Marilyn Waring is a high profile academic with a long record of publications and service, and an international audience. So one wonders why she wants to write about her time as a very young National Party MP in the Muldoon era, a dismal period for government, in which she eventually became overwhelmed by the events of 1984 and the early election. Does she really need to set the record straight after so long?
In fact, it is good that she does return to the detail of what happened in the late 1970s and 80s to set the record straight. This book is much better on the detail of both policy and Parliamentary practice than most political biographies written soon after the events, and often at a rather mundane level. For example, Waring at one stage refers to her Parliamentary salary, how much she paid in tax and put into superannuation, and that she had to pay the support staff in her electorate and Parliamentary offices.
The main theme of the book can be seen from the choice of the photograph on the cover. Muldoon and his caucus appear on some steps in the Beehive for a publicity shot. Amongst all the bad suits and haircuts of the middle aged men one can see a lone woman in a very long skirt, clearly much younger than her colleagues. Yet the 23-year-old Waring does not appear in the back row, as the new backbench MP, but is near the front, just behind the male leadership. Waring writes that being the only woman in the caucus was gruelling, but she was also useful for electoral purposes.
There seems an inevitability about it all ending very badly for Waring, even without her own commitment to feminism and the political issues of the time. When she also actively campaigned against the 1981 Springbok Tour, including being assaulted at the Hamilton ground where the pitch was invaded, it is a wonder she even made it through the following election. But there is the point for those wondering why on earth she was actually in the National Party, when other feminist women from the Waikato ended up in the Labour Party: the political parties were different then.
Most of the interest in this book will be from feminist writers and those looking at political history on the basis of more female participation. But the book also comes so long after the events that most of the male protagonists are now deceased, or not active in public life. The main story might be how, from a very low base, more female candidates were elected and more positions of power were assumed by women.
But one has to look at Waring’s book from another angle, and not based solely on gender politics. Waring was obviously a star student, and was encouraged into Parliamentary work by political scientists, who continued to support her. She also received a lot of local support in her electorate, and was able to shift that support after her Raglan electorate boundaries were re-drawn for the 1978 election. She also had a lot of opportunities for international travel, for study and official purposes, including a British parliamentary visit in 1980, and a Harvard fellowship the following year.
Waring made the most of her opportunities, including unplanned ones, like being in Jamaica at the time of Bob Marley’s funeral in 1980. Perhaps it was not all bad. It certainly compares better than recent examples of younger National Party MPs.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
The Political Years
by Marilyn Waring
Published by BWB Books