Jim Bolger on life, love and leadership


Fridays with Jim: Conversations about our country with Jim Bolger


The 2020 general election in New Zealand will be contested on leadership, and former three-term prime minister Jim Bolger has some weathered views on what that means.

In the adventurously chatty new book Fridays with Jim, the eldest of New Zealand’s elder statesmen talks about his early life in the aftermath of the Great Depression and growing up during the war years. This along with much else he reflects on.

The new work turns on thirty talkative hours of Bolger in conversation with David Cohen, a Wellington writer and journalist who also interviewed his subject before, during and after his time as prime minister. Bolger, who turned 85 this year, has plenty to muse on.

A self-taught son of Irish immigrants, devout Catholic, rough-hewn King Country farmer and farming lobbyist, Jim Bolger entered New Zealand political life in the 1970s. He was a flinty minister of labour under Robert Muldoon before leading the party to victory in 1990. As ambassador to Washington in the late 1990s, he helped foster warmer relations with the United States — and experienced first-hand the fallout of 9/11. In recent years he has chaired important boards and served 12 years as the chancellor of the University of Waikato.

Bolger is a progressive thinker with a sharp mind. He has grave concerns, for example, about the imbalance caused by our ageing population. Among his recommendations are raising the retirement age to 67, or means testing the pension, and imposing a capital gains tax to slow down the ever-widening wealth gap in New Zealand. He is pro-immigration and climate change is also high on his agenda. As he puts it, a vaccine will eventually be developed to control Covid-19, but there will be no vaccine to combat climate change, which requires painful policy decisions.

In Fridays with Jim, Bolger talks about the need for politicians to be bolder in protecting New Zealand’s natural resources and reducing our carbon emissions. Mostly, though, he has more personal things to say, about religion, the Irish experience, marriage and the monarchy, and how to milk a cow.

Fridays with Jim reveals a wise, clever, archetypal New Zealander who has an uncanny ability to remain in step with contemporary New Zealand. No, make that one step ahead.


David Cohen is a Wellington journalist and the author of six books. His work has been widely published in New Zealand and abroad, including articles, interviews and commentary for The Spectator, Christian Science Monitor, Guardian and RNZ.


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