OBITUARY: Sir Wallace Rowling

David Barber
Wednesday 01 November 1995 01:02 GMT

Wallace Rowling, who was widely acclaimed as the "nice guy" of modern New Zealand politics, was not blessed with luck. He spent 22 years in Parliament, only three of them in government. He led the Labour Party for 10 years and was Prime Minister for 15 months, but never won an election.

A diminutive, self-effacing man who openly admitted to a low-key political style, he was eclipsed by two physically large and charismatic Labour leaders - his predecessor, Norman Kirk, who died in office in 1974, and his successor, David Lange, who ousted him in early 1983.

"Bill" Rowling also had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Robert Muldoon, one of the roughest and toughest politicians New Zealand has ever seen, who beat him in three elections.

During an aggressive campaign in 1975, Muldoon dubbed Rowling "a shiver looking for a spine to run up". Helped more by the first oil-price shock which pushed New Zealand into a heavy trade deficit than that kind of personal abuse, Muldoon's National Party went on to win the election in a landslide. "Being a nice guy is clearly a disability in politics and it was certainly not a good attribute in the 1975 campaign," Rowling said ruefully years later, "It was played as a weakness against strength. I didn't fight a very good campaign. I was tentative and people didn't want that."

Bill Rowling was nurtured in politics. His father, Arthur, was a foundation member of the New Zealand Labour Party and as a child Wallace went to political meetings and saw virtually every member of Michael Joseph Savage's first Labour government call at the family home near Motueka, in the South Island.

After working as a teacher and education officer in the Army, Rowling entered Parliament in a by-election in 1962. He became president of the Labour Party in 1970 and the first New Zealand Minister of Finance with an economics degree when Kirk led Labour to victory in the 1972 general election.

Despite his background, Rowling was unprepared to take over when Kirk died suddenly on 31 August 1974. He confessed later to a period of "very real self-doubt", admitting: "Throughout my life, I've always been fearful about what the next step might hold. I worry very much about out-reaching my capacity." He said he had never seen himself as Prime Minister. "Norm was relatively young [51 when he died] and we expected him to be around for a long time. I never thought I'd take his place."

At 46, Rowling was the youngest New Zealand prime minister this century. "It was a hell of a shock," he recalled later, "I was ill-prepared emotionally for the job." Despite his self-doubts and modest, deliberative and reserved demeanour, he was described by insiders as tough in Cabinet and hard on non-performers. But it was his public image, further undermined by a somewhat high voice, that Muldoon targeted in the 1975 election campaign.

Such was the bitter personal nature of the campaign that a group called "Citizens for Rowling" was set up to counter Muldoon's attacks. Described as people "not normally involved in partisan party politics but deeply concerned by some of the trends in current political life", it included Sir Edmund Hillary, the Anglican bishop Paul Reeves and other church leaders and businessmen.

The state of the economy was voters' biggest worry, however, and Muldoon swept to victory. Although Rowling said he felt as though he had been run over by a bus, he set about restoring party morale single-handed and led Labour to a remarkable comeback in 1978 when it won more votes than the Nationals but failed to translate them into a majority of seats. Two years later, he faced a challenge to this leadership from a group of MPs within the Parliamentary Labour Party who wanted to replace him with the deputy leader David Lange. Rowling came close to quitting but, persuaded to fight, he defeated Lange by one vote - his own.

His position was consolidated but he admitted during the next election campaign in 1981 that few party leaders were given three chances. Labour again took the biggest share of the popular vote, but Muldoon was returned with an overall majority of two seats.

Rowling stayed on for another two years before reluctantly bowing to Lange's rising popularity and stepping down as leader. He resigned from Parliament at the 1984 snap election that saw Labour regain power after nine years.

Rowling was one of the architects of New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy, which Lange then put in place. He became the first former Prime Minister to serve as a New Zealand ambassador when Lange sent him to Washington, where he travelled extensively across the United States explaining the policy.

He fell out with the Lange government over its reformist economic policies, accusing it of causing unnecessary pain and suffering but seldom went public with his views. He developed a new-found interest over the last few years as chairman of a committee overseeing the building of a new national museum on the waterfront at Wellington. He resigned only three weeks ago when he was diagnosed as having a terminal brain tumour.

Bill Rowling's personal life was marred by tragedy. He and his wife, Glen, lost their second child when she was five months old in 1957 and another daughter, Kim, committed suicide at the age of 18.

David Barber

Wallace Edward Rowling, politician: born Motueka, New Zealand 15 November 1927; MP (Labour) for Buller 1962-72, for Tasman 1972-84; President, New Zealand Labour Party 1970-73; Minister of Finance 1972-74; Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs 1974-75; PC 1974; KCMG 1983; Ambassador to the United States 1985-88; President, New Zealand Institute of International Affairs 1990-95; married 1951 Glen Reeves (two sons, one daughter, and two daughters deceased); died Motueka 31 October 1995.

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