How Marilyn Waring became an MP aged 23

A saddle sore, a teal bridesmaid’s dress and the Ngāruawāhia High School hall: how Marilyn Waring became the National candidate for Raglan. An extract from her new memoir The Political Years.

In 1974, it was my habit to go to the library at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand’s capital, to read each morning’s newspaper. On 9 July the Dominion front page covered Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk’s reaction to Opposition National Party MP Venn Young’s plan to bring to parliament a Private Member’s Bill to decriminalise homosexuality. Kirk said he would not vote for any legislation that treated homosexuality as ‘normal behaviour’. I got up from that table, walked downtown to the Wellington headquarters of the New Zealand National Party, and paid to join the Young Nationals.

That year, I had joined the Women’s Electoral Lobby. In Wellington, this was a very energetic, innovative organisation, with a cross-section of women activists whom I found inspirational and wise. I was a quiet, attentive attender of meetings, and each time learned more about the issues of concern. It was a good environment for this. The first ever parliamentary Select Committee on Women’s Rights had reported in 1974. 1975 was declared the first United Nations International Women’s Year. And there was to be a national parliamentary election in late 1975. At one evening meeting early that year, replies to correspondence addressed to three political parties – Labour, National and Social Credit – were read to those attending. Each party had been asked what it was doing to increase the number of women candidates for the 1975 election. All had answered that 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 in high enough numbers. I didn’t believe this for a moment. It seemed to me that if enough women sought election, even if they lost, this was one line that could be removed from the catalogue of excuses.

Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk died on 31 August 1974, and the state funeral took place in early September, the week I took up a part-time position in the Opposition Research Unit in New Zealand’s Parliament, working on housing, fishing and women. I was fortunate to be assigned to George Gair, National’s spokesman on housing.

The 1972–75 National Opposition had not had a woman in their caucus. George understood this was not a good situation, especially given the range of views needed for developing election policies. Others in the Party also saw that the absence of women would be a public relations disaster in an election campaign in International Women’s Year. In early 1975 National had not even selected a woman candidate for a safe seat in the upcoming election. There was one chance left to do this – in the constituency of Raglan, held by former Minister of Agriculture Doug Carter, who was retiring. My family home was in the town of Huntly, in the Raglan constituency. The day after the Women’s Electoral Lobby meeting, I reported the details to George, and then suggested quietly that I should contest Raglan to demonstrate the vacuity of those letters from political parties.

Within an hour, Sir Keith Holyoake, a former long-standing prime minister and senior statesman of the parliamentary party, arrived at my Research Unit desk. He was in earnest: ‘George tells me you can stand? Do you come from there? Do you have a nomination form?’

‘No.’

‘Here’s one – please fill it in. Do you have Party members up there who would sign?’

‘I have no idea. My dad might know.’

‘What is your father’s telephone number?’

The Party nomination form did not take long. The first page asked for my name, age (22), address – and then for my full pedigree: details of my parents, Bill and Audrey Waring (including my mother’s maiden name), perhaps to determine if there was a family history in the Party. Next, it asked for details of my war service, and of my local government experience. Over the page, the form asked what awards and honours I had won. So I left significant blank sections. My work experience, too, was not what the Party was used to: a butchery assistant, a cleaner, a barmaid, a student vacation worker for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a telephone technician, a musician, a student – and then a parliamentary research officer. But my generation had enjoyed unprecedented educational opportunities, so there was one question I could answer at some length. My postgraduate majors were political science and international politics, which looked appropriate. I signed the form and posted it to my father, who found 10 Party members to sign the nomination, and submitted it.

Marilyn appears before a selection committee in Hamilton and makes it to the final five applicants to be the National Party candidate for Raglan.

Back in Wellington, I learned what would happen next. The other candidates, all men – a County Council chair, a Meat and Wool Section chair of Federated Farmers, a National Party divisional councillor, and a popular local farmer who had stood as an independent in the 1972 election – would now be attempting to visit 130 voting delegates, 26 of whom were women. I would need to do the same. There would be three evening meetings at the northern, central and southern ends of the constituency, each of them open to voting delegates and Party members. Delegates could attend all three meetings. Candidates would make a short five- to ten-minute presentation, and then mingle with, and be asked questions by, the attendees.

