Jim Bolger - regrets and legacies

By Claire Trevett

Jim Bolger, 35th Prime Minister of New Zealand, refuses to talk about politics these days. Not now, not ever again, he says right at the beginning of the interview.

He made up his mind about this when he resigned in 1997, saying: "I wasn't going to be one of those former leaders that was constantly nitpicking on various issues."

He's agreed to speak at all only because the Stout Research Centre is to dissect the "Bolger Years" from 1990 to 1997 at a conference at Victoria University next weekend.

The speakers include friends and, more interestingly, old foes - both Ruth Richardson, whom he sacked, and Jenny Shipley, who effectively sacked him.

He now gives a few public speeches, mostly overseas, but otherwise tends to keep his mouth shut.

When the Herald first rings him, he harrumphs a bit. "Have you read my book?" he demands.

He's been reading his book, A View from the Top, written soon after that fateful morning in November 1997 when Douglas Graham met him at the airport to tell him Jenny Shipley had the numbers.

It has made him feel nostalgic - and nostalgia has a way of ironing out the more bitter moments of those years from 1972, when he entered Parliament, to 1998, when he left four months after resigning as Prime Minister.

"Ah, Potato Head," people now remember when you mention Jim Bolger. Spud, the uneducated bumpkin son of Irish immigrant farmers. Or the Great Helmsman, a somewhat facetious title after his venture on an America's Cup yacht. They remember his inclination to take on the accents of foreign dignitaries, the whisky-drinking with Winston Peters.

He thinks of his own legacy somewhat more seriously. He left New Zealand with a vastly different economy. He also, somewhat reluctantly, left it with MMP.

A year after National took over, Ruth Richardson took a machete to state spending. Among the more controversial moves was the backdown on National's promise to cut the surcharge on superannuation. Bolger defends those changes as necessary to save an economy that was in a "parlous" state. "It was very sick and I don't have a sense we moved too quickly to do that. I knew we upset a lot of people, including our own supporters. I knew in particular we upset retired New Zealanders because we didn't remove that surtax.

"But even now, looking back to 1991, I can't see how we could justify removing the surtax while we were cutting benefits and other areas to try and balance the Budget."

Bolger knows those tough-love years made the Government deeply unpopular.

He thinks that, without that unpopularity, another of the legacies of his era might not be here today - the MMP system which emerged from National's referendum on the electoral system. "If that poll had been taken 12 months later, or in some other period, would it have been the same? I don't know."

He didn't support MMP then and he's still not a fan. "It has caused problems of smaller parties having more power than their one or two members in the House could justify. But the weaknesses that people talk about now with MMP, in particular the power of small parties, I pointed out many times before the vote."

He would not want the spending cuts and MMP to be the only things people remember of his stewardship. He recalls his time as Prime Minister on overseas visits and as ambassador in Washington from 1998 to 2001 with fondness, namedropping the presidents and prime ministers he met.

And he's proud that it was under his Government that the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process began, that he was there for the signings of settlements for Ngai Tahu and Tainui, and cares "not a jot" if the cost has overrun the $1 billion cap that was set initially.

He wishes he had done more. He'd like to have addressed the number of people in prison, and he'd like schools to have taught more Maori history and culture.

But his time ran out. He says he has never been told why Shipley's cohorts mounted the coup. His theory is that it was because he was "challenging" his caucus to think more about social issues. Talking about poor people was "not familiar territory to them".

"You can only challenge people for so long and then they want to bounce back. It's like a rubber band - you can pull them out for so long and then they want to go back to a place where they're more comfortable."

The Great Helmsman really is now Chairman Bolger, spending three to four days a week in an office in Wellington which overlooks his old office on the ninth floor of the Beehive. He has just been appointed for a third term as board chair of New Zealand Post and with it Kiwibank. He chairs numerous boards - the Trustees and Executors, the Gas Company, the International Board of the World Agricultural Forum.

He seems to be enjoying it - he uses the terms "fascinating," and "vibrant" to describe NZ Post, its courier business and Kiwibank.

The Kiwibank appointment raised eyebrows in 2001 because the bank was loudly ridiculed by the National Party. "The National Party's was an instinctive reaction, not one that says 'is this is a good idea for New Zealanders?' We've got over 500,000 New Zealanders who think it's a good idea. It's one of the most innovative things that happened in New Zealand and I'm proud of the fact that I made the decision to ignore the status quo. And the great news to me is that it is no longer controversial."

