The Spud that blossomed into a banker

Tom Scott once famously said that King Country was the sort of seat a gumboot could run for National and would win. Well, the gumboot in that seat got to be seven years Prime Minister, an able Ambassador in Washington and now New Zealand Post chair. What next?

Jim Bolger turned out no gumboot. A slow burner, perhaps. But this tortoise has plugged on past a lot of hares. The outsider became the ultimate insider.

This week he sneaked up behind a flashy couple who thought they had seen the last of him. Jenny Shipley and Bill English, his juniors by 20 years and more, were all polite platitudes through gritted teeth in public but National is privately vowing to nail him with every failing unearthed at Post and its bank.

Their message: Jim’s done his chips with yeomen National stock. In bed with the enemy. Worse, in bed with an enemy which is punching high in the polls and won’t let National off the canvass. They see — and they are not entirely wrong — the “bog Irish” in Mr Bolger taking the opportunity for a spot of machiavellian pleasure. After all, Mrs Shipley did dump him pretty unceremoniously back in 1997.

But it was Mrs Shipley who pensioned him off to Washington. Helen Clark spotted an opening for some magnanimous grandstanding and left him in the post — then ladled on the treacle by pronouncing him to be doing a fine job.

This week Mr Bolger returned the compliment. He comes home as elder statesman, with the confidence of the Prime Minister of another party; she gets to preen herself as prime ministerial, supra-party — and gets credence for the other Jim’s bank. It took her, the story goes, “all of 12 seconds” to endorse Ross Armstrong audacious suggestion of him for bank chair and then herself add the Post chair to succeed Dr Armstrong.

But isn’t this would-be elder statesman actually climbing down the ladder? Not the way he tells it. In his narrative he is continuing a longstanding mission: building communities.

Before politics he lived in small rural communities, the Taranaki battler and King Country farmer. “I come from the position that strong, involved communities are an essential component of a strong civil society,” he says.

The corollary of that, is: “If you are concerned about communities, you have got to do something.” Post operates in the communities. Adding a bank will add services to those communities. Post can uniquely aggregate the services.

He makes it sound a seamless transition: farming to politics to foreign affairs to business. But actually, he has no banking expertise and his business experience is confined to farming.

To his legion of critics inside and outside his party this is a sign of, in the words of one, a lack of “the untroubled humility that a truly great leader would have had, faced with his inadequacies. He has always been ultimately fearful and therefore dismissive of those whose intelligence or life chances had equipped them better for modern policy debates.”

Some of his critics read into this a sort of inverted inferiority complex stemming from his not getting a degree while at Lincoln College, which left a big chip on his shoulder. He once threw a pen at Sir Geoffrey Palmer across the parliamentary Chamber when he felt slighted by the lofty intellectual’s presumed superiority.

This was the era of Spud, from the backblocks. We all had our little laughs at his tongue-tied mispronunciations and his mannerisms.

In fact, Spud disappeared early in his prime ministership. Mr Bolger was soon being assessed by his supposedly intellectual superiors in the senior public service as not just shrewd but capable of disentangling complex issues that defied fleeter ministerial minds.

“He is genuinely quite bright. He mastered briefs well and knew how to ask the right questions,” a former minister in his cabinet says. “And he also knew intuitively not look for the obvious answers.”

That quality should equip him to pick his way through the troubles that now beset the people’s bank and Post’s foreign arm. He may not know much about banking but he knows a very great deal about politics and managing meetings.

He was a chair-of-the-board sort of Prime Minister, the first of that ilk since Sir Keith Holyoake, who managed an unruly, bright bunch of senior ministers into a coherent whole.

That meant for the first two years Jim Bolger was Ruth Richardson’s captive. But a year and a-half further on he had seen her off. When he took on the coalition from hell at the end of 1996 with Winston Peters, he made as good a fist of it as could have been made. It is a reasonable bet he would have kept it together longer than Mrs Shipley did.

And the “community” jag is real, though as Prime Minister he couldn’t quite phrase it convincingly. His “decent society” of his early years foundered on budget and superannuation cuts and broken promises. In the twilight of his prime ministership he tried “social capital” which offered a glimmer of possibility he might whisk the centre away from a resurgent Labour — and he referred to it in his acceptance speech. But he failed to capitalise on it.

Now is his chance for redemption. The backblocks boy comes back from the world’s most powerful capital to reconnect the backblocks.

He says globalisation, while supported “intellectually” by most people, has also led them — and here he doesn’t mean just the diehard anti-free-traders — to “feel they are losing control of their lives. Emotionally they want to belong to something they are in control of,” he says.

“They have to be responded to, have it demonstrated to them that they are important.” Post fits that.

Is that enough? He swears it is.

But he won’t say no to other commercial directorships. His high-level connections might well ensure that. (His critics ask: wouldn’t he have been offered them by now?)

And he will take whatever opportunities he gets to push a hobby-horse, the constitution. Last year he took time out from Washington to deliver an impressive keynote speech at a constitutional conference in Wellington.

He and Ms Clark are republicans. She is careful not to get too far ahead of public opinion. He can set out to lead public opinion.

And the timing might just turn out bang on. If Kim Beazley wins the Australian election later this year, Australia will vote again on a republic. The likely “yes” to that vote will raise the issue here, might nudge us towards a vote of our own and the tide might then take the country out of apathy on the issue to a yes vote, too.

If so, the only presidency saleable to this democratic people would be an elective presidency. Jim Bolger, now 66 and in rude health that shames those 10 years younger, would be around 70 then.

He says he isn’t thinking of that possibility. But who knows?