I suspected the other candidates would make a similar speech at each evening meeting, pressing their case about why they should be selected. I never went near that as a subject. I wrote a different address for each meeting about key issues which would affect Raglan: the proposals on price stabilisation in agriculture, the coal/gas-fired power station being built in Huntly, employment opportunities for young people. I listened hard and picked up threads of concerns from one meeting and responded to them in my address at the next.

George Gair advised me, and then others in Raglan did too (it dawned on me that some were actually backing me), to make some house calls on delegates. I went back north. I borrowed my mother’s car and some of her clothes.

I began in my home town of Huntly, where three members of one household were delegates. The tea and conversation were going very well until they asked about New Zealand’s sporting links with South Africa under the apartheid government. I had demonstrated against these as a student. I joined the silent marches in Wellington to remember the Sharpeville massacre. I was completely opposed to sporting (and other) contacts with South Africa. The National Party policy was to allow these links and not to interfere. I disagreed with this, and said so. We were polite to each other, but I drove away laughing at how hopeless I would be if this were ever real.

The next visit was to an older local who thought I was too young: we had a very energetic conversation about what a ‘House of Representatives’ might mean if there were no women and no young people included. I drove in to see delegate Katherine O’Regan, and played with her children while she finished a chore. ‘I’ve never been a voting delegate before,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what to ask you.’

‘I’ve never been a candidate before,’ I replied, ‘so I can’t help you.’

Marilyn Waring celebrating her win on election night 1975. Image: New Zealand Herald Alexander Turnbull Library PAColl 634001

Selection night arrived on Monday 24 March 1975. Presentation and wardrobe were a challenge. I had my hair ‘done’. I certainly couldn’t afford an ‘outfit’. In the absence of any recent women candidates, there was no established dress code. My mother convinced me that I could wear a long teal smocked satin frock I had worn as a bridesmaid a year earlier.

The selection meeting was held in the Ngāruawāhia High School assembly hall. I knew it well. It had been a hub for local primary-school events in my childhood, and I had attended Ngāruawāhia High for the first two years of my secondary schooling. The hall was packed to overflowing on a very humid night. The voting delegates were in the front rows, separated from the rest of the audience by a rope across the seats. There were some family blocks in the voting delegates – the Mackys from Pāterangi, the Fishers from Monavale, the Kays from Kihikihi, the Johnstones of Whatawhata. With luck, I thought, I might have the support of at least two of those.

All five candidates sat on the stage for the first three ballots. Delegates knew who was dropped after each ballot, and passed the news behind them to others. I had no idea who remained. But delegates I scarcely knew kept giving me huge smiles. I figured I’d probably last for two. I hadn’t made a fool of myself; I’d done my best; I’d kept my integrity intact. At last, the chair of the meeting stepped forward: ‘The final ballot will be between Michael Loughnan and Marilyn Waring.’

It was nearing midnight. The auditorium buzzed; no one left. The final ballot papers were collected. Then: ‘The National candidate for Raglan for the 1975 election will be Marilyn Waring.’

As my name was announced, my every instinct was to step forward and say, ‘I think there’s been a dreadful mistake.’ But it was too late for that. The place rose. Conservative middle-class men and women stood on the school benches, cheering me – and themselves for what they had done. A scrutineer told me later I was ahead from the first ballot and stayed ahead, slowly climbing to over 50 per cent. Much later I was told about a horse one candidate had sold to a family with five voting delegates. The horse had a saddle sore under the blanket, so the family showed their displeasure and block voted for me. Jim Bolger, MP in neighbouring King Country, raced to the stage to embrace me. The family of three from Huntly came up: they wanted to say they had all voted for me from the first ballot. ‘If you didn’t lie or play politics in the situation you were in when we discussed apartheid and sport,’ they said, ‘you were who we thought would be the best representative of the people of this electorate: we could trust you.’

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On Saturday 29 November 1975, the National Party was elected to government with 55 seats to Labour’s 32, and Marilyn Waring won Raglan with 54 per cent of the vote. She was a Member of Parliament for nine years, one of only a few female MPs who served through the turbulent years of Muldoon’s government. Her decision to cross the floor and vote for the opposition’s nuclear-free New Zealand bill, prompted a famously ‘tired and emotional’ Muldoon to call a snap election.

Marilyn Waring: The Political Years (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99) is available at Unity Books. 

Waring appears at the Auckland Writers Festival on Sunday, May 19, in conversation with Jennifer Curtin. 


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