New Zealand’s most openly republican PM, Jim Bolger presided over major electoral reform and Treaty of Waitangi settlements, and outflanked Cabinet opposition to funding the new national museum.
Bolger entered Parliament in 1972 and served as a minister under Robert Muldoon. He became leader of the opposition in 1986 and though he lost in 1987, he won handsomely three years later when the electorate rejected Labour.
Bolger was both pragmatic and principled. He kept Labour’s anti-nuclear and environmental legislation, and demoted radical Finance Minister Ruth Richardson after the 1993 election, when only voter memories of 'Rogernomics' (Labour's neo-liberal economic policies) allowed National to scrape back in. Bolger did not favour electoral reform (he wanted a new upper house), but he kept his promise of a referendum on proportional representation. That led to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.
‘The Great Helmsman’, as he was nicknamed, quickly mastered MMP, governing in coalition with New Zealand First. But growing caucus resentment of National’s coalition partner and the government’s move towards the centre gave Jenny Shipley the numbers to stage the first successful coup against a sitting PM in decades.
After leaving Parliament in 1998, Bolger was ambassador to the United States. Back home, he chaired Labour creations Kiwibank and the renationalised rail operator, which he had privatised in the 1990s. ‘My life is full of ironies’, he replied when someone questioned that philosophical flexibility.
By Gavin McLean