Scoop Review of Books

MMP’s Reluctant Midwife

The Bolger Years: 1990-1997, edited by Margaret Clark
Dunmore Publishing. $38. Review by ALISON McCULLOCH

1877399337.jpgIf there’s one thing from the Bolger years that the Nats seem to hate almost as much as Winston Peters, it’s MMP, and it was the Nats who created them both. MMP, which was ushered in on Jim Bolger’s watch, was “a tragedy of errors” and “our big institutional mistake,” says Ruth Richardson, National’s Mother of all Finance Ministers; it creates “distortions” in the political process, argues Geoff Thompson, a former MP and Party president; and, worst of all, it is precisely what allows people like Winston Peters to survive, at least in the opinion of Bill Birch, a former National cabinet minister.

Maybe so, but for many of us, MMP (and perhaps even Winston when he’s being particularly engaging) is among the least of the National Party’s sins. Think back, if you can, to Richardson’s “Mother of all Budgets” (“Welfare state in tatters,” said one headline), and its precursor, the mini-budget of all mini-budgets. Those were the days of benefit cuts, superannuation surtax flip-flops, state house sales and rent rises, user-pays health care, union eviscerations and so much more. Reading some of the two-dozen contributors to “The Bolger Years: 1990-1997,” the latest in a series of political conferences-turned-books edited by Margaret Clark, you realize the only regret the wreakers of all that havoc have is that they didn’t get to wreak more of it.

Richardson’s essay, which is more about herself than it is about Bolger, is laced with “I-told-you-so’s”, “if only’s” and chilling Power Point slogans, like “Gold standard policy” delivering “gold standard benefits”. Besides pointing to the national tragedy of not getting to continue with those gold standard policies (when Bolger replaced her in 1993, Richardson “spat the dummy,” as Birch delightfully puts it, refusing to accept any senior portfolio and ending up back on the back bench), the former finance minister singles out our current electoral system for special excoriation: “MMP, as we have discovered to our cost, swings the pendulum so far in favour of the ‘representative’ part of the equation that it has crippled the ‘government’ part.” Did she really just say there’s too much ‘representative’ in our representative democracy? It’s hard not to enjoy the fact that those who were the most fanatical about reforming us against our will are the most apoplectic about our having reformed them against theirs.


Brockie’s cartoons illustrate The Bolger Years

This also suggests we should beware of National Party leaders bearing promises of MMP referendums. Some in the party still want it gone, and all those nasty excesses of representation gone with it. As Thompson puts it, Bolger’s promise of a referendum was the antithesis of “the conservative pragmatism of having an electoral system that more often than not delivered a National victory without winning a majority of the popular vote.”

Richardson’s rhetoric, as well as being remarkably self-serving, has something of an American smell to it, with its “commitment to the benefits of liberty,” of being “free to work,” of letting “freedom drive our agenda”. It’s curious that we Kiwis, the very same people who will apparently choose to strive and succeed if only cut loose from the stifling fetters of the state, must at the same time be dragged kicking and screaming to our own liberation. In the end, Richardson leaves the reader feeling like a chastened child who would have been rewarded with that nice bag of lollies if only she had kept on taking her medicine.

Jenny Shipley’s contribution is less intense, a sort of Richardson with the volume turned down. Shipley also opposed MMP but she doesn’t “believe there is any purpose in railing against it today.” And like Richardson, she wishes the 1990-93 reforms could have continued. “That Ruth was not reappointed as Finance Minister,” she writes, “was a huge personal disappointment to me.” Of course, Shipley can’t be quite as hard on the post-Richardson years as her old friend because she ran the show for a couple of them. She does say she was grateful to Bolger for the chances he gave her “as a relatively young woman and new to politics,” chances she repaid him for handsomely in 1997 by toppling him in a leadership coup. Not much more is said on that here, instead she takes the chance to plug a possible memoir – “I will write the detail of this at some stage in the future.”

The cries from the “dries” of “unfinished business” provide the eternally convenient explanation for why, after everything we went through under Douglas then Richardson, we’re still a labour camp for Australia instead of the Liechtenstein of the South Pacific. Colin James doesn’t go so far as to wish more of Ruth’s market medicine had been forced down our throats, but he takes the now orthodox line that it was mostly to the good. “Overall, her policies, added to those of Sir Roger Douglas and the fourth Labour Government, generated a big improvement in productivity growth, which is now accepted generally as the only sure eventual route to a high-wage economy.” Yet a few paragraphs later, James is obliged to point out that all those “economic gains” also spawned “an increase in inequality” in which “large numbers had their standard and quality of living indecently reduced.” As the finance and mortgage industry meltdowns in the United States are showing us once again, the market is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, except when it isn’t.

The contributions of other Bolger Years veterans are variable. The journalists and former journalists (among them James, Jane Clifton and Dick Griffin) know what it means to write something people can read, though Clifton goes a bit wild with the Narnia-Tolkien analogies (understandable – those years did seem to be filled with strange, ugly creatures from other worlds). And Griffin, who left Radio New Zealand to become Bolger’s chief press secretary after the 1993 election, nicely answers Richardson’s whining about the MMP referendum: “Presumably the other option would have been to deny the public the right to have a say in how they wanted to be governed.”

On the other hand, the essays from the policy and public service people – like Howard Fancy and Graham Scott from Treasury, and Richard Nottage, the former Secretary of Foreign Affairs – are quite simply gruelling. “The head of government of any country, large or small, must be well informed on a daily basis on international affairs, and on the country’s primary foreign policy and economic/trade interests,” writes Nottage; “A series of Strategic Result Areas (SRAs) and Key Result Areas (KRAs) emerged from these processes that were used to drive and inform departmental priorities and focus,” say Fancy and Scott. No more, please.

As for Bolger’s former political colleagues, each tends to offer a different take on roughly the same Big Issues – the BNZ bailout, MMP, Richardson, the coup, leadership style, themselves – some more nimbly than others. Doug Kidd’s stream-of-consciousness contribution jumps frenetically from topic to topic, winding up on this odd note: “Of all the dramatic long-term troubling policy failures I see,” he writes, the “failure to tend the forest estate of New Zealand may well become one of the most serious failures of the current government.” The argument that trees are the Major Issue Facing the Country, which is surely unique to Kidd, wakes the reader up just in time for Philip Burdon’s wonderfully narcotic contribution on his time as Minister of Trade and Commerce. Still, who among us could turn GATT, the Uruguay Round, the Cairns Group and APEC summits into a ripping yarn?

One thing Bolger is consistently praised for in this book is the effort he made toward settling Maori grievances. Chris Finlayson, a former litigator involved with the Ngai Tahu claim and now a National MP, does a creditable job of trying to make sense of that claim in fewer than 20 pages – conclusion: it’s very, very complicated. And Bolger himself seems proud of what he achieved, though is perhaps a little optimistic in his assertion that “New Zealand is now at peace with this aspect of resolving history.”

For all their white-knuckle policies and wild-eyed radicals though, The Bolger Years simply just don’t have the pizzazz of The Lange-Palmer-Moore Months or the shock-horror value of The Muldoon Eternity. “He was nicknamed ‘Spud’ and spuds are as boring as a vegetable can be,” Colin James writes of Bolger. “But I grew to respect him.” The Bolger Years, too, tends toward the root-vegetable end of the spectrum. But I grew to respect it.


Alison McCulloch has contributed reviews to The New York Times and other publications. She was a press gallery reporter in the late 1980s