Jim Bolger

For other people named Jim Bolger, see Jim Bolger (disambiguation).
The Right Honourable
Jim Bolger

Jim Bolger at a foundation of KiwiRail press conference, July 2008
35th Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
2 November 1990  8 December 1997
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor-General Paul Reeves
Catherine Tizard
Michael Hardie Boys
Deputy Don McKinnon (1990–1996)
Winston Peters (1996–1997)
Preceded by Mike Moore
Succeeded by Jenny Shipley
Constituency King Country; later renamed Taranaki-King Country
25th Leader of the Opposition
In office
26 March 1986  2 November 1990
Deputy George Gair
Preceded by Jim McLay
Succeeded by Mike Moore
Personal details
Born (1935-05-31) 31 May 1935
Opunake, Taranaki, New Zealand
Political party National
Spouse(s) Joan Maureen Riddell (m. 1963–present)
Children 9
Profession Politician, businessman
Religion Roman Catholicism

James Brendan "Jim" Bolger ONZ (born 31 May 1935) was the 35th Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1990 to 1997. Bolger was elected on the promise of delivering a "Decent Society" following the previous Labour government's economic reforms, known as Rogernomics. Shortly after taking office, his government was forced to bail out the Bank of New Zealand and as a result reneged on a number of promises made during the election campaign. His term in office saw the introduction of the MMP electoral system in 1996.

Early life

Bolger was born in 1935 in Opunake in Taranaki. He was one of five children[1] born to Daniel and Cecilia (née Doyle) Bolger[2] who emigrated together from Gorey, County Wexford, Ireland in 1930. He left Opunake High School at age 15 to work on the family farm.[3]

In 1963 he married Joan Riddell, and they moved to their own sheep and beef farm in Te Kuiti two years later.[1] During this time Bolger became involved in local farmer politics. In the late 1960s he was asked to accompany the then Minister of Finance Robert Muldoon to see for himself the difficulties faced by farmers in the area. As Bolger travelled around the district, he became experienced with Muldoon's adversarial style.[1]

Political career

Member of Parliament

Parliament of New Zealand
Years Term Electorate List Party
19721975 37th King Country National
19751978 38th King Country National
19781981 39th King Country National
19811984 40th King Country National
19841987 41st King Country National
19871990 42nd King Country National
19901993 43rd King Country National
19931996 44th King Country National
19961998 45th Taranaki-King Country 1 National

Bolger entered politics in 1972 as the New Zealand National Party Member of Parliament for King Country, a newly created electorate in the rural western portion of North Island. This electorate is traditional National territory, and Bolger won easily. He represented this electorate, renamed Taranaki-King Country in 1996, until his retirement in 1998. In 1975 he was made a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, first as New Zealand's Minister of Fisheries and Associate Minister of Agriculture (1977), later as Minister of Labour following the 1978 election.[4]

After the defeat of National at the 1984 general elections, Bolger and deputy leader Jim McLay challenged Muldoon for the leadership of the party. McLay succeeded and named Bolger as deputy leader (and hence Deputy Leader of the Opposition). However, in 1986 Bolger successfully challenged McLay's leadership. Following an unsuccessful election in 1987, National under Bolger capitalised on anger at the Labour government's neoliberal reforms (Rogernomics) to win the biggest majority government in New Zealand history in 1990. As a result, Bolger became Prime Minister at the age of 55.[5]

Prime Minister

Three days after being sworn in as Prime Minister, Bolger's government needed to bail out the Bank of New Zealand, then the largest bank in the country. The cost of the bail out was $380 million, but after rewriting its budget, the government needed to borrow $740 million.[6] This had an immediate impact on Bolger's direction in government, with the first budget of his premiership being dubbed the "Mother of All Budgets".[7]

Economic policy

During the campaign, Bolger had criticised the Labour government's reform package, claiming it was damaging the country's social fabric. However, once in office Bolger's government initially continued Labour's neoliberal reforms, with Finance Minister Ruth Richardson implementing drastic cuts in public spending, known as "Ruthanasia", particularly in health and welfare. The first budget specifically reversed National's election promise to remove the tax surcharge on superannuation.[7]

Following the close 1993 general election Bolger demoted Richardson to the back benches and appointed Bill Birch, who was seen as more moderate. During Birch's tenure, spending on core areas such as health[8] and education increased. His government passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act 1994. His government also introduced the Building Act 1991, which is seen by some as the most crucial factor leading to the leaky homes crisis in the decade following its introduction.[9]

Foreign policy

Bolger's government continued the previous Labour government's anti-nuclear policy.

Electoral reform

Bolger opposed electoral reform,[5] but despite his party's opposition held a referendum on whether or not New Zealand should change from the British-style electoral system of 'first past the post' to one of proportional representation. In 1992, New Zealanders voted to change to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. This was confirmed in a binding referendum held at the same time as the 1993 general election, which National won. Bolger had originally proposed a return to a bicameral system, with a Senate elected by Single Transferable Vote,[5] but this proposal was dropped in the face of support for electoral reform.

National identity and republic

Bolger's government passed the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992. During the 1994 Address-in-Reply debate, Bolger argued in favour of a New Zealand republic. Bolger denied that his views related to his Irish heritage.[10]

Proposals to end the status of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the country's highest court of appeal failed to gain parliamentary sanction; however Helen Clark's Fifth Labour Government replaced the right of appeal in 2003 when it set up the Supreme Court of New Zealand. Bolger's government ended the awarding of British honours in 1996, introducing a New Zealand Honours System. At a conference on the "Bolger years" in 2007, Bolger recalled speaking to the Queen about the issue of New Zealand becoming a republic: "I have more than once spoken with Her Majesty about my view that New Zealand would at some point elect its own Head of State, we discussed the matter in a most sensible way and she was in no way surprised or alarmed and neither did she cut my head off."[11]

MMP politics

In 1996 New Zealand had its first election under MMP. Bolger's government stayed in office in a caretaker role while negotiations began for a coalition government. Although National remained the largest single party, neither Bolger nor Labour leader Helen Clark could form a government on their own. The balance of power in the new House rested with New Zealand First, a party that had only been formed three years earlier. Its leader, Winston Peters, had left the National Party to form his own party, and opposed many of the free-market reforms implemented by National, and Labour before it.

