not between the Right and the Left, but between the Far- and the Even Further-Left.

As in the trade union movement, players at the NZUSA May and August Councils had cut their democratic teeth locally in the Student Representative Councils (SRCs) of their respective campuses. To resolve the biggest issues affecting students, Special General Meetings of the SRCs were convened. Many hundreds – sometimes more than a thousand – students would turn up to speak and vote.

MEMBERSHIP of political parties fluctuated considerably during the forty years between the end of World War II and the snap-election of 1984. But most political scientists agree that New Zealand boasted one of the highest (if not the highest) rate of political participation in the world. When public interest in political affairs was high, fully a quarter of the adult population could be enrolled in the principal political parties. In 1984, the ordinary membership of the Labour Party stood at 85,000 (with tens-of-thousands more holding membership by virtue of their trade union’s affiliation to Labour). In the late 1970s, under the leadership of Rob Muldoon, National’s membership peaked at 250,000!

So important were the annual conferences of the major parties that the NZBC (the state broadcaster) set up outside broadcast units near the town halls where they were staged and delivered at least 20 minutes of intensive coverage every evening. Viewers saw excerpts from the all-important policy “remits” debates. Party leaders’ speeches were analysed in detail by political scientists and senior parliamentary journalists. Pundits spoke of the major parties’ parliamentary and organisational “wings”. They did not always flap in unison. Party members’ opinions mattered.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN that practically all of these vibrant, grass-roots-based, exercises in democratic behaviour – these “out-of-parliament experiences” – no longer take place in New Zealand? In the words of the English singer-songwriter, Harvey Andrews:

When did the bright sunlight morning
Turn to a grey rainy day?
And how was the hour for finding our power
So easily taken away?

Fundamentally, the collapse of mass, democratic citizen participation in New Zealand is attributable to its citizens loss of faith in the institutions so many of them had joined and in which they had placed their trust.

In the years following the conversion of both Labour and National to the ideology of neoliberalism the membership of both major parties discovered that their parliamentary representatives and their far-right policies were not for turning. They voted with their feet.

In 1991, the FoL’s successor, the Council of Trade Unions, refused to be guided by the will of its affiliates’ members and voted down the resolution calling for a general strike against the Employment Contracts Act. Its National Council could safely ignore the rank-and-files’ wishes because the CTU’s constitution had effectively concentrated all power in its hands. The autonomous trades councils had been abolished, and individual union members were no longer represented by rank-and-files delegates, but by their union’s national secretary – who could now cast upwards of 50,000 votes exactly as he or she pleased .

The women’s movement splintered into liberal, socialist, cultural and lesbian separatist factions to the point where, by the late 1970s, it was no longer possible to convene a “united” women’s convention.

The introduction of user-pays tertiary education effectively atomised the student body and the conduct of student politics devolved to an ever diminishing band of increasingly unrepresentative political zealots. Student activism slowly died, and the once vibrant and independent student unions eventually succumbed to the ruthlessness of the neoliberal right.

THE HISTORY of New Zealanders’ extraordinary love-affair with democracy is not, however, quite so easily expunged. It remains: as both an inspiration and a warning to succeeding generations that, like all other human accomplishments, the practice of democracy is not innate. It must be learned and mastered by doing it over and over and over again.

Nor was the demise of the democratic New Zealander an accident. The institutions so roughly sketched in this essay were attacked, and ordinary people’s faith in them was undermined, for a reason.

While they existed, and for as long as ordinary New Zealanders persisted in their use, the imposition of the new neoliberal order was impossible. Its rise was predicated on their fall.

If they were to rise again, it would be neoliberalism’s time to die.


  1. NZ has always been a faux democracy, and opportunists and international money-lenders have been in control from the beginning, i.e. the New Zealand Company, Rothschild bankers etc.

    The game has always been to loot natural resources for the benefit of ‘the 1%’ (or 0.1%); a compliant, uninformed general populace has always been necessary to carry out the actual looting. The pseudo-democratic institutions you mentioned were just a component of the distribution of ‘breadcrumbs-falling-off-the table’.

    From the 1980s till the early 2000s the availability of cheap oil changed the game slightly and made the manufacturing of stuff in Asia more profitable for ‘the controllers’. The faux democracy was replaced with consumerism and internationalised sport. We now have nearly two generations of younger New Zealanders who know nothing other than consumerism and internationalised sport: that poses quite a dilemma when the change in global circumstances that took place around 2008 is considered, i.e. the end of cheap oil (due to peaking of extraction), the incipient collapse of Asian bubble economies, and the clear evidence of global environmental catastrophe.

