Conversations about our country with Jim Bolger: David Cohen (Massey University Press, Auckland, 287pp, $45.)

NZ International Review (September/October 2021) p.29-31

James Brendan Bolger presents a paradox. When he became prime minister, a Tom Scott cartoon presented him as a kind of Forrest Gump; in 2017 he outshone his other three panellists: Helen Clark, Geoffrey Palmer and Jenny Shipley. In 1990 and 1991 he presided over the most bitter attack on New Zealand’s welfare state; today he rejects neo-liberalism. He was in the Muldoon Cabinet which supported the 1981 Springbok Tour; among his proudest moments are working with a greatly admired Nelson Mandela. He left school at fifteen; for eighteen years he was chancellor of the University of Waikato.

Journalist David Cohen’s Friday conversations with Bolger — modelled on Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie — offers some insights to the paradox, without entirely resolving it.

Part of the answer is that although Bolger was born in 1935 he grew up in a rural Taranaki, which the prosperity of the welfare state had not really yet reached. It was normal to leave school at fifteen, for a job (the family farm); after all, he had run a farm at twelve when the local farmer was away. Thus, he is a throwback to an earlier generation of politicians — before Muldoon’s one which was shaped by fighting in the war. Before that — the Savage–Fraser generation — politicians’ apprenticeships were in the school of hard knocks. Many worked their way up through a union as did Bolger, except his was Federated Farmers. Like some of his ‘uneducated’ predecessors, Peter Fraser, Norman Kirk and Keith Holyoake, he is an omnivorous reader.

In the 1990s, there was a sort of snobbery towards Gump — recall the description of him as ‘Spud’ — by those who had grown up in more affluent times and been lucky enough to have tertiary education and OE — Bolger got his in Washington when he was 63.

Being prime minister is a learning experience, although this is rarely explored in retrospective biographies — not in Cohen’s book. One arrives in office under-experienced — being leader of the Opposition is near irrelevant preparation — surrounded by public servants who initially prop one up and, if one has the character, grows into the job. Bolger did. That may explain Bolger’s role in his National government’s assault on the welfare state in 1990–91. Apparently, he was overseas when Cabinet made the key decisions. I have not seen explored his feelings about the ‘redesign of the welfare state’ — it would require a tougher interviewer than Cohen — but there are a number of indications that he would not have been so brutal.

There is a parallel here with David Lange who was gazumped by Roger Douglas. The difference is that Bolger wound Ruth Richardson back. Perhaps having Bill Birch as his lieutenant (and tramping partner) helped — although neither this book nor the recent biography Bill Birch: Minister of Everything by Brad Tattersfield discusses their relationship. (Allow me a frustration to observe that such biographies rarely report how the politician connects with close public servants and intimate political colleagues, yet that is often key to understanding their performance. But no matter how good those around are, the clay they are working with matters.)

Cohen’s book is tantalising when it draws attention to the religious dimension of Bolger’s life. I cannot recall another account of a politician which pays so much attention to the issue. The book records Bolger as a regular churchgoer — at the time of the mosque massacres, he was in Muslim Baku but arranged to be taken to a local Catholic church. The book also touches on the canard that a Catholic prime minister might be beholden to Rome. But it fails to mention that Bolger has been deeply influence by Catholic social justice philosophy, which is founded on the 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum: The Condition of Workers, which supported private property, but not uncritically, and the ‘just wage’. (Allow another paradox: Ruth Richardson was brought up a Catholic, but the encyclical seems to have had less impact on her thinking.)

Of course, the environment he grew up in was critical. There were more Maori at his school than Pakeha and he has shown a particular interest in race relations, as well as leading the Treaty Settlement process. Yet there is a paradox here. In 1991 Rerum Novarum was celebrated by Centesimus Annus: The Centenary of Rerum Novarum. It was released about about the same time as the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) and provides a critique of how ‘anti-Catholic’ the legislation was. (The Catholic bishops thought so too, and circulated a pastoral letter at the time.) What Bolger really thinks of the ECA is not on record. He had been minister of labour under Muldoon and his bête noire was the freezing worker unions — a common position for a farmer. Militant unions have not always contributed to the sustainability of New Zealand’s union movement.

Bolger has strong views on racial issues, tolerance generally and the environment (climate change). But does one detect a shift in his interests towards international affairs? I recall little evidence of such an interest before he became premier, although he mentions that he followed events off shore as a child on the farm.

Every prime minister has to get involved, but Bolger’s interest has continued in retirement. Sometimes one often gets the impression of politicians’ set pieces being mechanical exercises based on anonymous public servants’ notes. Once they separate, the politician descends into platitudes. Bolger had, however, maintained his interest — including saying to Cohen that on some issues he has not yet reached a conclusion. The chapters on Armageddon (the nuclear question) and Washington are additions to the foreign affairs literature.

The paradox is us — we undervalued Bolger because he was not one of us. Ironically, retired he may be the most progressive premier since Norman Kirk. (Across the board — Helen Clark is ahead on women’s issues and international affairs. Bolger jokes that perhaps he should have been a Labour prime minister and Clark, who also came from a farm, a National one.)

Therein lies a deeper paradox. It is said that New Zealand history is written about the land of the long pink cloud. I struggled with the image while writing my Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand. There is a stronger case that New Zealand is a green land in a blue sea. Among its premiers is a tradition of progressive farmers of a rightish disposition: Harry Atkinson, Bill Massey (probably, we lack a good biography), Gordon Coates and Keith Holyoake. James Brendan Bolger is one of them.