Words and deeds, Helen Watson White

The Political Years
Marilyn Waring
Bridget Williams Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988545936

The cover of Marilyn Waring’s book The Political Years shows a telling photograph of the 1979 National Party caucus in the Beehive: row upon row of suited men, with just one young woman in front.

Actually, National had gone backwards since 1975, when there were two women in caucus. By the time Waring, Colleen Dewe, and two Labour women entered parliament:

We joined 83 men: 21 farmers, 14 managers or company directors, nine lawyers and eight other accountants, seven men from the building industry and allied trades, six trade unionists and six teachers … Three MPs were under 30 …  A further 15 were under 40. These 18 “represented” 46 per cent of New Zealand’s adult population at the time.

We have to thank the 1970s Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) for their drive to unlock the potential, the creative political ability, of the female half of the population. Without their efforts, we would not have had 23-year-old political science graduate Waring in government from 1975, when there had been no women in the National opposition since 1972. Nor would we have this intensely interesting story of one who persisted – despite extraordinary antagonism and without arrogance – in educating the men in what they were missing, through a total of three parliamentary terms.

In July 1974, Waring joined the Young Nationals in reaction to Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk’s refusal to countenance any normalising of homosexuality. But, before that, she was an “attentive” learner at meetings of WEL, the “energetic, innovative” and non-partisan group of women activists she found “inspirational”. WEL wrote letters, for instance, asking the Labour, National and Social Credit parties what they were doing to increase the number of women candidates for the 1975 election. (They didn’t need to press the point, with the first Select Committee on Women’s Rights reporting in 1974, and 1975 declared United Nations International Women’s Year.) All three replies claimed: “women had an equal opportunity to be candidates, and that parties would love to have more of them, but women simply did not offer themselves for selection.” It seemed to Waring “that if enough women sought election, even if they lost, this was one line that could be removed from the catalogue of excuses.”

Part-time work in the Opposition Research Unit at parliament, where she was assigned to housing spokesman George Gair, gave Waring an entrée; she suggested to Gair that she pursue the one remaining chance of selection in a safe National seat: the Raglan constituency, her family’s home. The nomination form was completed, her father furnishing the necessary 10 signatures of Party members in support:

I told few people I had done this. I expected nothing to come of it. It was a quiet feminist gesture of my own. Yet I found myself in the parliamentary library in the evenings, reading three months of back issues of the Huntly Press, the Te Awamutu Courier and the Cambridge Independent … the Waikato Times … I would lose the nomination, but it wouldn’t be because I wasn’t informed about what was of concern to the people of Raglan.

The research she did then shows Waring beginning as she meant to go on. Her thorough grasp of grassroots issues in the electorate ensured that she flew through the selection process, a meet-the-people tour confirming that she could honestly represent her constituency even while disagreeing with individuals. In her speech to voting delegates, humour helped, plus rhetoric, and a canny insight:

Raglan can be spotlighted not by sending a farmer to join a group of farmers, not by sending a man to join a team of middle-aged men, but by sending a representative so different from all the others, that the interests of Raglan can always be on the front-page of the national newspapers.

With her success in 1975, this last point proved prophetic, although media emphasis upon her, personally, always made her uncomfortable, as it did Helen Clark.

The level of detail and analysis are simply astounding in Waring’s action-packed record of “deeds, not words” – nine years in the writing – with index, references, and superb photographs.

When the caucus of the third National Government first met in 1975, they were told no-one could “be across all the issues”. My impression, from 376 densely informative pages, is that Waring was. There’s a chapter for each year in office (1975-84), tracking a journey on which the author imagined the reader might “travel on my shoulder, to experience how it was ‘being’ in that environment and trying to survive.”

The breadth of an MP’s concerns for her society bear a remarkable resemblance to the seven areas of WEL’s 1978 policy manifesto: early childhood services; education; employment; health; law; social welfare, town planning. The issues, at first electorate-based (Raglan being replaced by a re-drawn Waipa in 1978), quickly widened to include matters national and international. Communications arrived in a “deluge” every day.

In addition to pleas for assistance, and documents for select committees, some of which she chaired, Waring received a growing number of remits from what were by 1982 the “hundreds of active feminist organisations throughout the country”, proposing health centres for Māori and Pacific people, the teaching of te reo in schools, or opposing nuclear weapons testing and the dumping of nuclear waste. Robert Muldoon is described introducing Waring to Princess Anne as “interested in women’s issues”. Says Waring, “She looked down at him and said royally: ‘Really Prime Minister, all issues are women’s issues.’

But “it was a man’s world”, she reminds us: “Thirty-one men and eight women members of the parliamentary press gallery fed their views and reports to 37 major metropolitan and provincial daily newspapers, all edited by men.” This is why it’s significant Waring kept her own record:

Reading the evidence of my actions and reflections I realise I have forgotten much of what I was feeling from moment to moment in a hyper-vigilant environment. But for the most traumatic moments, I retain visceral memories. I do remember parliament was a constant place of battle to remain true to myself.

Unusually, Waring’s papers were collected in the Alexander Turnbull Library, at Jim Traue’s request, and those 400 boxes containing all the documents that crossed her desk – a “multi-layered archive” – form the basis of her story. As well, she says, “At every caucus meeting from 1975 to 1984 I handwrote extensive notes. This was ‘out of order’ but I did it anyway.”

And so we travel with her, through the harrowing experience of being outed as lesbian by Truth; through vexed questions of human rights denied; of violence against women; environmental harm and the continuing alienation of Māori land; through protracted debates on tax and abortion law reform; attacks upon beneficiaries and visa overstayers; through Muldoon’s wielding a jealously personal power over the Springbok tour in 1981, then losing it over nuclear-free zones: you can see Waring standing her ground to the end. I am glad that, while a fully involved MP, she also had trips overseas, notably to United Nations conferences, where her abilities were recognised, and that she has had a stellar career outside parliament since 1984.

Those who lived these years with her will be grateful not only for the fullness and honesty of her account, but for the radically different way of “being” and of seeing it describes. She says she is just a reporter: “Mine was an extreme and dramatic experience. The incidents speak for themselves.”

Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer, critic and photographer.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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