In only a few seconds at the start of his RNZ “Ninth Floor” interview former Prime Minister Jim Bolger has managed to infuriate some current Ministers and perplex the Ministers from his own Government.
For most of the hour-long-plus interview, Bolger defends the actions taken by his Government to deal with what he argues was a fraudulent Budget produced by Labour’s David Caygill in 1990, made worse on election weekend that year by revelations of huge financial problems at the Bank of New Zealand.
But while Bolger is defensive about his own Government he appears to leave the current National Government hanging in the air.
Bolger says that he believes that the gap between those who have and those who don’t is too big.
“That is why we are getting many revolutions around the world,” he said.
“The world has sat silent as they have pursued what’s called neo-liberal economic policies and in fact, they have failed and have failed to produce growth and what economic growth they have produced has gone to the few at the top.”
It’s a complex debate.
The author and researcher on poverty in New Zealand Max Rashbrooke argues that inequality of income may have been relatively flat in the last few years, but inequality of wealth probably hasn’t.
Bolger’s former Ministers are perplexed by his argument.
His Energy and Defence Minister, Max Bradford, a former Treasury economist and supporter of the former Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson and her neo-liberal approach notes that the basic economic structure that National put in place was not overturned by the subsequent Labour Government.
(That’s a view shared by the left-wing economist, Brian Easton)
And the Cabinet’s leading “wet”, Philip Burdon, believes that the Bolger Government actually managed to stop Richardson and her neo-liberal supporters from going as far as they wanted to with policy.
“I think in fairness to Bolger he is referring to contemporary New Zealand society which is 20 years later,” said Burdon.
““I think he was passing judgement on what he sees as an increasingly unequal society in New Zealand.
“He would presumably justify his own management on the basis that he managed the economy at a time and place in a way that was relevant and necessary.
“But it has now been allowed to continue to a point where we have a seriously unequal society — which is the way I interpret what I have only seen he said.”
Bradford says that nothing of substance has changed in terms of the reforms that the Government he was in put in place.
“I take the view that had the reforms that were put in place in the 1980s and 90s not been put in place, New Zealand would be in a much worse shape than we are now.
“Anybody who says they were a failure is misreading history, to say the least.”
Though Burdon and Bradford were on opposite sides of the debate that raged within Bolger’s caucus in the early 90s, both agree that Ruth Richardson was in many ways her own worst enemy.
She failed to win over caucus support, and she tried to take her policies too far.
Again, both former Ministers agree that Bolger was left chairing a divided caucus though Burdon says the Cabinet was less divided and more supportive of Richardson than the caucus as a whole.
“if you accept that the first duty of leadership is to preserve your leadership then clearly he read the tea leaves very carefully.
“In the early stages (of the Government) the ideological right was clearly in the ascendant, but there then began a fairly careful roo back which was assisted by what I might call Richardson’s lack of charm.”
The irony about Bolger’s comments in the RNZ interview are that they will not exactly be welcomed by the new Prime Minister, Bill English, yet Bolger sees English as someone like himself whose values are founded on Catholic compassion.
And there is surely a further irony in that the Key Government has been a far more centrist and far less ideological Government than Bolger’s own.
It was also a factor in Bolger’s own leadership that he was was able to accommodate and promote a wide range of strongly held opinions within his Caucus.
Perhaps only now, 20 years later, are we finding out what he himself really believed.