Trevor Mallard, Minister of SOEs, says Bolger's appointment neutralised the National Party diatribes and gave Kiwibank more credibility. "Attacks that it was ideological rather than a practical contribution to the banking system were neutralised because he was there, and you could hardly say Jim Bolger is being a left-wing nutter."

Mallard notes Bolger has earned the Government's trust in other areas. Labour was content to leave him as Ambassador in Washington for two years after it came into power in 1999. It also used him on the advisory board for the bid for the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

Jim Bolger - who described himself once as the "epitome of the Kiwi dream, who left school at 15 and became Prime Minister at 55" - has also finally gone to university. In February, he became the 10th Chancellor of Waikato University.

He thinks it would be "more challenging" now for someone to do as he does - to leave school at 15 like that and get to the top. "I couldn't say it wouldn't happen, but it would be harder."

He doesn't recommend early departures from school and thinks attendance should be compulsory until 18.

Bolger is now 71 and looks in fine fettle.

He is perhaps more prone to rambling, reflective soliloquys. He still worries about his country - about its place in the world as a small nation, about New Zealanders being too complacent about the economy, and about too many prisons being built.

He ends each monologue with "and there's still work to be done on that."

He's stuck to refusing to talk about current politics. He mentions "Helen" only once, in relation to her five-hour stint on the becalmed America's Cup yacht. He mentions one other political leader, but only after extracting a promise on the life of a first-born child that his words will be not be printed.

After 90 minutes of not talking about politics, he ends by talking about the need for "visionary" leaders.

I ask if he has any such visionaries in mind and he huffs.

"That's a totally loaded political question and I'm not going to answer it. I'm not totally stupid yet. I'm only partially stupid."

* The Seventh Parliamentary Conference on the Bolger Years will be held on April 27-28, at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University in Wellington.

Speakers include former Finance Ministers Sir William Birch and Ruth Richardson; former President of the Council of Trade Unions Ken Douglas; former Minister of Justice and Minister of Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Sir Douglas Graham; former Chairman of the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board Sir Tipene O'Regan; and former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley.


Verdicts on Bolger


* SIR DOUGLAS GRAHAM

MP 1984 to 1999, whose roles in the Bolger governments included as Minister of Justice, Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations and Attorney General.

On the Bolger years: "We came in when the accounts of the country were in a poor shape and although that meant some hard decisions which meant going back on our word, there was no choice. But the current Government hasn't put things back to where they would have been."

On Bolger: "People would think 'the spud' and thought he was a bit thick. He's not thick. He had a very good grasp on things. He is a fellow endowed with an enormous amount of common sense and a good understanding of people."

On breaking the news to Bolger that Jenny Shipley had the numbers to roll him in 1997: "That's life. You didn't worry about it. I was a Bolger man so I was one of the last approached."


* WARREN COOPER

Otago MP from 1975 to 1996, posts included as Minister of Defence, Foreign Affairs. Resigned to become Mayor of Queenstown.

On the Bolger years: "We had really been through the revolution and the aim was to stay in Government rather than make what we could call bold moves. But sometimes I think you have to take people in a certain direction, rather than being frogmarched by the voters."

On Bolger: "As Prime Minister he was really quite pragmatic and the caucus were quite a loyal bunch and he managed to keep that loyalty for a long time. I don't think he had big weaknesses, but he didn't have a strong private enterprise philosophy."

On Shipley's takeover: "I wasn't surprised. Without being rude, you could say every dog has his or her day. "


* JON JOHANSSON

Political scientist, Victoria University:

On the Bolger years: "In the first term, they continued the significant reforms of the Fourth Labour Government and took it to areas even Labour had feared to tread. Bolger went into the 1990 election pledging the restoration of a decent society. It didn't look that decent when he immediately embarked on lowering wages, writing the unions out of the statute books and lowering benefits. Labour has ameliorated some of the worst effects but the most significant reforms have not been changed."

On Bolger: "What came across was an authentic sense he was one of us, for both good and ill. Bolger is a good model for John Key, but there's too much bad history for Key to embrace Bolger's contribution."

On Bolger's legacy: He provided stability in leading the most significant electoral change in New Zealand's history, by getting New Zealand to its first MMP election without a great deal of fuss. His leadership on that was superb."

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