3 Edwards: In Defence of Jim Bolger

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger addresses media alongside Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway. Photo by Sam Sachdeva

Political-watchers are either appalled or saluting the government’s pragmatism in appointing Jim Bolger to head their industrial relations law rewrite. But Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University says Bolger’s appointment is entirely appropriate, as the former National prime minister is probably to the left of many MPs in the new government.

The surprise appointment of former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger to head Labour’s re-write of industrial relations laws has been heralded as a strategic masterstroke – a brilliant way for Labour to blunt National’s criticisms of their reforms. It means the reforms will be less vulnerable to criticism that they are “extremist”, “socialist” or “a return to the 1970s”.

But Bolger’s appointment has also met with criticism from both the left and the right. Some on the right see it as a kind of underhand tactic utilising a disloyal former National leader. On the left, many worry that the government have made a mistake in letting such a rightwing figure control this extremely important review.

Of course, the leftwing unease is perfectly understandable. Jim Bolger led one of the most anti-union and rightwing governments that New Zealand has seen. His government’s reforms – characterised by the left as “neoliberal” – were incredibly radical. These included reform and deregulation of the welfare state and the introduction of the hated Employment Contracts Act, which played a key role in destroying the power of unions in this country.

When his appointment was announced this week, there was great consternation on Twitter. Former Alliance Cabinet Minister and Associate Minister of Labour, Laila Harre, was aghast: “Perhaps if you weren't there at the time trying to salvage a little bit of justice & fragments of collective strength from the tsunami of the Employment Contracts Act you could join in the back-slapping cleverness of the Bolger appointment. I was & I can't.”

Others worried it was a sign that the new Government had become too pragmatic and wiling to capitulate to the forces of conservatism.

And isn’t this Government supposed to be getting rid of the old white men? Ana Gilling‏ tweeted: “Is this a joke? We can't find anyone more appropriate for this task than a literal old white man who was in power in the 1990s? Bolger is 83 – let him live out his tax payer funded retirement in peace and get anyone younger and more diverse to envisage a new kind of IR for NZ!!”

In contrast, former political journalist Linda Clark was highly supportive: “Anyone who thinks Jim Bolger 2018 is a time throwback hasn’t heard him talking about his work with Tuhoe. Breaking news: people can change, grow, evolve.”

But leftwing activist Ben Rosamond ‏ possibly had the best short take – “Bolger in 1991: Almost completely destroys NZ's union movement. Bolger in 2018: Appointed by Labour Govt. to lead a working party on industrial relations. I'm reminded of Thatcher saying her greatest achievement was Tony Blair....”

His point is that when Jim Bolger has become an ally of the left, it shows the left is winning the ideological debate on economic inequality. And it’s true – Bolger has shifted significantly to the left in recent years. He was very rightwing in the 1980s and 1990s, and played a crucial part in destroying union power and the political left. But after he exited Parliament, Bolger began reconsidering the success of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, becoming especially concerned about the social results of a more raw and competitive version of capitalism.

Then, with the global financial crisis, Bolger’s conversation against free market economic reform became more complete. He has made a number of public utterances in recent years about the problems of capitalism and neoliberalism. Last year, he told Guyon Espiner in this Ninth Floor interview that neoliberal reforms: “failed to produce economic growth and what growth there has been has gone to the few at the top…that model needs to change”.

This week, too, Bolger has been pointing to exploitation of workers, saying “what is happening now is that more groups feel they have been unfairly treated; their contribution not sufficiently appreciated in the wage packet.”

An unusual move to the left

For a politician who is formerly of the right to have shifted to the left is hard for many to recognise. This is because we are used to seeing the opposite: leftwing politicians becoming more rightwing or conservative. So, Bolger is the aberration.

Of course, Bolger isn’t the only one losing faith in rightwing economics. All around the world in recent years, many other figures and institutions have shifted away from the orthodoxies of the 80s and 90s. From the IMF and World Bank through to The Economist, free markets and neoliberalism are now out of fashion. In this sense, Bolger simply personifies a substantial shift of thinking amongst political and economic elites.

So, the line from political commentators that Bolger’s appointment is some sort of clever masterstroke of strategy by the Labour Party isn’t sophisticated enough. Although there is truth in this, a portrayal of Bolger as some sort of useful patsy for Labour misses some bigger points about what Bolger represents. In reality, his appointment is a genuinely apt one, regardless of any political game-playing.

Bolger is likely to be a huge asset to the industrial relations law rewrite, in a way that tribal figures like Michael Cullen or Helen Clark probably couldn’t be. His political metamorphosis of recent years has turned him into a critical thinker who is now more open to problems of injustice and inequality than most MPs.

The fascinating story of this ex-politician should also be a reminder that so often, politicians end up doing more good once they are out of office. Bolger is simply the latest example.

People such as Geoffrey Palmer and Rodney Hide who, arguably, were awful politicians, blossomed as influential critical thinkers once they were no longer constricted and ruined by the game of politics, which often serves to debase the actions of MPs.

And if the new government needs another former rightwing politician who, like Jim Bolger, has shown more critical thinking and inclination towards social justice after leaving office, they might want to consider ex-National minister Chester Borrows. To see why, read his latest newspaper column: Learn your history, no matter how unpalatable it might be.