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Guide to 2008 NZ Election
Archived NZ Parlt 2005-08
Archived NZ Parlt 2002-05
Our Parliament House
International perspectives on democracy
Electing Parliament
General-election results
Parliamentary parties
NZ First
United Future
Forming the government
Composition of Parliament
The role of the Speaker
Who drafts the laws?
How laws are made
How a bill becomes an act
The Office of the Clerk
Parliamentary Service
MP's pay
A Labour example - Darren Hughes
A National example -
John Key
Select committees
Select commitee members
Petitioning Parliament
Visiting Parliament
Opinion polls
Parliamentary history
The New Zealand Business and Parliament Trust



National led government formation

NZ General Election 2008

by Anthony Haas, Asia Pacific Economic News Bureau, Parliamentary Press Gallery, Wellington,
23 November, 2008, updated 9 Nov

National leader John Key won a clear victory in the 8 November 2008 New Zealand general election – and defeated Labour leader Helen Clark.

National won 59 seats, Maori party five, Act five and UnitedFuture one seat.

Labour won 43, Greens nine, Jim Anderton's Progressive one seat.

He quickly negotiated confidence and supply agreements with the Act Party, Maori Party and United Future Party, and stressed economic growth as a priority in his government formation.

The new prime minister, his National ministers inside cabinet and support party ministers outside cabinet were sworn in by Governor-general Anand Satynand in time for Mr Key to attend the APEC leaders meeting by 20 November.

The election and government formation process were conducted under the mixed member proportional (MMP) system, and its associated evolving conventions. Electors had two votes, one for their preferred electorate candidate and one for their preferred party. Half the seats in a normal 120 seat Parliament are held by MPs selected for party lists. The size of New Zealand’s 49th Parliament is 122 seats, an increase of two seats over the normal 120 seats. The additional seats are because the Maori Party won more electorate seats (five seats) than its entitlement under the party vote (three seats).

Participation in voting
The Chief Electoral Officer declared the successful candidates in the official results for the 2008 General Election on 22 November 2008.The 2008 turnout as a percentage of enrolled electors was 79.46 percent (2005 – 80.92 percent). Special votes totalled 270,965 or 11.4 percent of total votes cast.

Decisive result under MMP
National won 59 on election night adjusted in the final count to 58, Act five, Maori five and United Future parties one seat. Mr Key commands a majority in the single chamber Parliament with 69 seats.

Labour won 43, Green eight on election night adjusted to nine in the final count, Progressive one, putting 53 MPs onto the opposition benches. New Zealand First won no seats, attracted 4.21% of the vote and Act, which attracted 3.72% of the votes, ended up with its five seats. Under the MMP system, parties who get less than five percent of the vote do not get into Parliament unless they win an electorate seat. Act’s leader Rodney Hide won the Auckland seat of Epsom, and New Zealand First’s leader Winston Peters lost his bid to regain the Tauranga seat.

Financial crisis, a sword of Damocles
The election campaign coincided with the globally significant financial crisis, with its credit crunch leading to threats to the real economy, recession, and uncertainty. Helen Clark, who had been Prime Minister for the previous nine years, appealed to New Zealand electors to trust her to provide proven leadership and management skills for the economy in the uncertain times ahead. John Key, with only two years as National Party leader in succession to former Reserve Bank governor Dr Don Brash, made limited reference to his experience in foreign exchange trading as a reason for the electorate to trust him.

"This cluster of Ministers and related portfolios demonstrate that getting the economy going will be front and centre of our priorities in office" Mr Key said in announcing his new ministry.

Mr Key's acute awareness of the economic challenges is well placed, and draws the Sword of Damocles, a classical Greek legend, to mind. The Sword of Damocles is frequently used to epitomise the imminent and ever-present peril faced by those in positions of power. More generally, it is used to denote the sense of foreboding engendered by the precarious situation, especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance.

"I am acutely aware that the economic challenges we face include forecasts which show rising unemployment. National wants to provide New Zealanders with some financial security in hard times. That is why we announced the transitional relief package during the election campaign to help those worst hit by redundancy, and why it will be implemented in government" the new PM said.

The electorate’s decision to provide a clear majority to John Key’s National Party meant that he was able to negotiate to form a government without the competition from his opponents that had characterized previous elections under MMP. One strong view, led by business leader Peter Shirtcliffe, presented to the electorate in the 1990s when it chose MMP to replace the first past the post system (FPP) was that decisive government, including economic management, would be undermined. National went into the 2008 election campaign calling for a referendum on the future of MMP. The more multicultural and gender balance in the Parliament now is a consequence of MMP. So too are the evident inconsistencies shown by the place of Act inside this Parliament, and NZ First’s place outside it.

