Margaret Wilson as Attorney General conferring with Prime Minister Helen Clark in Parliament in 2000

Margaret Wilson found throwing her old friend Helen Clark out of Parliament’s Chamber for breaching procedure says a lot about Wilson.

She had no compunction ordering the expulsion.

And she knew it was unlikely to be well received.

“As I expected, it took some time to restore good relationships with the Prime Minister’s office,” she writes in her just-published memoir, “Activism, Feminism, Politics and Parliament.”

But to Wilson, a choice between her old comrade in arms from the feminist trenches, Clark, and the rules that govern Parliament was no choice.

Wilson, a woman often regarded as one of our more radical politicians, has a deeply embedded underlying belief in the importance of order and rules, which in part has its origins in her Catholic upbringing.

She (like Jacinda Ardern) grew up in the unprepossessing Waikato dairy town of Morrinsville, 30 km northeast of Hamilton.

Her parents were “thinking Catholics” who questioned some aspects of the Church.  They were small shops owners,  not wealthy and most of her wider family leaned to the left of politics.

Wilson enjoyed her convent school education where she played sport, got into public speaking and later at a Catholic boarding school in Auckland where she went to mass daily, joined the Legion of Mary, read Jane Austin, became a prefect and developed an ambition to become a physical education speaker.

That was not to happen.

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Cancer

She did her final sixth form year back in Morrinsville, where she was diagnosed with bone cancer and had her leg amputated.

Her reaction was stoic.

“You had to adapt and change and then, as my mother would say, just get on with it,” she told POLITIK.

But it was not the amputation as much as the cancer that changed her outlook on life.

“Anyone with cancer will probably tell you this, that they are never certain whether they really have got it or not.

“In the early 60s, you kept going back for assessment to see whether it was OK for about five years or so.

“So you were never quite certain of whether you were going to live or not.

“So the effect that had on me, you didn’t waste any time.

“You had to get on with it now.

“And if you wanted to have new experiences, you should do it now, and you shouldn’t waste time rereading books you’d already read, seeing films you’d already seen.”

And so she got on with it; going to law school (when few women did); becoming a law school lecturer and then fatefully joining the Labour Party  (though she did briefly consider joining the Values Party).

Joining Labour

At University in the 60s, she had frequented Auckland’s Resistance Bookshop and went to debates and discussions there with the radicals who hung around the shops, but she was unconvinced that there was space there for feminism.

Instead, she became involved in the equal pay movement and, through that, became closer to trade unionists and the broader feminism movement of the early 70s through events such as the United Women’s Conventions.

Finally, like many young graduates of the early 70s, the excesses of  Sir Robert Muldoon convinced her to join Labour. And she quickly found where the power lay in the party.

“I also discovered that Labour Party members spent a lot of time on their constitution, and many members seemed to carry a copy of it in their pockets,” she writes.

“I had seen a similar phenomenon among trade union members, who knew the terms of their awards and expected them to be followed.

“As a lawyer, I felt comfortable with rules – whether drafting or imple­menting them – and soon found myself on the constitution committee of the party.

“Of course, those who make the rules have the power, and party members understood this. It was the rules that determined how many votes you had at meetings and who would be selected to represent the party at elections.”

Fairness, feminism and Catholicism

What had driven Wilson since school was an ingrained belief in fairness. Her feminism came from a belief that women should get a fair go; her involvement in trade unionism and the Labour Party was from the same instinct.

“It’s just fundamental. I don’t know why but I have always felt that way,” she said.

“It’s partly the Catholicism, believe it or not, Catholicism can get a bad name for very good reasons, but there was also a very good ethic there, for what it’s worth.

“And your family obviously must influence you.

“We were always treated fairly if, after discussion, I hasten to add.”

And so she law as a way of ensuring people played by the rules and that was a way of enabling fairness.

She began to make up the Labour Party and became exposed to the tensions in the early 80s between Jim Anderton from the left and Roger Douglas from the right.

Each had their followers, but it was the Douglas faction who won the first battle when in 1983, his supporters “persuaded” Bill Rowling, who was supported by Anderton and Wilson, to resign.

She was under no illusions that Lange’s leadership would shift the party to the right.

Saving Labour

POLITIK Margaret Wilson, President of the Labour Party at its 1986 conference

“By early 1984, the Labour Party was locked in an ideological struggle about how to move beyond the problems of the Muldoon era,” she writes.

“The party membership was not opposed to change. It was the nature of this change that was the subject of endless policy debates and political positioning.

“And the key issue was how best to protect the interests of those people in our society who had little personal wealth or power.

“Would a free-market approach really achieve this? Would greater inequality result in and damage the life chances of those we represented? What was to be the role of the state? These were just some of the questions that lay at the root of the differences.”

