'For light and liberty' : the origins and early development of the Reform Party, 1887-1915 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History at Massey University, Manawatū, New Zealand
The Reform Party was one of the main political parties in New Zealand prior to
the Second World War. Despite this, very little research has been conducted into
its origins and growth as a party. This thesis examines that period of the Reform
Party’s development, beginning in the late 1880s and ending with the formation
of the National Government in 1915.
It argues that a ‘reform’ identity began to emerge at the 1887 election and
that in the 1890s the Opposition to the Liberals continued to refine ‘reform’ ideals.
Furthermore, the establishment of the National Association in 1891 provided
the Opposition with an extra-parliamentary organisation. This meant that it was
better organised than the Liberals, and not the disunited group that some have
previously characterised it as. Although the Opposition had relatively good political
organisation, it was unable to win an election during the 1890s because its
political message did not resonate with the electorate.
In the first decade of the twentieth century the Opposition transformed itself
into the Reform Party, beginning with the formation of the Political Reform League
in 1905, and then taking the name Reform Party in 1909. During this period
Reform displayed a profound understanding of the changes occurring in New
Zealand society and shaped its rhetoric to appeal to voters. This thesis proposes
that Reform’s rise was due to their superior organisation and political messaging;
and challenges the idea that the electoral swing to Reform was the sole result of
Liberal decline and societal changes.
Furthermore, it contends that by 1915 Reform tended to operate like a mass
party. It built a nation-wide branch structure, with separate sections for women
and M¯aori. From 1912 to 1914 Reform held annual conferences which were
attended by delegates from throughout New Zealand and enabled the general
membership to propose policy ideas. The party itself had an executive committee
which oversaw its functions and this committee consisted of nine men and
two women elected by the delegates at the annual conferences. Reform also employed
a general secretary who oversaw the day to day running of the party. This
is contrary to previous descriptions of Reform, which portray it as a party which
was controlled by the leader of the Parliamentary Party, William Massey. By 1915
Reform was the most organised and extensive political party in New Zealand.