The 9th Floor: Jim Bolger

In From the Ninth Floor, RNZ's Guyon Espiner conducts in-depth interviews with five former New Zealand prime ministers.  In part four, Dame Jenny Shipley talks about being the first woman PM, plus coups and coalitions, welfare reform and working with Winston Peters.  Scroll down for video.

I think Jim Bolger might be about to spark a debate. Two debates actually. One on our economic settings and the other on race relations. He says neoliberalism has failed and suggests unions should have a stronger voice. He says Treaty of Waitangi settlements may not be full and final and that Maori language tuition should be compulsory in primary schools.

It was striking, sitting in Jim Bolger's Waikanae home for the third episode of The 9th Floor, just how many of the issues he grappled with in the 1990s are still alive and being debated rigorously today. Adding to that sense of history was the fact that John Key resigned while we were discussing with Bolger what it was like to be a third term National Prime Minister. 

There was a little bit of personal history for me too and we'll come to that. But first the policy. Bolger says neoliberal economic policies have absolutely failed. It’s not uncommon to hear that now; even the IMF says so. But to hear it from a former National Prime Minister who pursued privatisation, labour market deregulation, welfare cuts and tax reductions – well that’s pretty interesting. 

“They have failed to produce economic growth and what growth there has been has gone to the few at the top,” Bolger says, not of his own policies specifically but of neoliberalism the world over. He laments the levels of inequality and concludes “that model needs to change.” 

But hang on. Didn’t he, along with Finance Minister Ruth Richardson, embark on that model, or at least enthusiastically pick up from where Roger Douglas and the fourth Labour government left off? 

Mr Bolger doesn't have a problem calling those policies neoliberal although he prefers to call them “pragmatic” decisions to respond to the circumstances. It sets us up for the ride we go on with Mr Bolger through the 1990s, a time of radical social and economic change.

Judge for yourself whether they were the right policies but do it armed with the context. Mr Bolger describes his 17-hour honeymoon after becoming PM in 1990. He recalls ashen-faced officials telling him before he was even sworn in that the BNZ was going bust and if that happened nearly “half of New Zealand’s companies would have collapsed.”

The fiscal crisis sparked the Mother of All Budgets and deep cuts to the welfare state. Some believe this was the start of the entrenched poverty we agonise about to this day. How does the man whose election slogan was “The Decent Society” feel about that now? 

There is so much to the Bolger years: the first MMP government with Winston Peters, the economic growth of the mid-90s, the birth of Te Papa and the first big Treaty Settlements. 

Indeed Mr Bolger is at his most passionate speaking about Maori issues. He has a visceral hatred of racism and explains the personal context for that. We asked him whether future generations will open up Treaty settlements again - given Maori got a fraction of what was lost – or whether they are genuinely full and final. He says it is a “legitimate” question and “entirely up to us”. If Maori are still at the bottom of the heap “then you can expect someone to ask the question again because it means that society has failed.” He is also scathing of former National leader Don Brash’s Orewa speech on ‘Maori privilege’. “It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Trump but it was in that frame.” Of course Don Brash never made it to prime minister, replaced by John Key in 2006. "Gone by lunchtime" was the political phrase popular at the time.

When we returned to Mr Bolger’s house after our lunch break, Mr Key was gone too, one of those rare times when “shock resignation” is an accurate headline. Mr Bolger was buzzing as we talked long into the afternoon, feeling fate had settled in with him on the big chair in the lounge of his stately home. 

I felt it too. My first day as a political reporter was Mr Bolger’s last day as an MP. I was asked to cover the valedictory for The Evening Post, a task I felt hopelessly ill-prepared for. In his parting words to Parliament in April 1998, Bolger looked up at the Press Gallery and invited us to “take out your quills and bury me one final time.” We’ve done the opposite here, I hope, and dug up the past for The 9th Floor. It’s 19 years later – almost to the day – and I think we’re all a little bit better prepared to look at his legacy.

From the Ninth Floor is produced by RNZ


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Poor old Jimbo's obviously working off a Wonderland version of the English language where the meaning of everything is reversed --- 'worked spectacularly well' = 'absolutely failed'.

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I for one can never forgive this man and his party for bringing in the Employment Contracts Act. All it did for the poor old worker of NZ was to kick them in the teeth.

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The Employment Contracts Act was framed in the interests of big business with the New Zealand Business Roundtable enthusiastically involved. We should not forget that Ruth Richardson, at her farewell, publicly thanked Doug Myers, the chairman of the NZBR for being at her side and guiding her through the framing of this act.

Utterly incredible - and the media at the time simply ignored this.

Bolger was arguably one of the most inadequate and damaging Prime Ministers this country has ever had...even if not in his own opinion, alas. But In the view of many he simply wasn't up to it, and his assertions now certainly back this up.

For example. " He says Treaty of Waitangi settlements may not be full and final and that Maori language tuition should be compulsory in primary schools."