    It has been abundantly clear to anyone with a brain that in recent years central government and local government policy has consisted of ramming dysfunction down the throat of the general populace. The problem is, the bulk of the populace does not know what dysfunction is!

    Aldous Huxley warned of this state of affairs around 1960, when he began to proclaim that ‘in the future people will come to love their state of slavery’.

    • @AFNTT

      Even if; “NZ has always been a faux democracy”, where the democratic posturings of the masses have been ruthlessly ignored by our exploiting overlords; the veneer has become a lot thinner of late. For most “democracy” now means; a vote every three years, then sucking it up if your side didn’t win that round.

      I tend to think that Trotter sees more clearly (albeit through slightly rose-tinted lenses) across the years to when; Democracy was once not just a cruel joke where the slaves get to choose their whip cracker de jour. If we want participatory democracy, then we must participate. Representational democracy certainly doesn’t represent us!

  2. That photo from the last United Women’s Convention brings back a few memories. I was there, in 1979, at Waikato University. Although the movement was fracturing by then, the convention was still an empowering experience for a young woman, mixing with hundreds of women of all ages, from all walks of life, who I would not normally have met.

  3. Hmm.. A good article Chris. However I think a large part of the problem faced by the ‘left’ in Aotearoa, indeed world wide, was its inability to abandon Keynesian ideology and policy.
    Although failing miserably in practice, large sections of the left remained riveted to these economic policies, to the extent that it blinded them to the only real solution to the capitalist economy. Revolution and the rise of the workers political-economy was subjugated to the interests of the capitalist, interests which could only lead to a reactionary revival as they sought to blame the working class for the very contradictions that only workers power could solve.
    That organisations such as trade unions would fail the working class are no surprise when considered their purpose is to act as mediators between labour and capital, hence any meaningful assault on capital by union beuraucracy would potentially be suicidal.
    But the failure of the unions is not bow to the might of capital, but to substitute the workers economy for that of the bougoise Keynes. The failure to teach alternatives to the rule of capital, alternatives that although the unions could never achieve. The rank and file union workers could then realise, their historic task, organise as the revolutionary vanguard and smash capitalist relations.
    We would have never had to endure the ‘new’ liberal ideology, a historical phantom back, first for tradgety and now farce.

  4. Chris you are so right I also think some people got into the union movement with the express motive to get into parliament.Also these professional unionist did not come from the work face but the universities so hence the rise of the so called Chardonnay unionist and the disconnect with the rank and file.

  5. Chris. Yes . The trouble is so many, too many different areas to address , of why/ how life in NZ has gone wrong.
    Truth is simple:
    Pre 80’s>>> New Zealand , a small country. A Country of Plenty.
    GodZone , a fair go for all, jobs plenty, one breadwinner per family enough, weekends free for all, home visits by Dr.s, everyone has a phone, power bills affordable..Education free..
    THEN ..”ECONOMIC RESTRUCTURING” = “Globalisation Theory” was sold to our naive government.
    = Everything sold off. “User Pays”. Oh and how we do.for Everything.
    We pay and …not much back…and keep paying..more and more..
    till we feel like were’re just SLAVES. Too busy to think anymore about how/when /why …Too busy to think (that we shouldn’t be living like this, but oh well…)Too busy TO THINK! More social problems.. Meanwhile ..there’s more million “distractions” like 24hr call cell phones, Facebook, etc etc..but HEY! Whats happenning? Lifes gone off the rails, too busy to notice why/how lifes gone wrong! Life’s worse ! Governments don’t seem to care/listen to people anymore..
    STOP PRESS: It all started to go wrong when our naive & ignorant MP’s signed NZ up for dismantelling of our sovereignty. In 80’s.
    RESULT: 2013 NZ is no longer a sovereign nation. PM and the rest of “govt” must answer to Foreign Ownership now. (Of course none of their standard of living has changed)
    That’s where / how “democracy” has changed. It’s a whole new game now. (us people weren’t told, and it’s taking a hell of a long time to understand /wake up to the New Reality)

    • The horrible thing is.. that in the mainstream media we are not being told the Truth -that exactly same thing’s been happening elsewhere eg in Uk and USA this has been happening for longer, and its the same thing. This “Globalisation idea has been an absolute disaster . Rich getting richer and middle class disappearing, to leave a yawning gap between haves and have nots. On NZ mainstream media we don’t get to hear anything about the reality, about how the lives of ordinary people in other nations are being sunk in the same way. Identical.
      This “Globalisation” is just a false ideology perpetrated on nations by the richest few . A mere handful of people who have so much wealth collectively, that they can financially control all other nations. They also have ownership and control of the media..

