FRIDAYS WITH JIM: Conversations about our country with Jim Bolger.

AuthorEaston, Brian


Conversations about our country with Jim Bolger

Author: David Cohen

Published by: Massey University Press, Auckland, 287pp, $45.

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...

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