Feature

Keeping faith in politics
Nostalgia is a false path to the future, former New Zealand PM Jim Bolger tells Greg Daly
Jim Bolger and his wife, Joan.

Courage, for former New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger, is crucial if people of faith want to bring their distinct outlooks and gifts to politics. 

Currently Chancellor of the University of Waikato just outside Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, the 82-year-old son of Irish immigrants, in Dublin with his wife Joan who he married in 1963 and with whom he has nine children, says he recently shared similar advice with students when conferring them with their degrees. 

“I gave broadly a simple message to the students: that when they go out into the world, they should be prepared to speak out and stand up for that which is right, and equally be prepared to stand up and speak out against that which is wrong, and say ‘no’ – to be prepared to say ‘no’ as well as to say ‘yes’,” he says, continuing, “and that requires taking a personal responsibility.”

This, he says, can be hard to do. “The temptation of most people is to leave it for someone else to stand up and say ‘no’ or say ‘yes’ as the case may be, and I was encouraging these young graduates to be prepared to have the courage to say no to what’s wrong and yes to what’s right.”

Admitting that “that sounds terribly, terribly simple”, he continues, “In my experience, very few people like to take leadership on controversial issues. One of the challenges for Christians, and for people of faith and good will, whatever religious persuasion they may be part of, is to do that. It really gets down to something as simple as that. 

Policies

“Of course,” he adds, “you need detailed policies, but the basic requirements are to support the right approach with the right philosophical approach and be prepared to say no to the reverse.”

In particular he says that nowadays the big challenge can be to “be prepared to say no to xenophobic populism, which is very common around the world, which is based on ‘I am superior and those aren’t’”.

Twenty years after finishing his third term as the country’s head of government, onetime cattle- and sheep-farmer Mr Bolger tells The Irish Catholic he’s been in Dublin for a meeting of former world leaders who hope to be able to inform today’s discussions. 

“The InterAction Council was set up about 30 years ago by – at that stage – three or four very senior retired presidents and prime ministers, like Helmut Schmidt of Germany and Takeo Fukuda of Japan,” he says, “and the idea was to draw on the experience of former leaders and to see what conclusions they might reach and produce what document they might deem appropriate on a given topic.”

Explaining how the document is circulated to current governments, he says: “It’s designed to both analyse and discuss the issues of the moment, reach some conclusions, and feed those decisions into the decision-making process,” but wryly adds, “how much attention is paid is, I’d imagine, an open question.”

Two issues predictably loomed large in this year’s discussion. 

“These last two days in Dublin were dominated by the implications of the Trump election in the United States and the Brexit vote in Britain, and everything sort of came back to that but in a much more positive way than might be presumed,” he says. “We spent a lot of time looking at the circumstances in society that created the backlash that created the Brexit vote and the Trump election – and there were others who weren’t elected, Le Pen in France and so forth, where there were similar movements but what I might describe as the mainstream were successful in being elected.”

Believing it crucial to understand what underpinned these and other large votes against accepted political structures, he says that over the last 30 to 40 years what might somewhat simplistically be termed neoliberal economic policies have thrived throughout the world. 

“And what those policies have done on analysis – wherever in the world – is produce slow economic growth, and what increase in wealth there has been has overwhelmingly gone to a small percentage at the top,” he observes, adding, “so that has enabled a big catchment of frustrated, disappointed, angry voters who intuitively and understandably vote against the status quo.”

Even Emmanuel Macron’s triumph in France, perhaps most naturally read as a rejection of far right Marine Le Pen, fits this model, Mr Bolger says, pointing to how Macron is a young man who has been elected president without having an established political party behind him. 

“The other thing that’s happening in the western democracies is a steep decline in participation in elections, so people don’t feel that their views matter anymore,” he continues, “I think one of the great challenges for today’s politicians is to establish the new paradigm where the average voter believes that their views matter, and therefore is going to vote. It’s very hard to talk about democracy if most don’t participate.”

On the other hand, he says, current developments could broaden and improve politics: “The good news, if the world is smart enough, is that by going to the extremes in political decisions, you open up a very fertile ground in the middle – for leaders with the capacity to seize it – to produce a better result.”

During the conference, then, he thought the former leaders could be of most help to their successors by concentrating less on President Trump and the minutiae of Brexit and more on the issues that gave rise to them. 

“What we have we have: Brexit will happen and Trump is elected,” he says, “so what produced this sort of aberration from the normal?”

At heart, he says, both issues come down to nostalgia for a real or imagined past. 

“We’ve got aberrations, we’ve got minority groups holding sway in some countries, and most of that’s due to frustration and anger that politics as usual has not produced an outcome for an average voter that they were seeking. And that goes across what I call the left/right/centre pendulum,” he says.

“It’s termed a move to the right, but I think that really what we’re seeing is the politics of nostalgia,” he continues, musing, “I think very strongly about the Brexit vote that it’s a terrible irony that the British, who had the largest empire and ruled the world from London, found it extraordinarily difficult to have some decisions made in Brussels, just across the water, a few minutes away. So, this turning inwards, picking up on nostalgic – even if totally inaccurate – history and basing political decisions on it, is what’s driven a lot of this turmoil in world politics at the moment.”

Agreeing that the Brexit vote was a bad answer to understandable questions, but says: “I think it is a bad answer, just as I think Trump’s a bad answer to whatever problems America has, but we must concentrate on why people chose the bad answer. And that is going to require a much more honest assessment of what the policies of the last number of years have created.”

The roots of these bad answers lie, he thinks, in two key areas. 