Some will regard this as so foolish that it amounts, inadvertently or not, to sheer mischief-making. The Maori economy is already worth $40 billion, some of it undoubtedly bestowed, courtesy of now impoverished taxpayers, for claims which were arguably fraudulent. Many of these should have been tested in court - but then Chris Finlayson, without whom the wily Ngai Tahu might very probably never have achieved their third full and final settlement (it had already previously been rejected by a Maori Affairs Select committee, and challenged at the time as "a swindle", on the actual evidence) . But a clever-clogs of a lawyer can do wonders - and the tribes have known to go to Finlayson - who was never even voted into Parliament !! - when it has seemed a smart idea to bypass the courts in to deal with this so very sympathetic minister.

What on earth has happened to this country? What has happened to democracy? And why aren't enough New Zealanders publicly protesting - ? heaven knows they are fed up...And someone needs to tell Bolger that the modern-day Maori langauge is simply a nonsense. Approximately 90% of it is not Maori at all - and is not a question of gradual assimilation of English.

Scores of thousands of made-up Maori words have been inflicted on the unfortunate children in te reo - and our equally unfortunate teachers, right throughout our schools - obliged to gabble a few token pseudo-Maori phrases to demonstrate so-called " cultural sensitivity.."or they are out of a job.

This is essentially fascist. And this country has been bullied for too long. This newly invented "Maori "has absolutely no relevance to the lives of most of us. But the big question here is- Why on earth did you bother to interview Jim Bolger? - thankfully well and truly yesterday's man , in spite of the legacy of damage his government left.

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The worst PM in my lifetime. Muldoon had the purpose of allowing Rogernomics. Bolger was and continues to disappoint with his endless desire to require people to approve of him.

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At least we got the employment contracts act from his government. With key and English, we had the best opportunity ever to reduce the bloat in government that Helen Clarke introduced, but instead our government is bigger, we are taxed more, we are more regulated than we have been since Muldoon and we even have the government setting wages for an industry. In short, The current government is the most left wing and regressive one we have had since Muldoon was in office.

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Well said, all the current pay equity deals relate to state funded employee activity, the remaining locus of collective bargaining. It's clientalism paid by govt with taxpayers money.Now Michael Woodhouse is trying to head them off at the pass to protect the private sector. Will he be too late or will Judith step forward and take Bill out?

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I believe that honor can only be bestowed on Mrs Shipley

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Shouldn't we judge the PM by the government they lead and policies they implement (policy before personality). Even with Winston working as Boldger's sidekick, that government was better than what we have now. I think Boldger should be proud of his governments first budget which done tenfold more good for the country than 9 years of government under John and Bill.

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Nonsense. Jenny Shipley tried magnificentluy rather like former Wellington mayor kerry prentergast. Shipley did a great deal to extend the pleasure leisure society throughout New Zealand. Courtenay Place type cafe bar zones were developed in all the provincIcial cities during Shipleys term, places like Invercargill, Timaru, Wanganui, Hastings saw almost no development during the days of Douglas and Bolger. The draconian restrictions on the financing of university places imposed by Richardson were removed by Shipley. TVNZ journalist Linda Clark always sneered at Shipley, "apparently most of the public couldn't afford $4 for a Latte in 1999 and Shipleys moves were hated by the remaining traditional National supporting farmers in SCanterbury. Like kirk and Lange , Shipley lacked something in personal presentation and defintitely needed a personal trainer and tummy tuck in 1999. I remember hearing Jenny speaking in 1999- I was shocked- she was so staunch, telling locals your noting getting any assistance fo that type, look after yourself, but she looked like a 35 year mother with four childrren in tawa in a cheap dress, massively overweight. But like Kerry she had real vision which has been wasted. Wellington sho be a shinning, boutique city for the beautfiul and daszlingof the world, with the bars open all night, good looking staff etc. Now down the golden mile their taking out the icon trolley buses which most British cities would die for , really because they no longer want to pay for a high skill intelligent workforce of technicians and electricians and would rather employ failed 18 year old army trainees to drive diesels, letting the worse failed truck driver s lose on the Wadestown - rosneath bus route is the sort of class warfare that thrrilled recent mayor Celia Wade Brown. Having the bars open 24 hours was a great breakthrough but now were back under puritan control to protect the ordinary men from corruption and of course the bars and cafes are now largely staffed by locals who are judgemental and unprofessional and a putoff for Americans and Europeanist. I ahve always found the Hummingbird staff the most keen to refuse to serve anyone disliked by the ordinary Wellington proles like me.

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Failed to continue and finish the work of Roger Douglas Richard Prebble and David Caygill. Wimped out and set the country back. And where have all the Treaty Settlements gone. Not to help the majority of Maori but into the back pockets of the Maori elites and the lawyers.
Yes Maori will be yet again for 'full and final" settlements because their so called Leaders have failed them yet again.

