OBITUARY: Sir Wallace Rowling

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In 1981 I wrote a biography of the New Zealand Labour leader Bill Rowling because I wanted to destroy the myth that he was, as Prime Minister and later Leader of the Opposition, a weak and ineffective leader, writes John Henderson [further to the obituary by David Barber, 1 November].

I failed to achieve my objective. Labour was defeated in the 1981 election, and before long David Lange took over as Labour leader and, in 1984, Prime Minister. Only with Rowling's untimely death have his political friends and foes at last recognised that it is possible to be both a gentleman and a strong leader.

Rowling was able to be portrayed as weak by his political foes because his small size and high-pitched voice contrasted so vividly with the larger- than-life political figures who surrounded him. Norman Kirk, whom Rowling succeeded as Labour leader following Kirk's sudden death in 1974, was a giant of a man, and one of New Zealand's few charismatic leaders. The National Party leader Robert Muldoon brought out the worst in New Zealanders with his aggressive populism and fear-mongering which succeeded in ending Rowling's period of Prime Minister after only 15 months in office. Lange eventually emerged from the wings, and his booming oratory signalled a growing impatience to take over the leadership reins from Rowling.

But I believe Bill Rowling was a stronger leader than any of these more illustrious figures. As Minister of Finance he enforced a degree of realism on Kirk's ambitious programmes for social spending at a time when the oil shocks had dramatically reversed New Zealand's economic fortunes. As Prime Minister he avoided the temptation that Muldoon would later succumb to of seeking to isolate New Zealand from the realities of the international market.

At the other extreme, as Labour Party leader he constrained the free- market excesses of his Finance spokesman, Roger Douglas, who would later be given a virtual free hand by David Lange to transform the New Zealand economy at great expense to Labour's traditional supporters.

In failing to make his mark as a strong and effective leader Rowling was in many ways his own worst enemy. He felt uneasy about promoting himself and refused to change his style to meet the demands of the politics of the television age. I can understand why. I was brought up in the same rural setting of the Motueka district at the top of New Zealand's sparsely populated South Island, where any flaunting of one's abilities, or public displays of emotion were frowned upon.

This was the origin of Rowling's low-key, self-effacing and passionless style. But it was also a source of the strength of his leadership, which was firmly based on a sense of duty to serve the community.