Having the numbers, Margaret Clark

Bolger: A View from the Top
Jim Bolger
Penguin, $44.95,
ISBN 0670 88369 7

This account of Jim Bolger’s seven years as Prime Minister has the great virtue of being written while events were still fresh in his mind. In other words, it was written between Mrs Shipley’s coup and his translation to Washington as Ambassador Bolger. In the preface gracious acknowledgment is made to Michael Wall, former chief of the Prime Ministerial press office and author of the two novels, Museum Street and Friendly Fire. One can indeed detect the hand of the experienced writer in the structure of the memoir and in some attempt at suspense.

Bolger begins with the coup. Shock, horror, dismay – though given the way leadership usually changes within parliamentary political parties, one wonders somewhat at his surprise though not his hurt. Bolger’s chief complaint – on television as well as in this book – is that “there was no explanation given why new leadership was needed. All I was told was that they had the numbers and they would use them.” This is disingenuous. Bolger is an experienced enough politician to know that having the numbers is the explanation. It was of course the way he got the leadership himself.

The book’s chapters are thematic not chronological. This makes it more readable than a spruced-up diary would have been, but it does entail frequent switchbacks, particularly to the Fourth Labour Government which seems to have cast a long shadow over the succeeding National Government which embraced and furthered almost all its reform policies. (Does anyone, by the way, know why Labour Governments always number themselves and National Governments don’t?)

You will recall that the Fourth Labour Government was ushered in by the snap election. Bolger was a long-serving and very senior minister in Sir Robert Muldoon’s cabinet and yet he is able to claim: “The real reason Rob Muldoon decided to call the snap election will now never be answered.” How strange, but a telling reminder of Muldoon’s isolation in his latter days in power.

It is I think significant that Bolger then goes on almost to applaud what happened after the snap election. He writes: “Real structural reform was needed. Muldoon didn’t have the will to front up to the scale of change required. Something had to be done and new Prime Minister David Lange gave his Finance Minister Roger Douglas carte blanche to get on and do it.” Of course Lange eventually fell out with Douglas, just as Bolger was to fall out with his reforming Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson.

A whole chapter is devoted to “The Gospel According to Ruth”. In it Bolger makes it abundantly clear that he viewed Richardson as having too much ideology. He also makes it clear that he essentially has none, though he does have ideas.

Throughout the memoir Mr Bolger comes across as a genuine New Zealand nationalist. Two aspects of this are what seem to me to be his real commitment to working through Treaty of Waitangi issues, and his republicanism. (On both of these he was courageously out of step with sections of his own party.)

The chapter on Treaty issues is perhaps the best written and most moving in the book. It begins with a powerful evocation of Parihaka and Te Whiti’s story and ends with a sincere tribute to Sir Douglas Graham’s efforts to settle Treaty claims. But in between I think Bolger makes a persuasive case for his chapter title “I Will never be a Racist”. Perhaps this is one reason why when Parliament came to farewell him after his 25 years in the House, Helen Clark’s tribute was (in his words) “generous and sincere”. And he responds in kind: “I have always found her reliable and straightforward in my dealings with her.” Perhaps a grand coalition might have worked after all.

The chapter on republicanism is calm and sane: it is anything but the rabid Irish anti-monarchism his enemies have alleged. In his view “[t]he Republic of New Zealand is the inevitable destination point of a uniquely New Zealand journey upon which we have been engaged since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.” Since the proponents of republicanism have traditionally come from the Left, it seems odd that the Labour party did not support his advocacy.

Throughout, Bolger demonstrates a surer grasp of MMP and its potentialities than many of his colleagues.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the chapter giving the inside story of the coalition negotiations. To all who are, in the American phrase, “policy wonks” this is a riveting read. In Bolger’s view the media – with the exception of Spiro Zavos – read the election wrong. Labour with 28% of party votes cast was down 6% on its 1993 showing – its smallest share since 1931 – and it lost all the Maori seats, which it had held for 60 years. By contrast, National only slipped 1% between the two elections. In view of this, Bolger argues that the media were naive to be as surprised, even outraged, as they were by Winston Peters’ choice of coalition partner.

Bolger makes it clear that running the coalition government was enough to test all his political skills and patience.  That he and Peters were able to hold it together, given their history of bitterness and mistrust, seems to me a powerful advertisement for the palliative powers of Scotch.

But, with all his political skills and knowledge, one confession puzzles me. At the heart of our constitutional conventions lie the twin doctrines of collective and ministerial responsibility. Collective responsibility means that once Cabinet has announced a decision, all ministers must support it or resign. Ministerial responsibility used to mean that every minister was responsible to Parliament for the running of his/her department and (even if not personally at fault) would take responsibility and resign if something went seriously wrong.

Cave Creek lookout platform went seriously wrong: fourteen young people died. Denis Marshall, who held the Conservation portfolio, “discussed with me immediately after the tragedy whether he was required to resign or should resign. My advice was that he was not required to resign and nor should he.” This was not good advice. Of course the Minister was not personally responsible – as proof of that he could simply have been given another portfolio – but some gesture of contrition was called for, and some sign that the notion of accountability was being honoured. As a seasoned political professional, Bolger should have had his ear closer to the grassroots.

In the final analysis, all thinking citizens should applaud and encourage any public figure who records his or her version of the events in which they have figured. This is the only way we shall develop a rich and multifaceted history. One has however to recall the rueful observation of Frederick the Great towards the end of his reign: “It is not given to be both a ruler of men and an irreproachable player on the flute.”


Margaret Clark is Professor in the Political Science Department at Victoria University of Wellington.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
Search the archive
Search by category