Bill Rowling was born in Motueka in the Nelson district on 15 September 1927. He was the youngest of four children born to Arthur Rowling, an orchardist, and his wife, Agnes Rubina Davy. He was christened Wallace Edward, but his father called him Bill and the name stuck.
Bill Rowling attended the Lower Moutere Primary School and boarded at Nelson College for his secondary schooling. Education expanded his horizons and also provided him with a life away from horticulture. The orchard could only support one family, and was inherited by his brother.
The Rowling children grew up in an intensely political environment. Arthur Rowling was active in Labour Party politics and leading Labour figures were regular visitors to the Rowling home at Māriri, near Motueka. Radio broadcasts from Parliament supplied a political background to whatever else was going on in the house, while Hansard provided evening reading. The hardships of the depression years sharpened the urgency of the political debate.
This focus on politics had a lasting impact on Bill Rowling, although it seems to have had little influence on his older siblings. Bill was the youngest by eight years and often felt like an only child.
Rowling decided on a teaching career and enrolled at Christchurch Teachers’ College. He became the first of his extended family to gain a university degree when he graduated from Canterbury University College in 1949 with a BA in economics. In 1955 he completed an MA, also part-time, from Canterbury University. His thesis, on pipfruit marketing, drew on his practical experience of orchard work.
On 20 October 1951, Bill married fellow teacher Glen Elna Reeves in the Waverley Anglican Church. They were to have five children. They decided to live in Christchurch so Bill could further his university studies.
From 1949 to 1955, Bill supported his family through part-time work, which included university lecturing at Canterbury University. He also taught at schools in Canterbury, Nelson, New Plymouth and Northland, where in 1953 he joined the Māori Education Service.
Rowling was restless and needed further challenges to absorb his energies. In 1947 he had applied to join Jayforce, the New Zealand component of the Allied force that occupied Japan following the Second World War, but was rejected on the grounds of age when the authorities discovered he had falsely claimed to be 18. His yearning to travel was satisfied in 1955 when he was awarded a Fulbright exchange scholarship to travel to the United States. The award allowed him to teach at a junior high school in Seattle and to travel widely.
On returning to New Zealand in 1956, he joined the Army Education Corps (AEC). His four years of service included a brief period in 1959 in Malaya where Commonwealth forces were fighting a communist insurgency. Rowling gained the rank of captain in 1961 and was promoted to assistant director of the AEC. He was made colonel commandant, the honorary head of the corps, late in 1977.
Bill Rowling took his first significant step towards a political career in 1954 when he unsuccessfully tried to gain selection as the Labour candidate for the Hobson electorate in Northland. Then in 1960, another opportunity arose when the Labour candidate for another safe National seat, Fendalton, withdrew from the contest.
Although there was no chance of winning, Rowling grasped the opportunity to gain political experience and recognition and prove himself worthy of the chance to contest a winnable seat. He was rewarded two years later in 1962 when the death of senior Labour member Gerry Skinner forced a by-election in the marginal electorate of Buller. Rowling narrowly won the seat and achieved his ambition to enter Parliament. His electorate included his home district of Motueka.
Rowling’s political gains had personal costs. The win meant relocating his family from Christchurch, where they had bought a house, to Westport. The large size and marginal nature of the rural electorate, and the need to spend time in Parliament, also meant that Rowling was away from home for long periods.
Rowling stayed with the electorate when it was redrawn as Tasman in 1972. He turned down Labour leader Norman Kirk’s advice to find a safer seat. He was determined to stay with what he and his supporters called ‘Rowling Country’.
In Parliament, Rowling devoted his August 1962 maiden speech to the need for balance between primary and secondary industry in New Zealand. He often concentrated on agricultural matters when in Parliament, reflecting the rural interests of his electorate. He also served on the Lands and Agriculture Select Committee during his initial years in the job.
