Marilyn Waring, the best Prime Minister we never had

Leah McFall reviews Marilyn Waring’s political memoir.

One of the great images in New Zealand politics is a photograph of Marilyn Waring on election night in 1975, experiencing the first minutes of victory as National’s unlikely new member for Raglan. There she is in a belted wrap dress, her 23-year old face shining like the moon under a swing of side-parted hair. She's done it, this butcher's daughter turned political scientist, by sheer graft and total commitment. An unusual candidate for conservative rural Waikato, admittedly, who’d originally joined the party to make a feminist statement. Still, they agreed, she was the future.

Until the infamous night she wasn’t.

It took nine hard-fought years for Robert Muldoon’s political regime to grind Waring down and in this memoir she has us re-live them, almost in real time. Her memoir The Political Years took a corresponding nine years to write, as Waring sorted through 300 boxes of archived Parliamentary paperwork. She exhaustively lays it out for our scrutiny, year after year, building to what we remember as an operatic showdown with the Prime Minister and a subsequent snap election.

This is how it was inside the machine, she wants us to know, as only the 15th woman to make it into Parliament. One of merely four female MPs in her maiden term, led in autocratic style by a dismissive and belligerent Muldoon, hers is a story of daily reckoning – not just with the white, middle-aged male phalanx of caucus, but her own conscience.

Waring describes a vanished New Zealand, of cream teas, kipper ties and carnation buttonholes which was tightly controlled, male-dominated and restless for change. During her career, Maori protesters occupy Bastion Point, the women’s movement gathers pace and Waring seizes each chance to push for gains in the House – for a woman’s right to an abortion, for the refusal of nuclear vessels into our ports, to change the definition of rape, to denounce apartheid and refuse sporting contacts with South Africa.

New Zealanders couldn't ignore this unusual young woman with conviction, prepared to criticise her own party from the backbench and stand up to Muldoon. Waring is frank about the dislike of her liberal opinions in a time when it was acceptable for a Prime Minister to have cosy dinners with high-ups from the Catholic Church. But she was popular in Raglan and later, Waipā, and this relationship between a country MP and her constituency might be the healthiest one in the book.

At the same time, she wasn’t radical enough for some feminists. She includes quotes from contemporary media reports, some critical and others full of praise, but offers little personal comment, except to establish a cool distance from “the Marilyn Waring they wrote about”. Had these got her right, or not? As Waring doggedly sticks to the job at hand – remembering the daily merry-go-round of meetings, speeches and clashes – it’s hard to tell.

Emotion has little place in this memoir, even though she must have been roiling in it in 1976 when The Truth exposed her same-sex relationship. She explains how she endured the scandal, who helped and who scorned, but not at length about how she felt. We discover nothing about the impact on her partner, parents, or the wider gay community. “I locked myself away,” she writes. Waring is not a confessional writer, offering us nothing we’re not owed.

This gives power to the occasional bursts of raw emotion in the book. She describes her state of mind in 1983 in an unexpectedly lyrical passage: “Running in all weathers. Running to the place of work. Running to despair. Running through the bottom door of the old building directly to the bathroom to be sick. Every day the same, and no way to control it. Every day my body saying, ‘I can’t stomach this anymore.’”

Even so, there are moments of fun. There’s a nice cameo of Muldoon telling Princess Anne, “This is Marilyn Waring, and she’s interested in women’s issues” – and HRH crisply replying, “Really, Prime Minister, all issues are women’s issues.”

The biggest surprise of all is that Waring didn’t bring down the government by intending to cross the floor to support anti-nuclear legislation. She'd crossed the floor on other issues and on one memorable day, even did so 18 times. Providing she didn’t threaten confidence and supply, she could privilege her constituents and her own moral code.

No, what did it was the Speaker indicating that Executive Council privilege would be drawn to block that bill from passing into law. To Waring, that was a bald threat to democracy and an intolerable outrage, after years of tolerable ones. She would leave the caucus but not bring down the government, she announced. “Just what do you think you are up to now, you perverted little liar?” snarled Muldoon, a gnome-like King Lear with whisky on his breath.

Waring left him raging; she hid under a desk from reporters. She escaped the Beehive in the dark and never saw Muldoon again, writing simply: “I was free.”

The granular attention to detail in The Political Years will delight a certain kind of Wellingtonian. But it also suggests what Waring might have become had she had any of the expediency of a Helen Clark or the ambition of any number of male Prime Ministers. She had none, and politics may have been the worse for her departure. This same lack of vanity and a refusal to make drama from history will deny this book from becoming a political classic. This is a shame, because hers is a hell of a story.

The Political Years by Marilyn Waring (Bridget Williams Books, $40)

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