Balancing Act, Maori and UnitedFuture
The Act Party includes former Labour finance minister, Sir Roger Douglas, architect of “more market” reforms introduced in the Lange government elected in 1984. Mr Key, avowedly favouring centrist policies, ruled out a place in his cabinet for Sir Roger, signaling his view that his electors thought Act policies should not tug him too far to the right.

The Maori Party is supported by a majority of electors who were said by pre-election pollsters to favour Maori Party accommodation post election with Labour. Labour did not get enough electoral support, or indications of minor party support, to be able to form a government in November 2008. Maori consulted in a culturally appropriate way, through hui, and co-leaders Dr Pita Sharples and Mrs Tariana Turia, opted to be ministers outside Mr Key’s cabinet. This Maori accommodation with National supercedes the long period when Maori MPs were within Labour in Parliament. Mrs Turia had left her ministerial post within the Clark Labour government to co-lead and form the Maori Party, sparked by Clark’s introduction of the foreshore and seabed legislation. Maori and National entered their November 2008 relationship agreeing to review that legislation, not to abolish the Maori seats and to consider constitutional change. Mrs Turia signaled her intent to leave Parliament by the 2012 election. He co-leader Dr Pita Sharples became Minister of Maori Affairs, and Mrs Turia, Minister for the Community and Voluntary sector, in the Key led government.

UnitedFuture’s Peter Dunne, who had been revenue minister in the Clark Labour led coalition, opted to support the prospective Key government, and became revenue minister outside Mr Key’s cabinet.

Peter Dunne accentuates his centrist and commonsense approach. Mr Key, by getting UnitedFuture and Maori Party confidence and supply agreements, counterbalance’s the Act orientation. Should one or other support parties oppose a National led government proposal, Mr Key can turn to the other support party to help him pass contentious legislation.

Positions outside cabinet help parties maintain their identity, which becomes electorally significant in later elections.

The loyal Opposition
Within minutes of her televised acknowledgement that the electorate had sent her from the Prime Ministership, Helen Clark resigned as leader of the Labour Party.

Her tenure – now ready to be worked over by the historians and other pundits - produced more than a Labour Party without destructive factionalism – it also contributed social democratic policies. Commentator Colin James credits Ms Clark with success internationally, and a mixed record at home. Former National MP Dr Marilyn Waring credits Ms Clark with support for evidence based policy formation and outcomes based policies for NZ. Dr Waring commends Ms Clark for a role as roving special representative of the UN Secretary-general.

Helen Clark’s deputy Dr Michael Cullen, her finance minister, resigned the day after her. His legacy includes the introduction of the NZ Superannuation Fund and KiwiSaver, intended to increase New Zealanders’ savings and provision for retirement income.

Three days after the election, Phil Goff came from Labour’s caucus meeting unopposed as new leader, offering to support the National government on national interest policies but proposing also to hold it to account.

As soon as he became Labour leader Mr Goff said he would support a yet to be defined consensus in changes to the Electoral Finance Act introduced by Mrs King during the Clark years, and opposed by National and others.

Mr Goff’s first ministerial appointment was in the 1984 Lange government. He had been foreign minister early in the nine years of Clark Governments, but had to stand down for Winston Peters to become foreign minister in a deal negotiated by Ms Clark with the NZ First leader.

Mr Goff and his deputy Annette King have substantial ministerial experience, are backed by a caucus of experienced and new MPs, and are supported by Ms Clark and Dr Cullen for an indefinite period as back benchers. Helen Clark became Labour opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs, and Dr Cullen, shadow leader of the House. Mr Goff and the leader of the Progressive Party Jim Anderton – a former Labour Party president - agreed he should be an opposition spokesperson on agriculture, following the conventions established when the Labour-Progressive coalition operated in government.

The 49th New Zealand Parliament
Seven parties were elected to the 49th Parliament, which was called together on 8 December 2008. The Key government proposed an active first 100 days in office. Their initial proposals included legislation to help cushion people who would become unemployed as a result of the consequences of the global financial crisis. In between his speedy government formation work and the calling of the 49th Parliament, Prime Minister Key, trade minister Tim Groser and foreign minister Murray McCully were amongst leaders to attend the APEC annual meeting, in Peru.

Bill English, deputy prime minister and finance minister, immediately became acting prime minister.

The topics at APEC included response to the global financial crisis – a reality which will affect the Parliament, government and people of New Zealand significantly.

Find out more
Details of the official results for the New Zealand 2008 General-election are available from
The DecisionMaker reports on New Zealand’s 2005 General-election are archived in