Labour famously had not resolved this debate by the time Muldoon called the snap election in June 1984.

Propelled by a rapidly deteriorating fiscal position, a currency crisis and a lengthy neo-liberal policy advisory document from Treasury, Douglas, with Lange’s blessing, began to unshackle the economy from Muldoon’s controls.

Wilson was the party president. She was under siege from Anderton and his party rank and file followers on the left and from Douglas and his supporters, many of whom were in Cabinet and the caucus, on the right.

There were acrimonious conferences, walkouts and from Wilson’s point of view, a dangerous proposal to allow formal factions to be formed along Australian lines. Factions are essentially parties within a party.

She looked to the Catholic Church and to Labour’s own history to understand the importance of institutions, and she, therefore, saw part of her role as being the preservation of the party itself.

“To me, it was really important that the Labour Party at the time held together because I genuinely thought it reflected a lot of what might be called middle New Zealand,” she told POLITIK.

“And while at times I know I was accused of being very left and all the rest of it, and I suppose in some context I was, but if anything, I’d say it was centre-left if you had to put a label on it, because that’s where most people are, and politics should be about them.”

In 1987 she retired and went off to the University of Waikato to become the first dean of its law school.

Into Cabinet

And there she stayed until 1999 when Helen Clark asked her to stand for Labour with a promise she could go straight into Cabinet if they won to become the Attorney General.

For the law school dean who believed the law mattered because it was about rules and that was the way that fairness was administered, the offer was one she could not refuse.

Labour won, and Clark also made Wilson Minister of Labour, from where she was started to roll back National’s Employment Relations Act. But her proposals met a wall of opposition from business and, it seems from her book, the NZ Herald. She was described as a “mad hatter” and a “dangerous zealot.”

Helen Clark got spooked by the opposition and ordered a review of Wilson’s work. There were some modifications made, and there the matter rested though it left Wilson determined to move on to another portfolio.

She is cautious when she discusses her relationship with Clark.

“I’m very, very fond and respectful, and I’ve respected Helen for a long, long time, and I think I can count her as a friend,” she told POLITIK.

“I was pushing the boundaries at times, you know, and I saw that as my job.

“And she as leader had her job not to let any of us go too far, that it would put us at political risk.

“It’s easy to talk about it now, but when you’re in the middle of it, you really need quite strong trust relationships, and I respected her and knew that her judgment on what was politically acceptable or not was probably going to be greater than mine.

“Whereas at the same time, I knew we both knew we had to get this law through and that a lot of the opposition was driven politically.”

Expelling Helen

That relationship with Clark would take a more dramatic turn later when Wilson was Speaker and ordered Clark out of the Chamber.

“I decided she should go out of the house because just for once, she breached standing orders,” she told POLITIK.

“And that caused a riot. Everyone was shocked, even the Opposition.

“And  she took it very seriously.”

In her book, Wilson says, “as I expected, it took some time to restore good relationships with the Prime Minister’s office.”

She came to the Speaker’s role, having also been Minister of Justice and had continued her role as Attorney General where she made one of the Clark Government’s great reforms with the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council and the establishment of the Supreme Court.

But what was a self-described conviction politician doing in the Speaker’s chair anyway?

“We think of the conviction in terms of specific policies, but I’m also a conviction politician in terms of democratic processes,” she told POLITIK.

Becoming Speaker

“When it was suggested, I thought, yes, actually, if parliament doesn’t work, if nothing works, you  can you can have all the policies in the world, but if you don’t have an institution through which they can be tested and properly gone through in a way and in a legitimizing process for them and the capacity for them to change over time, then really what have you got?”

But her emphasis on the democratic process is only part of her story. There is still her overriding political project; to try and engender a society that treats women more equally.

“I think there’s been real change in real women’s lives, but fundamentally, if you look at the position, I’m not sure how much really has changed,” she says.

“Like how do we construct our experience still and our solutions to that experience?

“I think there has been some movement, and the young ones, in particular, are no longer taken by the old ideologies.

“But there are still some deep differences; the fact that we’re still querying about whether we should be paid equally.

“Why are we having such trouble in finding pay equity solutions?

“Because we have to then encounter the next barrier which is that quite genuinely the type of work we do is valued differently like caring work is still not valued as greatly as other forms of work, which are traditionally associated with men like building houses.”

Margaret Wilson is one of the most important politicians of the last forty years. Now, the woman who thought she might have only a short life span has had the time to sit back and reflect on a long career that has seen her save her party from itself and then go on to become a major reformer in Government.

“Activism, Feminism, Politics and Parliament”, Margaret Wilson, Bridget Williams Books, 2021.