The decent society, John Pagani

The Bolger Years 1990-1997
Margaret Clark (ed) 
Dunmore Publishing, $37.95, 
ISBN 9781877399336

I have to confess to having taunted Margaret Clark in the past for her incuriosity. A few years ago she demanded in a newspaper answers and explanations from a political party I was working for. We sweetly packaged up a response and sent it. When she ignored the answers, we sent it again, then kept sending it over and over – hoping to make the point that facts were available, if only the desire were present to see past prejudices.

This collection of essays about the Bolger years, edited by Clark, is smothered by a similar intellectual dullness. You get the feeling contributions were selected for the author’s reputation, rather than any insight. There is no special flair in the choice of contributors, and no editorial challenge. The resulting essays are little more than a defensive recycling of the talking points from the time. So we get Sir William Birch plodding mournfully through a chronology with zingers like (of Speaker Peter Tapsell) “he carried through his responsibilities as Chairman of Parliament without bias and with considerable professional skill.” Sigh.

It is astonishing that, after a decade, the main actors can find so little to reconsider. Could anything have been different? Is there pain or even regret about the deep social scars, the massive levels of unemployment, the genuine poverty inflicted? The questions don’t appear to have occurred. One contributor after another asserts that the economic direction of the entire Bolger prime ministership was set by the need for a $600 million bail-out of the BNZ. None observes that the entire $600 million was repaid (at interest rates far above the terms for other banks). None explains adequately why superannuitants and beneficiaries had to carry a punishing share of the “cost” of the bail-out.

Most disappointing is the jargon-riddled Treasury story. When these writers say there was public debate about “whether the spending cuts in the context of a weak economy would trigger a strong Keynesian contraction thus deepening further the recessionary state of the economy”, they mean: a lot of people knew businesses would fail, people would be thrown on the scrapheap and things would actually get worse. (Did the editor fall into a coma reading their rubbish, and forget to request an English-language rewrite?) Jargon tells you someone is unsure of their arguments, worried critics will not notice intellectual incompetence. Howard Fancy and Graeme Scott assert they were “aware of the risk” but they assessed the alternative as far worse.

They were wrong.

The alternative they set out – doing nothing – was no one’s idea. Their ideas drove unemployment, already high, even higher – to 25 per cent among Maori, and up to 70 per cent among Maori in parts of the country. Fancy and Scott shamefully fiddle the figures to describe this carnage as a “success”. Between 1992 and 1997, they rave, growth was stronger, inflation was lower and unemployment fell steadily. But why start the figures from 1992? The 1991 budget inflicted much of the damage they claim to have repaired. It hardly indicates success that, having been wrecked, the economy eventually began to recover. They deepened and prolonged a recession and then have the temerity to ignore it.

I met Jim Bolger at an interview in 1987 while he was being mauled as National Party leader by a rampant David Lange. He seemed nervous, pallid, muddled. Three years later I interviewed him again, and he was commanding. His policy ideas remained jerky and full of holes, but he spoke convincingly about social damage. I thought the “decent society” was a repugnant slogan, a dog whistle to anti-homosexual activists. But I also thought it reflected Bolger’s appealing social conscience. Jim Burns claims Bolger was never taken to the public’s bosom as he might have been because of his Catholicism – a horrible claim of religious bigotry. More likely it reassured most of us that he possessed a Christian concern for others and a sense of duty towards the community.

Yet in all these memoirs one finds only traces that members of the Bolger government lose any sleep over those his government stung. There is little mention of poverty exploding. Ruth Richardson discloses that, for her, the policies of her government were all a matter of conviction – “for Jim a matter of necessity”. Richardson’s fanaticism is disappointed: “the Bolger reforms only partially met the transformation test”. Wyatt Creech, clearly still uneasy over his role in toppling Bolger, says the government when Richardson was finance minister “was not much interested in moderation – people of that persuasion were ‘wets’ in a world where being ‘wet’ … left one feeling like a holocaust denier.”

The two most lasting, shining, achievements of Bolger’s government were MMP and the Treaty settlements. Neither resulted from grand design.

The National ministers who signed the pioneering Treaty settlements seem as defensive as they are proud. Doug Graham conducts an almost interior dialogue with the “one law for all mob”. The Bolger ministers seem surprised (and mildly delighted) that, in Sir Douglas’ words, “we seem as a country to have now got the maturity to look at the past, not forget, but to put it in its place.”

Not a single voice in the government that gave us MMP thinks it was a terrific idea. Jenny Shipley rails at length about MMP’s failings, and then concludes “I don’t believe there is any point in railing against it today.” MMP was a gigantic oops, and if they could change one thing about the 1990s, Bolger’s government would certainly make it that. Which tells you everything you need to know about the tragic priorities of the Bolger years: the achievements were mistakes, and the mistakes were intentional.

You end up with an impression of a government that felt steered through the 1990s less by a Great Helmsman than by the wind and waves of economic circumstance and social change. No navigator was trimming the sails for some golden shore, at least not once Richardson’s course was repudiated. A smarter editor than Clark might have prodded further for doubts, asked questions about choices considered, pondered regrets and matched claims against the record. That record is less fabulous than the self-serving memories presented in her book allow.


John Pagani is a Waikanae reviewer.


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