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As Jim heads into the wilderness his rose tinted glasses are taking on a darker tinge where his history of office is becoming blurred. Its a bit like the club rugby player who played his best games in his 50's, 20 years after he retired.

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I think Bolger's legacy will be less about his being an effective self-effacing PM as it is about a farmer who produced some of the best spuds in the district -- and wasn't shy about letting everyone know.

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Since neo-liberalism was introduced the world has seen the biggest ever reduction in worldwide poverty, with the very real likelihood that it will be entirely eradicated within the next 20 years. And he thinks that neoliberalism has failed?

I would love to see what he thinks that succeeding would look like!

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Have you actually kept up with what's going on in the USA and the situation younger Americans are in compared to their parents?

You have older generations who benefited from more socialistic policies and were able to gain capital and accumulate wealth now citing neoliberalism as how they were able to do that, while younger impoverished Americans actually growing up under neoliberalism are the first generation in recent history to be worse off than their parents - in many cases, much worse off.

Current policies seem to be increasing inequality and filtering capital into fewer and fewer hands. How quickly people forget the last hundred years of history. There wouldn't be this accumulated wealth for many if they hadn't been given access to capital through efforts of previous generations.

It once again seems to be people born at the right time to benefit from first socialism, then later capitalism, who erroneously credit their entire lot to 'neoliberalism'.

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Yes, some rich countries are dealing with increasing inequality, which many see are as a result of some neo-liberal policies. However, quite frankly, I don't really care about poor people in rich countries as they are supremely rich by world standards (the USA's bottom 5% are richer than India's top 5%, for example). To be honest I don't think that inequality in rich countries is increasing too dramatically in the long-run, and the minor increases are predominantly due to corporatism as mismeasurement.

I would also very be very interested in the "worse off than their parents" stats for the younger Americans. My guess is that any of these stats would fall foul of "Worstall's fallacy" by comparing between generations before all of the stuff that is done to fix the problems (so US benefits used to be cashed based and were included in cash incomes for income stats; now they are, mostly, non-cash and so aren't ... any comparison that goes "when Gen X was 20 their income was $X, now poor Millennial is 20 their income is less" needs to include non-cash benefits to be a true comparison).

What neoliberalism has done is dramatically reduce the number of absolute poor in the world and start them on the path to become rich. In my mind we should be doing everything in our power to get rid of abject poverty across the world by continuing what we have done for the last 30 years, and indeed increasing it (getting rid of all trade barriers and duties would make more of a difference to the poor than any charity could ever hope to do). Once we no longer have people scratching out a living on less than a PPP adjusted $2 a day, then we should start really dealing with any excesses caused by neoliberalism.

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We were all poor when we were young mate. Perhaps the difference is that most of us got married in our early 20's, settled down got a mortgage early, ate at home, didn't go overseas for holidays - basically didn't live the hand to mouth consumer based lifestyle until our mid 30's which is more commonly the case today

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After I originally commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added-
checkbox and from now on every time a comment
is added I recieve four emails with the same comment.
Perhaps there is an easy method you are able to remove me from
that service? Many thanks!
fotbollströjor

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The man's arrogance is matched only by his ineffectiveness.
It was, and still is, only ever about him.

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in the past I thought Bolger was marginally cleverer than Moore, but I would have to reverse the opinion. This interview shows just how much of a lightweight Jim Bolger is. Bolgers plea for racial tolerance is rather late in the day, given during his political days, Bolger always presented himself as the number one fan of Colin Meads. Alex Veysey's biography of Colin Meads ,' Pinetree', gives scope for Meads fairly racist paternalist views on King Country Maoris and on the issue in South Africa. During the mid 1970s Meads was very active as a guest speaker at clubs etc promoting Springboks tours and his racist paternalist views. Muldoon and later Bolger rode to power on this sort of thing. So its a bit late.
In terms of the failure of neoliberalism, my view is the Treasury , Roger Kerr reforms were essentially intended to downsize the government and public transport to the scale a small farm based economy could afford. They were inherently destructive in part by intention.
In terms of rail privatisation in 1993. At that time many disputed whether New Zeaalnd needed a railway system even for Auckland and Wellington commuters. As now, the freight traffic on the NIMT and SIMT was too light to really justify a railway. Privatisation was what the rail management seemed to want as it gave more chance to preserve the railway in the medium term and to put it bluntly Fay and Richwhite were something of enthusiasts in this area, and were somewhat conned, that Kiwi rail was a complex system which could not really be scaled down - where a more informed view would probably have confined operations to a one route NIMT either via Taranaki or a diesel operated Ohakune route, the Tauranga and Kinleith routes and the South Island the Picton and Buller lines and Chrsitchurch-Dunedin, reducing the operated routes to 2000km and demanded the government pay a s 20 million subsidy for long distance passenger services which would party have been used to pay for 40 new carriages similar to the current Northern Explorer design.

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