Bolger, Jim (New Zealand)

Reference work entry


James Brendan Bolger, born on 31 May 1935 in Taranaki on North Island, was prime minister for 7 years from 1990. Formerly a sheep and cattle farmer, he led the National party for almost 12 years, subsequently becoming the country’s ambassador to the United States. Surprised by his extremely narrow 1993 election win, Bolger famously remarked, ‘Bugger the pollsters’.

Early Life

Bolger’s politics developed in the 1960s when he joined National and was involved in farming organizations. In 1965, he set up a sheep and cattle farm in Te Kuiti, King Country, and was elected MP for King Country in 1972, the year of a landslide Labour victory. Bolger held this seat for nine terms. Following minor roles in the ministries of Maori affairs, agriculture and fisheries, and rural finance, he was appointed a parliamentary under-secretary after National’s 1975 election win. Two years later, Bolger was named the country’s first fisheries minister, and simultaneously became associate agriculture minister. He was involved in the establishment of a 200 mile exclusive economic zone for fishing. After the 1978 election Bolger was appointed minister of immigration until 1981 and of labour until 1984. In 1980 he led an unsuccessful coup with two other ministers to replace Prime Minister Robert Muldoon with his deputy Brain Talboys. Prior to National’s electoral defeat in 1984, Bolger introduced legislation allowing weekend shopping and voluntary unionism, and served as president of the International Labour Organisation in 1983. Jim McLay, the next National leader, made Bolger his deputy in Nov. 1984. Bolger was elected leader of the opposition in March 1986. Four years later, he returned National to power with the largest parliamentary majority in New Zealand history.

Career Peak

Taking office as prime minister and minister for the security intelligence service on 2 Nov. 1990, Bolger revised the implementation of centre right fiscal policies that had led to recession and stock market crash under Labour 3 years earlier. He was appointed to the British Privy Council in the following year. Welfare benefits were cut and relations between unions and employers were deregulated. Bolger pursued an export-led economic strategy and outward-looking foreign policy, easing the country’s defence relations with the United States which had been strained by Nuclear Free legislation. Between 1992–4, New Zealand was a member of the UN Security Council, chairing the Iraq sanctions committee. Bolger also represented the country at five APEC leaders’ summits from 1993 onwards, and hosted the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in 1995. Following his dismissal of cabinet minister Winston Peters after disagreement over economic policy in 1991, Peters’ centrist New Zealand First party reduced Bolger’s support at the 1993 election. National remained in power with a majority of two, reporting 6% economic growth over the following year, and bringing the budget into surplus in 1994. By 1996 the country’s economy was the third strongest in the OECD; when Bolger took office it had been one of the weakest. 1996 also marked Bolger’s announcement of a uniquely New Zealand honours system structured around a five tier Order of Merit. The mixed member proportional representation election in 1996 led to Bolger’s formation of a coalition government with New Zealand First, followed by a drop in National’s popularity. While he attended a Commonwealth meeting in Edinburgh in 1997, a coup by Jenny Shipley provoked Bolger’s resignation and his reappointment as minister of state and associate minister of foreign affairs and trade in Dec. of that year. In the new year’s honours list he became a member of the Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest honour.

Later Life

Bolger resigned from parliament on 6 April 1998. The former prime minister became his country’s ambassador to the United States in June 1998, a position he held until 2001. Bolger also farms part time with Joan, his wife since 1965, and is a keen fisherman.

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