Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

"James Brendan Bolger: An Early Assessment"

Dominion, December 1997. Bolger(1935- ) was Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1990-1997.

By Michael Bassett

It’s in the nature of politics that leaders are seldom praised until their ministerial careers are finished. This isn’t a reflection on any individual so much as on the adversarial nature of our system. Everybody wants to control the rudder, but at any one time only one person can be captain. Jim Bolger sailed some stormy seas and weathered his fair share of criticism over the years, but the tributes to him in Parliament on his last day as the “Great Helmsman” had a moving quality to them. While there seemed more than a little hubris in Bolger’s boast, no one can deny that the son of immigrant farm workers with little formal education did his level best for New Zealand. By any yardstick he achieved a lot.

It is too early to be precise about Jim Bolger’s place in our history. But of the five farmer prime ministers this century, Bill Massey, Gordon Coates, George Forbes, Keith Holyoake and Jim Bolger, sharing as they have some 41 years in office of the last 85, I would rate the two Irishmen, Massey (an Orangeman) and Bolger (the Catholic) as equal top of their class. Gordon Coates, the tall, handsome war hero was a disappointment as Prime Minister and performed best under other leaders. George Forbes was only nominally Prime Minister and left all the hard decisions to others. The shrewd Keith Holyoake became a master of holding on to power, while ignoring the shifting sands beneath his feet. Under him, New Zealand’s economy consumed its seed corn. It was Massey who led us through the Great War and took us down the road of controls and regulations that lived with us for seventy years. Jim Bolger engaged in a different struggle - against the now withering hand of New Zealand’s paternalistic State that had pulled the country’s living standards, once in the world’s top three, to near bottom of the OECD by the 1980s. Few can deny that the economy that Jim Bolger leaves behind him is a sounder mechanism than the one he first encountered when entering office in the mid 1970s.

New Zealand’s farmer leaders share several things in common. None was a true blue, born-to-rule Tory. That is a class of conservative leader that has never done well in this country. Each of our five had only the barest of formal education, though they all read widely. They played team sports, rugby in every case. Only Coates had polish, yet they were all on the receiving end of journalists’ jibes for butchering the English language. Flexibility marked their political careers; only Holyoake failed to enter a coalition with his political opponents. And they were all canny in the extreme, and nimble when it came to climbing the greasy pole of politics. It has always taken tenacity to farm in this country, and it’s a quality that every successful politician needs in abundance.

The keys to Jim Bolger’s life have been his rude good health, his religion, his marriage, a good temperament, and a bit of luck. His Catholicism is his philosophy. It is something he learned at his parents’ knees and observed every Sunday, not the product of book learning. His skills in people management came from being part of a big family and having nine children of his own. Ministers have told me that he could quell a dog fight in Cabinet with several judicious utterances and the observation that calming a large family was a good referee’s training. Solid marriages are also vital to success in politics. As he once observed, no one can speak with authority if the life he lives is a lie. Joan, with her teacher’s background, has been fundamental to the success of their children; all of them would agree that she played first fiddle in their lives, and that Jim could be counted on for reinforcement when necessary. Her influence on his decision making, too, was greater than either has ever conceded publicly. She enjoys politics as much as him, and has always had shrewd insights.

None of our farmer prime ministers had rigid political views when entering Parliament. Flexibility helped each of them. In Bolger’s case he had taken the cane to a National minister in Holyoake’s Government when, as sub-provincial chairman of Federated Farmers, he disagreed with party policies. His outspokenness appealed to King Country farmers and assisted, rather than hindered his entry to Parliament in 1972. I recall the same independent streak when he entered Parliament on the same day as I did in 1972. There was a mixture of safeness and newness to his maiden speech. While extolling the virtues of his constituency, he revealed a sense of history, and understood the inevitability of change. That kind of perception is not always the hallmark of farmers. And he wasn’t afraid to break with convention; despite being expected to refrain from controversy in a maiden speech, he launched a sustained attack on the newly elected government of Norman Kirk.

This fearless quality gave Jim Bolger a lucky break. Lucky in the sense that there were only four other newcomers to the National caucus that year, and he was clearly the best fighter among them. He was the only one to be selected as a minister in Muldoon’s first term of office, and seemed to be marked out to take over as leader one day, although the path to the top between 1977 and 1986 had some uncomfortable moments, especially after he played an equivocal role at the time of the colonels’ coup against Muldoon in October 1980. Bolger lost out to the younger Jim McLay as deputy leader of the National Party, and then leader in 1984. For a time his progress was blocked.

Solidity and pragmatism became Bolger’s trademarks as a minister. His negotiating skills were honed as Minister of Labour between 1978 and 1984. In those days of the command economy virtually every industrial dispute ended up in the minister’s office. That was where Bolger learned the usefulness of late nights and a liquor cabinet. More than one union leader discovered he’d been outsmarted by the deceptively simple smile of the minister.

Managing a fractious opposition in the run up to the 1990 election was never easy. Pulled between the old style interventionism that lurked among some of his colleagues, and the newer free market aspirations of Ruth Richardson, Simon Upton, Doug Kidd and Jenny Shipley, Bolger restrained the latter group and cajoled the former. His biggest mistake, was to over-promise in 1990 when he didn’t need to. That, and what perhaps became the ultimately fatal mistake of supporting a referendum on proportional representation, marred an otherwise epoch-making three years (1990-93). Bolger let Richardson move National into free market mode, which was as foreign to its ranks as it had been to Labour’s between 1984-90.

Yet, Jim Bolger’s pragmatism again allowed him to negotiate his way towards MMP, a system that he instinctively opposed, with more skill than his opponents. When it came to the post-election card play in 1996, he put more on the table than Labour. Too much, ultimately, for his own good. Separate negotiations between the two main parties and New Zealand First, without prior boundary lines being established in joint talks between National and Labour, ultimately produced a coalition that Jim Bolger must have rued this last twelve months. While he secured an extra year as Prime Minister, not even his management skills were up to controlling unruly coalition partners. Finding it increasingly distasteful to defend the indefensible, Bolger hunkered down and became less accessible to his backbenchers. The Beehive became like a bunker, separating him from his colleagues who seemed able to plan their insurrection with an ease that boggled seasoned observers.

While there has always been a certain bombast about him, and sometimes an overweening pride, Jim Bolger may well be remembered for his simple savvy. “Great helmsmen” pursue their missions by steering their ships through shoals with sufficient care to return intact. Battered, and likely to lose the next race, the National Party has nevertheless managed to keep the economy on a market course despite reckless advice from other quarters. In the end that may be seen as Jim Bolger’s greatest achievement, greater than the maintenance and development of an independent foreign policy or progress on several levels of race relations. Flinty faced at times, he never lost his sense of balance. The same Prime Minister who allowed Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley their heads, warned the National Party’s divisional chairpeople at his recent valedictory meeting with them that the party was in danger of being ruled by the cost of everything while appreciating the value of nothing. This comment tells us something about Jim Bolger’s instincts. It is certainly a timely reminder to his successor.