Building on policy process theories, this study constructs a meaningful historical narrative that explains the developments in small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) policy in New Zealand during the period 1978–2008 that marked the point where SME policy was firmly institutionalized as a subsystem within the wider economic policy framework. Temporality is a key characteristic of the policy process and historical accounts are an important means of describing how the process unfolds over time. The enquiry draws on archival sources as well as the personal accounts by individuals who were directly involved in SME policy development. Findings illustrate how the role of SMEs as a policy subsystem develops within an overarching economic policy framework. More specifically, we identify the periods of stability and those of change and what the role of actors, context and events is in this process by highlighting the complexity and interrelated nature of SME policy development. At the time of writing, the foundations of globalization are being called into question. Together with the ever faster rate of technological change, these are important pillars in the predominant political discourses that underpinned the formulation of SME policy during the period of this study. Understanding how SME policy was developed in the past could lead to a better understanding of the role of SME in this new world. As new policy is developed, this study brings to the fore the dynamics of institutional context, policy actors and stakeholders, and the impact they have on policy outcomes.