The Formidable Politician

Bill Rowling (1927-1995) cared about the simple important things – like people.

Listener: 9 December, 1995.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

It is just twenty years – twenty turbulent years – since the Third Labour Government was thrown out of office in what was then the largest election swing. And so began almost nine years of the rule of Robert Muldoon.

The outgoing prime-minister was Bill Rowling, who despite winning more votes than Muldoon in the 1978 and 1981 elections, remained leader of the Opposition because the First-Past-the-Post voting system gave National more seats. He surrendered his Tasman seat in 1984, but continued in public service until a month before his untimely death in October, aged 68.

He was our first Minister of Finance with a degree in economics. Treasury officers tell me it showed. In those days Treasury enjoyed debate and assessed one by the quality of the analytic skill, not by the politically test measure as to whether you agreed with them. They enjoyed taking a paper to Rowling and being closely examined on its content.

Every period has its peculiar economic problems. Rowling’s was that he took over the economy in 1972 during a strong upswing, in part driven by a rapid uplift in the prices for wool and meat. These pastoral terms of trade had been in decline since late 1966, but they suddenly reversed. That proved temporary, an artefact of a world commodity boom, fuelled by some oddities of American trade policy. With the oil price hike of late 1973, the bubble burst, and the pastoral prices as quickly collapsed back to the declining track they had been on.

Thus Rowling had to cope with a major external shock: a welcome boom, followed by an unwelcome bust. Swings of that rapidity are not easy to deal with. The RBNZ Policy Targets Agreement specifically excludes the Reserve Bank from holding on to the inflation target when the economy faces such a jolt.

He had two further major problems. First the outgoing Minister, Rob Muldoon, had given a generous 7.5 percent across-the-board tax cut a few months earlier. The official advice had been to give the cuts for only a short period, so that after the election the cut should be revoked. It argued the economy was sluggish and needed stimulation, but once it went into upswing there was a need for restraint. Muldoon argued, rightly, that if he followed the advice, the Opposition would promise to maintain the cuts, win the election, and so he might as well take credit for the permanent reductions.

The other problem was the new government’s own making. Prime minister Norman Kirk was determined that Labour’s election promises should be kept, even though the economic circumstances had changed markedly. (To political sophisticates two decades later, keeping promises may seem bizarre.) Rowling had not been the shadow minister of finance (he had expected to be Minister for Overseas Trade), so he was given a mandate for which he was not fully responsible. In the circumstances he made a pretty good fist of his time as Minister of Finance – perhaps he was the most competent in my lifetime.

While Rowling’s public image was a mouse, he was in fact a formidable politician in all areas – except the media. Jim Anderton tells the toughest carpeting he ever received was from Rowling (He then adds, with that twinkling smile which Bill also displayed, that he deserved it). It was not a surprise to insiders when following the unexpected death of Kirk, Rowling was elected party leader and prime minister, leaping over two more senior colleagues.

We may speculate the “might have been”: had Kirk survived, or had the electoral system been fairer in 1978 or 1981 and returned Rowling the prime ministership. Rowling was not quite the traditionalist that he has been subsequently portrayed. He criticized the previous (second/Nash) Labour government which had “made some mistakes in industrial development because it was obsessed with that all industry was good industry.” My guess is that the modernizing of the New Zealand economy, which Muldoon resisted, would have been cautiously fostered by Rowling in the 1970s, so the dramatic measures of the 1980s would have been less necessary.

By the early 1980s, Rowling’s star was eclipsed by the up-and-coming rowdies around Roger Douglas. He said at the time they would sell their grandmothers if they got a chance. I thought that this was just the judgement of a bitter politician, but, blow me down, they sold Telecom, Air New Zealand, and a lot more besides.

Rowling retired from parliamentary politics at the age of 57. If David Lange had been politically shrewder he would have insisted the man stay on as Minister of Finance, but the Faustian price of leadership was to leave Lange beholden to the rogernomes.

Bill’s distinguished public record after was recorded in the obituaries, although I did not notice any mention that his list of public activities in Who’s Who included membership of the Kaiteriteri Recreation Board (he lived close by). This was not an entry of a modest man, but one of who cared about the simple but important things in life – like people.