Key Points:

In a series of book extracts this week we present visions of how our history might have developed if key events had taken a different course. Today Jon Johansson speculates on the consequences of Ruth Richardson's 1991 Mother of All Budgets failing to reach the starting blocks.

In July 1991 National's Finance Minister Ruth Richardson delivered what became known as the "Mother of All Budgets" in which major cuts to welfare benefits, changes to employment law, and new user-pays requirements in hospitals and schools were all announced.

National limped back to power in 1993 and the public voted for MMP.

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The following scenario traces events in an alternate history in which Jim Bolger rejected Richardson's Budget proposals.

Fuming in public, Richardson signals her intention to undermine Bolger's leadership at every turn. Finally, the crescendo of vitriol against Bolger from Richardson's supporters meets with a response. It is three days since Richardson's resignation as Minister of Finance. Bolger chooses to address the nation directly in what our history now knows as the Avalon Address.

The time arrives and the Prime Minister appears on the nation's television screens. His address is brief and memorable.

"My fellow New Zealanders, tonight I want to address a real crisis in our country.

"The crisis I want to address tonight is the crisis of confidence our people are feeling towards their Government. New Zealanders have quite rightly grown up with the belief that we will do what we say we're going to do, and if not, then we will explain ourselves.

"For six long years now we have failed you and tonight I pledge to all New Zealanders that the era of broken promises, of hidden agendas, of arrogant rule, is over. It ends tonight.

"I utterly reject having my Government driven by ideologues who know the value of nothing other than the purity of their imported theories. I completely reject these obsessed purists who put the balancing of the country's books ahead of balancing the nation's needs.

"Fostering greater understanding between Government and its people and restoring a social cohesion that has stretched beyond breaking point is my responsibility and tonight I exercise it. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. I resolve to do better in explaining the nature of the choices we face as a people. I will either bring you into my confidence or I will step down. That is my commitment to you here tonight.

"The road ahead will prove a difficult one. We are in recession and our economy is not yet strong enough to provide jobs and security for all our people. But we will get there ... together."

The reaction to Bolger's dramatic speech initially meets with shock, profound amazement, and, in some quarters, outright disbelief, but as its import slowly begins to penetrate the wider electorate, a huge wave of public support surges behind Bolger's call for greater integrity in Government and a period of consolidation. Harsh criticisms coming from the business sector are drowned out by the surge of goodwill extended towards Bolger.

Astute Listener columnist Jane Clifton notes that by some form of cosmic coincidence the Avalon Address was only 272 words long, exactly the same length as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, concluding, "Bolger's task was conceivably even more difficult than Lincoln's, for Honest Abe's opponent was General Lee, not a bucolic Sherman tank that goes by the name of Ruth".

Such is the impact of the Prime Minister's inspirational address that despite a still sluggish economy, the National Party quickly recovers, and then flourishes in the polls. For the first time, Bolger out-polls Winston Peters as preferred Prime Minister. The Richardson faction, in the wake of so much public support for Bolger, loses its power. Bolger is secure.

Richardson resigns from Parliament, forcing a byelection.

She later writes a book, chronicling her career. Originally planning to call it Making a Difference, she never falls free of her bitter resentment over her brief stint as Finance Minister.

In the end it goes to the shelves as It Makes No Difference.

Through one dramatic moment of towering rhetorical splendour, Jim Bolger secures his leadership for as long as he wants to keep it. Even Winston Peters, Bolger's archrival, is forced to admit that the wily MP for King Country has outfoxed him. Peters abandons thoughts of setting up his own political party, at least for the moment.

In the 1993 election, National soundly defeats a Labour Party still struggling to resolve its own ambivalence about its role in the new right revolution.

Bolger's re-election had been widely predicted. The real drama on election night centres on the referendum to change New Zealand's electoral system. Despite a bitter public campaign - or maybe because of it - the well-funded Peter Shirtcliffe's Campaign for Better Government fails in its bid to persuade the country to switch to MMP. Fifty-four per cent of voters preferred to stay with the status quo. First-past-the-post was here to stay.

By 1996, three years later, Jim Bolger understands the country and its people very well. They understand him, too, but familiarity has not yet bred contempt. During the past three years the major political upheavals have taken place almost exclusively on the left, although Winston Peters has finally made his break from National.

Helen Clark, survivor of the fourth Labour Government, had replaced Mike Moore immediately after his defeat in 1993.

However, she is unable to gain traction, fighting, as she is, on both left and right flanks. When five senior members confront Helen Clark just five months out from the election, she falls on her sword.

Mike Moore returns to the leadership and wastes no time in casting aside Labour's recent past: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But it's now time to force the spring, market our products anywhere, everywhere, ease superpower tensions, and reduce our debt burden while caring for our elderly as we forge new markets."

On election night 1996 National and Jim Bolger win a coveted third term. National's vote has been slowly degrading, but the continued fracturing of the left has facilitated yet another comfortable election night victory for the still popular Prime Minister.

By 1999 the grand old man of New Zealand politics, Jim Bolger, is seeking a fourth successive term as Prime Minister. National has had to endure another cyclical downturn and it has also faced a much more focused Opposition for the first time since Bolger became Prime Minister. Labour and the Alliance reach a pre-election agreement, following the Greens' split from its parent party, to reform under the banner of New Labour. Tony Blair's win in the British elections has regenerated the left, and under Helen Clark, who has once again replaced Mike Moore, a more focused and more marketing-savvy Labour Party has emerged.

The public remain supportive of Bolger, a leader with whom they have grown comfortable, but the concerted period of consolidation is starting to feel like drift to many voters. The decision to borrow Blair's credit card of promises proves a brilliant marketing ploy for Labour but, in a knife-edge election, Bolger gains a fourth term as Prime Minister by the narrowest of margins.

After the votes are counted, National limps in with 37 per cent of the vote and 49 seats. Labour is not far behind, winning 47 seats with 36 per cent support.

In 2000, Jim Bolger triumphantly relinquishes the National Party leadership. His career has proved an unlikely success. A run for president in a future New Zealand republic cannot be ruled out, write the pundits.

* This is an extract from New Zealand as it Might Have Been, 15 Scenarios of Alternate History edited by Stephen Levine and published by Victoria University Press.

* Jon Johansson is a lecturer in political science at Victoria University and a commentator on New Zealand politics.