Page 4: Prime 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.
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.
Domestic economic policy
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%.
1975 election defeat
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.