Rowling’s political career focused on both Parliament and Labour Party organisation. In 1969, he gained the position of vice president of the party, and from 1970 to 1972 served as president. These party positions were not normally held by sitting members of Parliament. At the age of 42, Rowling became the youngest president in Labour Party history. He used his position to modernise the party organisation and improve its public image. Labour’s landslide victory in the 1972 election in part reflected the success of Rowling’s work to streamline its organisation.
In the 1960s, Bill Rowling increasingly concentrated on finance and economic issues. Politicians and the public were nevertheless surprised when Norman Kirk appointed Rowling, rather than his finance spokesman, Bob Tizard, as his minister of finance in 1972.
Rowling was the first New Zealand minister of finance to hold an economics degree. He favoured milder finance policies than had previous administrations. He supported strategies such as overseas borrowing, which he hoped would allow economic activity to be maintained in a downturn. On the other hand, Rowling admitted that this approach put him offside with colleagues seeking funds for projects in their own fields, but he warned against excessive protectionism and argued that the party needed a sound economy in order to achieve its social goals.
Rowling clashed with Kirk, who was determined to implement Labour’s election manifesto. Kirk thought that Rowling’s effort to keep control of expenditure and inflation was proof that he had become a captive of Treasury. Rowling stood his ground, at times threatening Kirk with his resignation.
Rowling found it a difficult time to be in government and felt as though the government was being hit from all sides. From late in 1973, a series of externally generated crises, of which the ‘oil shocks’ were the most serious, destabilised the New Zealand economy. These added to other problems, such as growing overseas debt and falling export prices.
Rowling pushed ahead with key reforms. These included plans for a comprehensive superannuation scheme which was to feature in the 1975 election campaign, as well as the Overseas Investment Commission, which Rowling promoted as keeping New Zealand for New Zealanders, and the Rural Bank, established to assist the agricultural sector.
Kirk’s death in August 1974 came as a double shock to Rowling. He had not been aware of the serious nature of Kirk’s illness nor did he expect to be his successor. He easily won the leadership ballot against Deputy Prime Minister Hugh Watt, who was shortly afterwards appointed High Commissioner in London. At the age of 46, Rowling became the youngest New Zealand prime minister since 1887.
As prime minister Rowling had to decide whether he should seek a personal mandate through an early election. New Zealand rarely called elections early, but Rowling had good grounds to act. In addition to the death of Kirk, the country faced a rapid and negative change in economic circumstances. The political reasons for an early election were also strong. In the wake of Kirk’s death, Labour would likely have gained a sympathy vote.
However Rowling refused to call an early election, not wanting to make political capital out of the tragedy of Kirk’s death and believing that the electorate would see the move as opportunistic. The Labour Party organisation was also in poor shape. In retrospect, an opportunity was lost that might have changed the course of New Zealand political history by denying power to the rapidly-rising National leader, Robert Muldoon.
In the cabinet reshuffle following Kirk’s death, Rowling took the foreign affairs portfolio. He had criticised Kirk for allowing the portfolio to dominate and it remained a secondary interest for him. However, he did leave his mark, particularly regarding the issue of nuclear-powered ships in New Zealand waters.
Norman Kirk is usually given credit for initiating an independent foreign policy and David Lange for exercising it by keeping New Zealand nuclear-free. Rowling, coming between these two Labour Party leaders, supported both policies. He laid the basis for the South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SPNWFZ), stressing that the policy was anti-nuclear and not anti-American.
The Rowling Labour government concentrated on domestic affairs. Although Bob Tizard was now the minister of finance, the seriousness of the economic downturn required Rowling’s attention. He rejected retrenchment, and defended heavy overseas borrowing as necessary to protect jobs. The seriousness of the external imbalance was acknowledged when in August 1975 the New Zealand currency, which traded at a fixed rate, was devalued by 15%.