      • I’m reading Michael Parenti’s ” The Face of Imperialism”, it echoes your sentiments exactly.

  6. I just love it when you reach for the poets. A while back, you referred to WB Yeats’ “The Second Coming”. To me the key line is the first one: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer”

    The truth of this is, that things will change… we just don’t know if the gyre is spinning back inwards again, but when it does, kiwis will find a new hunger to instigate change.

  7. An excellent article Chris. I hope the Binding Referenda advocate read this article, and realise that no matter how binding they are, referenda alone can only rubber-stamp parliamentary supremacy (“but if people didn’t support X, they would organise a referendum”).

    Much as we have differed on many issues over the years, it seems we agree that democracy is fundamentally about mass participation, and that representation is only one of a range of legitimate democratic practices, including direct voting, and consensus decision-making, in mass assemblies. This was certainly part of what motivated us to hold daily “general assemblies” in the Occupy camps.

    Democracy = governance of the people, for the people, *by* the people.

  8. Chris, while I agree with pretty much everything you say here, I kind of have to wonder — what went wrong? Oh, I know in a general way the history of how neoliberalism took over, but neoliberalism couldn’t have taken over unless there had been some weakness in the previous system for it to get a foothold in. What was that weakness? Because, whatever it was, if we do succeed in dismantling the neoliberal consensus we had better not put the same flaw back into our new system, or we will lose it again. A slightly more critical view of the “good old days” may be in order.

    • Chris, while I agree with pretty much everything you say here, I kind of have to wonder — what went wrong?

      I think… I feel, as if it were a Seduction of the Innocent…

      We were the innocent, and we were seduced by the offerings and promises of the free market.

      But as every left-winger who has ever had to raise money for a cause knows, nothing is truely free. There is always a price to pay.

  9. “Nor was the demise of the democratic New Zealander an accident. The institutions so roughly sketched in this essay were attacked, and ordinary people’s faith in them was undermined, for a reason.”

    A rather good analysis and presentation, Chris!

    Yes, it is all pretty evident, that the forces in power had their ultimate interests pushed through, by applying the old and sadly so often successful concept of “divide and rule”.

    If only people would open their eyes and ears, take a bit of courage, and realise the truth, and take the necessary action.

    Society is falling apart in many ways, and the only thing that keeps things in modern New Zealand “together” and “operational” for the wrong reasons, is the commercial, competitive and self serving focus and ruthless drive, to produce, produce more output, work and work endlessly, to deliver the incomes and profits, to buy and use for what most perceive as “necessary” for their individual purpose.

    That purpose for many is their survival in a divided, materialistic, consumerist society, where “needs” are also widely created by incessant inundation with commercial advertising.

    Hence many have lost sight at what really counts, and what keeps the social fabric intact. Instead we have dependence, inter-dependence, yes perhaps even slavery of types, where people are distrusting each other, institutions and any organisation that exist.

    So they run around blinkered, brain-washed, conditioned and cannot even relate that much anymore, in normal human ways.

    It is with state and business controls complementing each other heading into a surveillance and suppressing society, which is along the lines George Orwell described in his book 1984.

    Anyone trying to break out of the status quo instantly raises suspicions, concerns and gets suppressed and shut up, even if this is just by public disgrace, stigmatisation or ridicule.

    Stuff to worry all this, and I see that we have no real democracy anymore. The 3 yearly vote is abused by governments, and it itself is often the result of endless manipulations, using propaganda, and the convenient mainstream media to “communicate” what the public are meant to focus on.

    Events that may occur are also abused to flip flop on policies and promises, and one must be cynical about what goes on.

  10. Chris,
    The process of democracy is alive and well under the RMA where communities come together, take a view and use the processess in the RMA to influence an outcome.
    Prior to 1991, this was not possible and the outlet for democratic urges was in the areas you mention. However, with the demise of Communism,which corresponds to the timeline of the reduce political activism you describe, the control of economic matters by the workers was seen to be a failed experiment. Unions, with the symbol of a hammer and a syckle, were associated with this, and lost support. Into this gap,the new economic ideas of neolibralism grew unopposed

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