Page 5: Opposition and after
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 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.
The Moyle affair
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.)
Challenges from 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.
Ambassador to the US
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.