During the 1975 election, the style and character of the party leaders became a major feature of the campaign. Robert Muldoon ran an aggressive campaign in which he portrayed Rowling as a weak and ineffective leader and created anxiety about the high level of borrowing. Rowling supporters responded with a ‘Citizens for Rowling’ campaign which enlisted high-profile New Zealanders such as Sir Edmund Hillary to praise Rowling’s low-key consultative approach. In hindsight, the campaign was a mistake; it appeared to be elitist and backfired badly on the Labour Party. They lost the election by a landslide and Rowling became leader of the opposition.
Bill Rowling held on to the party leadership for a further six years despite Labour defeats in the 1978 and 1981 elections. He was able to claim moral victories in both elections as Labour gained more votes than the National Party, although they won fewer constituencies. However, contemporaries have argued that Labour’s losses reflected badly on Rowling, despite his having made a substantial contribution to rebuilding party membership during the years in opposition. The fact that Rowling lacked the backing of the unions affected his leverage in the party.
There were other difficulties for Rowling as leader of the opposition. In 1976 Prime Minister Robert Muldoon made accusations about the personal life of the Labour Party’s former minister of agriculture, Colin Moyle. A commission of inquiry exonerated Moyle, although Rowling eventually had the unpleasant task of convincing him to withdraw as a candidate in the Māngere by-election in Auckland. (The seat was won by a young and dynamic lawyer, David Lange.)
Rowling seriously considered resigning from politics, especially following the 1978 suicide of his 18-year-old daughter, Kim. His days as leader were numbered. After the 1978 election, it was clear that a leadership challenge was looming from the recently-elected David Lange and his supporters, including Roger Douglas. Rowling sacked Douglas as finance spokesperson in 1980 for publishing an unauthorised economic policy but in December he only narrowly survived a leadership challenge from Lange. However in 1983, Lange took over as Labour Party leader and led Labour to victory in the 1984 election.
After 22 years as an MP, Bill Rowling retired from Parliament. He served as New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States from 1985 to 1988. This was at the height of the ANZUS rift and there was some resentment from the United States that an architect of the anti-nuclear policy, which they had objected to, was appointed to represent New Zealand. In practice Rowling sought – largely unsuccessfully – to be a moderating influence on Lange’s anti-nuclear rhetoric.
Rowling took no further part in Labour Party politics. He developed a strong distaste for the ‘Rogernomics’ neo-liberal economic reforms of Lange’s administration and let his party membership lapse.
Bill Rowling is one of New Zealand’s lesser-known prime ministers. His low-profile approach was regarded by some as weakness. In fact he was much more forceful than David Lange when it came to disciplining wayward members of Parliament, including Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble.
Rowling felt that he never had the opportunity to show what he was capable of as a leader. His legacy is that of a quiet nationalist. His nationalism included a puritanical element – that all should have the desire and opportunity to work for a better New Zealand. He was as much a champion of New Zealand independence as Norman Kirk or David Lange, but lacked the charisma to reinforce it and shape public opinion. His high-pitched voice, small stature and mannerisms attracted merciless lampooning from the opposition and the media.
As finance minister, Rowling declared that his goal was to ensure New Zealand was developed by New Zealanders for New Zealanders. He warned that New Zealanders were in danger of losing control of their own country. Given these nationalistic sentiments, it was fitting that his final public service was to be the driving force behind the building of Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum of New Zealand. He chaired the trust board that oversaw the museum’s construction and implementation. Te Papa met Rowling’s objective of becoming a gathering point where New Zealanders could reflect on their country’s past and future.
Rowling received recognition for his life of public service in 1983 with the award of a knighthood from his old nemesis Robert Muldoon, and became known as Sir Wallace Rowling. He kept up his interest in foreign affairs as president of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and remained keen on sport, especially rugby, boxing and golf. He had taken up running during his time in office after complaining that swimming in the small pool at Parliament’s Beehive did not provide enough interest.
Bill Rowling died of a brain tumour in Nelson on 31 October 1995. He was survived by his wife, Glen, and three of their children.