Ultimately, in December, Peters decided to go into coalition with National. Bolger had to pay a very high price in order to stay in power, however. As part of a detailed coalition agreement, Peters became Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer (senior to the existing post of Finance Minister, which was retained by Birch). Although Bolger had previously sacked Peters from a National cabinet, the two initially seemed to work well together.

Treaty of Waitangi settlements

Bolger's government settled three major claims under the Treaty of Waitangi. Largely due to the work of Bolger's Minister of Justice and Treaty Negotiations, Sir Douglas Graham, the Ngāi Tahu, Waikato-Tainui and fisheries settlements were reached. However, the creation of the so-called "fiscal envelope" of $1 billion for all settlements of claims – an effective limit on what the Crown would pay out in settlements – by the Bolger government was an unpopular move with Māori.


Growing opposition to Bolger's slow pace led Transport Minister Jenny Shipley to stage a caucus room coup in 1997. Bolger was out of the country at the time, and when he returned he found that he did not have enough support in his caucus to remain as party leader and prime minister. Rather than face being voted out, he resigned on 8 December, and Shipley became New Zealand's first woman prime minister. As a concession to Bolger, he was made a junior minister in Shipley's government.

Life after politics

Bolger presides over a student's graduation at the University of Waikato.

He retired as MP for Taranaki-King Country in 1998, prompting the 1998 by-election and was subsequently appointed to the position of Ambassador to the United States. On his return to New Zealand in 2001, he was appointed Chairman of the state-owned New Zealand Post and its subsidiary Kiwibank. He also chairs Express Couriers Ltd, Trustees Executors Ltd, the Gas Industry Company Ltd, the Advisory Board of the World Agricultural Forum, St. Louis, USA, the New Zealand United States Council, and the Board of Directors of the Ian Axford Fellowships in Public Policy. Bolger was made a member of the Order of New Zealand in 1997. Bolger was elected Chancellor of the University of Waikato on 14 February 2007, succeeding John Jackman.

In April 2007 Bolger revealed at a conference that he suffers from the painful nerve disease trigeminal neuralgia, which is not life-threatening.

On 1 July 2008, almost 15 years after his National-led Government sold New Zealand Rail Ltd, the Labour-led Government repurchased its successor Toll NZ Ltd (less its Tranz Link trucking and distribution arm), having repurchased the track network in 2003. Bolger became chair of the company, renamed KiwiRail, a position he held until 1 July 2010. Some people, including Winston Peters, view this as hypocritical. In response, Bolger acknowledged his involvement in privatising New Zealand Rail, remarking that "my life is full of ironies."[12]

Bolger and his wife Joan are Roman Catholics. The couple has nine children. Bolger voted pro-life whenever the issue came up in a conscience vote. He is a member of Collegium International.[13]

Retiring politician journalist Peter Luke said that Bolger was "[t]he most under-estimated prime minister I have come across. He made up for his lack of education by having an innate ability to relate to the aspirations of ordinary Kiwis. And, as many civil servants discovered to their cost, his image of being a simple King Country farmer did not mean that he would not understand their reports and unfailingly point to the flaws in them."[14]


  1. 1 2 3 Richard Wolfe, Battlers Bluffers & Bully Boys, Random House New Zealand, ISBN 1-86941-715-1
  2. Enniscorthy Guardian (April 2006). "Craanford native, Cecilia (104) passes away in New Zealand".
  3. Michael Bassett (December 1997). "Jim Bolger biography". Retrieved 27 July 2007.
  4. "Rt Hon Jim Bolger". New Zealand Government. Retrieved 6 October 2009.
  5. 1 2 3 "NZ History online: Biographies – Jim Bolger". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 22 August 2014. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  6. Reuters (6 November 1990). "New Zealand Bank Bailout". New York Times. Retrieved 22 December 2008.
  7. 1 2 "A Summary Of Some Major Budgets From The Past". NZPA. 24 May 2009.
  8. "Health Expenditure Trends in New Zealand 1990–2001" (PDF). 2001.
  9. Rudman, Brian (18 September 2009). "Brian Rudman: Government must plug those leaks". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 6 October 2011.
  10. Jim Bolger (1998). Bolger: A view from the top – my seven years as Prime Minister. Viking. ISBN 0-670-88369-7.
  11. Maggie Tait (27 April 2007). "Bolger told Queen monarchy's time numbered". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 27 April 2007.
  12. Young, Audrey (2 July 2008). "Govt: We paid top dollar for rail". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 6 October 2011.
  13. "Members". Collegium International. Retrieved 17 May 2009.
  14. Peter Luke (14 September 2011). "Finding truth in shades of grey". The Press. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Jim Bolger.
Government offices
Preceded by
Mike Moore
Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
Jenny Shipley
Political offices
Preceded by
Jim McLay
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Mike Moore
New Zealand Parliament
New constituency Member of Parliament for King Country
Constituency abolished
Party political offices
Preceded by
Jim McLay
Leader of the National Party
Succeeded by
Jenny Shipley
Deputy Leader of the National Party
Succeeded by
George Gair
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
John Wood
Ambassador to the United States
Succeeded by
John Wood
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