Page 3: Finance minister
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.
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.
Sound economy for social goals
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.
Death of Norman Kirk
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.