“One of them is of inequality, that the few have got vast wealth and the rest are getting damn all, and the other this nostalgic view that we are a special group in the world, and foreigners, who are normally called ‘immigrants’, somehow diminish that specialness,” he says, adding, “yet in the same breath we will talk about the glories of technology which totally integrate the world. So there’s a contradiction there, but it only has the ability to capture people when they feel unhappy.”

The challenge, then, is to address the question of nostalgia and accept the reality of the movement of people, he says, stressing that “that it is going to happen both in terms of migration in the normal sense of the word and also migration in the tragic sense of refugees looking for a home”.

Social dilemma

Describing the refugee crisis as “the great social dilemma for the world”, he says of the world’s over 60 million refugees, “there have been some brave decisions – Angela Merkel said they were welcome, and Canada’s got a very bold and outward-looking refugee policy – but many countries are very inward-looking.”

These refugees are fleeing all manner of wars with different causes – he notes the argument that a serious drought in Syria provoked the early stages of the civil war that’s ravaged the country since 2011 – and says: “But whatever caused the turmoil, the turmoil has produced a large number of lonely, lost citizens of the world, and many countries in Biblical terms are putting up a sign and saying there’s no room at the inn. 

“So in many ways there’s a substantial Christian message – I can’t speak of the other main religions – of extending the hand of welcome to those who are hurt.”

A lifelong Catholic, it’s clear that Mr Bolger’s Faith provides an invaluable optic for considering such dilemmas. “And going back to the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan,” he continues, “you can put it in Christian terms: which leaders are the Good Samaritans, which countries are offering refuge to those who need our help? Who are putting up ‘there’s no room in the inn’ and who are saying ‘welcome’? That, I think, is going to be one of the defining issues of the next five years, just looking at the world.”

While such social issues were addressed at greater length by the council than were economic ones, he says the former leaders did consider how economic policy could be changed to produce more equitable results. 

“One of the common denominators identified by many now – and this is by senior economists – is that after the Great Depression of the 1930s, a new economic model was introduced, but after the Great Crash, which some would say was bigger, of 2007-8 and onwards, there’s been virtually no change in the economic model. So we’re saying it all crashed, but nothing needs to be changed – that of course is totally illogical,” he says, predicting that “quite significant” changes are likely to emerge in the coming years. 

The coming years will also see further challenges through technological advances, he says, observing that artificial intelligence is something that’s creating a lot of uncertainty as people wonder how they fit into a world where machines have the capacity to do extraordinary things. 

“The obvious example is something like driverless cars, and things like that that that are very simple to describe, but there are factories in the world now that have no humans in them – they work 24 hours in the dark,” he says.

Commenting on the possibilities and challenges of the latest and coming technologies, he says “We are now coming out of an unsettled period of xenophobic populism and various other feelings as people feel loss, but that’s going to run snap bang into big transitions with technology and changings of jobs – and eliminating jobs.”

As replacement of people on factory production lines are followed by other jobs also being replaced, robotisation and other technological developments mean that classic economic and employment models where employees trade their labour for payments from the owners of capital cease to apply.

“So that brings up the number one question, that is: how do people have an income – what will be the method by which you have income to look after yourself and your family? And Canada and Finland – Finland’s slightly more advanced – are exploring an old concept that’s been on the backburner of a universal basic income that everyone gets and that gets adjusted down if you’ve got a job and so on,” he says, continuing: “This is starting to gain traction in a number of countries, at least in academic discussions, because the machines will create the wealth, but how do you and your family share in that wealth?”

Observing that we are in the first steps of what will be a “huge transition”, he says, “and that’s the challenge of the early part of the 21st Century.”

The advantages of these developments are obvious, he says, commenting on how he phones people all over the world at the touch of a button and how his 25-hour flight to Dublin via Dubai covered a distance that took his parents six weeks by boat when they left Wexford in 1930, he says: “That’s the world people are having to come to terms with, and it causes unease for many. That’s where you then get into the politics of nostalgia.”

While sceptical of nostalgia, Mr Bolger clearly thinks there are lessons to be taken from engaging honestly with the past, noting how in dealing with the consequences of how New Zealand was settled 200 years ago, he says “the first thing is to acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and then to in some way assist that community to adjust to today’s world, whatever might be necessary”. 

It’s not simply about assuming we have all the answers either, he notes, pointing out how at the village of Parihaka in the late 19th Century, a Maori leader called Te Whiti o Rongomai met British aggression with what was “arguably, in modern terms, the first non-violent resistance movement in the world, long before the great Mahatma Gandhi, long before Martin Luther King”.

Aside from the inspirational example of the Maori, he notes, the imperial power’s actions tell a tale too. “I think the thing to take out of that is that greed and ideologies of superiority did not just arrive on the scene with Mr Trump or any other Mr Trump,” he says, continuing, “It’s been around a long time – and Irish history will tell you that without me telling you so!”

Nostalgic politics may be fashionable, but the modern world offers much to those who want to seize it, he notes. “The reality is that in any analysis, today’s world is much better than that nostalgic past. I mean people have a much healthier lifestyle, they live much longer, they have much greater opportunity to explore and do things, they have far more knowledge and far more engagement,” he says, “so there are many issues that have to be dealt with but they shouldn’t come from the perspective that this is a disaster. It’s really how do we handle the new knowledge and create a different paradigm for the world to put it in as go forward.”

“It sounds rather straightforward when you put it like that,” he laughs, adding, “It’s a classic where the devil is in the detail. I came out of the meeting thinking there’s enough people of goodwill out there who are looking at how do we fill the vacuum that creates Brexit and President Trump with something that’s much more positive, and we’ve got three or four years to do it!”