Bill Rowling

Sir Wallace Edward Rowling, (15 November 1927 - 31 October 1995), often known as Bill Rowling, was the 30th Prime Minister of New Zealand. He was in office for just over a year, having been appointed Prime Minister following the death of the highly popular Norman Kirk. Rowling was unable to retain the premiership but remained leader of the Labour Party until 1983.

Early lifeEdit

Rowling was born in a country suburb of Mariri neighbouring the town of Motueka, near Nelson. He was a member of a long-established farming family. He was educated at Nelson College and the University of Canterbury, gaining a degree in economics. He also attended the Christchurch College of Education (currently, University of Canterbury), qualifying as a teacher. After completing his education, Rowling taught at several schools around the country, including at Motueka, Christchurch, Waverley and in Northland. In 1958, Rowling left teaching and joined the New Zealand Army, becoming Assistant Director of Army Education. He spent a short amount of time serving abroad in Malaya and Singapore, a deployment connected with the Malayan Emergency.

Member of ParliamentEdit

In the 1960 election, Rowling was selected as the Labour Party's candidate for the Fendalton electorate in Christchurch. Fendalton was regarded as a safe National seat, and Rowling was defeated by the National Party's Harry Lake (who was appointed Minister of Finance in the new National government). Two years later, however, Rowling successfully contested the by-election for Buller, which had been caused by the death of prominent Labour MP Jerry Skinner. Rowling was to hold this seat until the election of 1972, when the seat was dissolved – Rowling then contested successfully the new seat of Tasman, which intriguingly he did travelling up and down the electorate by Commer campervan, which he lived in for the time.

When the Labour Party won power under Norman Kirk in the 1972 election, Rowling was appointed Minister of Finance. This could be seen as a considerable promotion for someone without prior ministerial experience. Rowling's term as Minister of Finance was somewhat turbulent, with a number of formidable economic challenges arising during his tenure such as the energy and oil crisis of the early 1970's and the UK's decision to join the European Union, losing New Zealand it's largest trading partner.

Prime MinisterEdit

When Norman Kirk died unexpectedly in 1974, his deputy Hugh Watt, served as Acting Prime Minister for several days while the Labour Party caucus chose a new leader. Rowling was among the front-runners and replaced Kirk, although the party National Executive and the Federation of Labour preferred Hugh Watt.[1]

Rowling was officially confirmed as party leader and 30th Prime Minister on 6 September 1974[2] leaving the role of Minister of Finance to his new deputy Bob Tizard.[3] He had the option of replacing Kirk in the safe Labour seat of Sydenham but chose to remain in his (more marginal) home electorate of Tasman

He was later appointed to the Privy Council.[4] Unlike the pro-life Kirk and Muldoon, Rowling was pro-choice in the raging debate at the time over abortion.

As leader, Rowling was attacked by the opposition leader Robert Muldoon, and was generally characterised by him as being weak. Rowling's supporters denied this, saying he merely chose not to participate in the overly confrontational and aggressive politics that Muldoon favoured.

Leader of the OppositionEdit

The 1975 election was a major defeat for the Labour Party. Labour also campaigned with the famous Citizens for Rowling – prominent New Zealanders who backed Rowling. The campaign was labelled as being elitist, and was generally regarded as having backfired on Rowling.[5]

During the late 1970s, Rowling alienated Maori voters by removing Matiu Rata, the party's effective and well-regarded Maori Affairs spokesman, from the Opposition front bench. Earlier, Rowling had replaced Rata with himself as convenor of Labour's Maori Affairs Committee. Mat Rata complained about the insensitivity of Labour's Maori policy[5] and went onto form his own party, Mana Motuhake, a precursor to the modern Māori Party.

His approach to the Moyle and O'Brien 'affairs' was regarded as heavy-handed and unnecessary in many circles. In regards to the 'Moyle affair', "it was Rowling who insisted that his close friend, Colin Moyle, must resign".[5] Large numbers protested at the 1977 Labour Party Conference; many in the LGBT community never forgave him.[6]

Rowling, however, managed to retain the party leadership, and gradually managed to improve public perceptions of him. In the 1978 and 1981 elections, Labour actually secured more votes than the National Party but failed to gain a majority of seats due to the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

While Rowling had largely managed to undo his negative image, many people in the Labour Party nevertheless believed that it was time for a change. Rowling had stated his intentions to stay on as leader of the party, but after three successive election defeats the caucus support for him had greatly diminished. In 1983 Rowling was replaced as leader by the younger, charismatic David Lange, who went on to defeat Muldoon in the 1984 election. Rowling retired from parliament at the same election.

Later lifeEdit

After leaving politics, Rowling was appointed Ambassador to the United States, serving from 1985 to 1988. He held that position when the issue of nuclear weapons and ANZUS flared up between the United States and New Zealand, and he travelled extensively across the country explaining the policy.[7]

Later, after returning to New Zealand, Rowling became highly involved in a number of community organizations and trusts. He also played a prominent role at the Museum of New Zealand, and is considered to have been the "driving force" behind the eventual establishment of Te Papa.


Honours that Rowling received include being made a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in the 1983 Queen's Birthday Honours, an honorary law doctorate from the University of Canterbury in 1987,[8] and being made a Commander in the Orde van Oranje – Nassau (Netherlands).[7]


Rowling died of cancer in Nelson on 31 October 1995.[7]


  1. Auckland Star 5 September 1974 p11
  2. "Prime Minister Appointed" (6 September 1974) 87 The New Zealand Gazette 1899.
  3. "Ministers Appointed" (10 September 1974) 88 New Zealand Gazette 1901.
  4. "Special Honours List" (26 September 1974) 93 New Zealand Gazette 2047.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Rowling: The man and the myth by John Henderson, Australia New Zealand Press, 1980.
  6. see Henderson, p. 167 for more on Gerald O'Brien and the O'Brien 'affair'
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 OBITUARY: Sir Wallace Rowling, The Independent, 1 November 1995.
  8. Honorary Graduates (PDF). University of Canterbury. Retrieved on 20 June 2015.
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