Page 2: Early political life
Rowling, Wallace Edward
Teacher, army educator, politician, prime minister
This biography, written by John Henderson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
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.
Member of Parliament
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.