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Ruth Richardson (born December 13, 1950) served as New Zealand's Minister of Finance from 1990 to 1993, and is known for her strong pursuit of radical economic reforms (sometimes known as "Ruthanasia").
Richardson was born in southern Taranaki on 13 December 1950. Her family had a long history in the area, and her great-grandfather had served as MP for Patea from 1908 to 1919. Her father was active in the National Party's Patea branch. Richardson was brought up as a Roman Catholic, and after finishing primary school, was sent to Sacred Heart College, a Catholic girls' high school in Wanganui.
Richardson decided on a career in Parliament at an early age, before she even left high school. Sir Roy Jack , a National Party MP and a friend of her family, advised her to study law, which she did. Richardson gained a law degree with honours from Canterbury University. After graduating, she worked for the Department of Justice, again following Sir Roy Jack's advice. In 1975, Richardson married Andrew Wright, a colleague from the Department.
Richardson's first attempt to break into politics came when she challenged Sir Roy Jack for the National Party nomination in Rangitikei. Besides alienating her from her old mentor, she also created considerable irritation in the higher ranks of the party, which frowned on challenges to sitting MPs who sought renomination. The party was especially hostile when the challenge was made against long-serving MPs such as Sir Roy Jack. Richardson's challenge was unsuccesful.
In 1978, Richardson contested the National Party's nomination for the Tasman seat. She won the nomination, but in the 1978 election itself, she failed to defeat incumbent Labour MP Bill Rowling (who was leader of his party at the time). In 1980, she was invited to contest the nomination for Selwyn, an electorate just outside Christchurch which was held by retiring National MP Colin McLachlan. She won the nomination, and in the 1981 elections, was elected to Parliament.
Early parliamentary career
Richardson quickly distinguished herself in the National Party caucus as a supporter of free market economics, privatisation, and trade liberalisation. This contrasted considerably with the views held by National Party Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who favoured an interventionist approach based on significant overseas borrowing. Richardson's focus on financial matters was itself a cause for comment, as many female MPs (particularly in the National Party) had confined themselves to matters such as health and social welfare. Richardson entered parliament with a strong determination not to end up in those roles.
When National lost the 1984 election, Richardson became a member of the Opposition. Richardson stood out in National's caucus for her strong support of the radical economic reforms of the Labour Party's new Finance Minister, Roger Douglas. These reforms, sometimes known as "Rogernomics", involved the privatization of state assets, the removal of tariffs and subsidies, and the control of interest rates. These reforms were against the traditional policies of the left-wing Labour Party, but were also opposed by the more conservative wings of the National Party. Particularly hostile were followers of Robert Muldoon, a traditionalist conservative who opposed free market reforms as undermining state authority.
Shortly after National's electoral loss, Jim McLay replaced Muldoon as leader of the National Party, and there was a considerable rearrangement of responsibilities. People such as Bill Birch and George Gair, who McLay associated with the Muldoon era, were demoted. They were replaced by newer MPs, such as Richardson and Simon Upton, who McLay believed would help revitalize the party. This move proved fatal to McLay personally, however, as the sacked Birch and Gair allied themselves with McLay's rival, Jim Bolger. Bolger ousted McLay and became party leader.
The change in leadership was damaging for Richardson, as Bolger (and many of his allies) strongly disliked her. This dislike was due to three main factors: anger at McLay's "favouritism" towards her, dislike of her radical economic policies, and dislike of her personality (which many colleagues found "abrasive" and "condescending"). When George Gair (elevated for his role in Bolger's rise to power) retired from the position of deputy leader, Richardson stepped forward for the position. Bolger, however, made it clear that he strongly opposed Richardson's candidacy, instead throwing his support behind Don McKinnon. McKinnon defeated Richardson and became deputy leader.
Bolger did, however, make Richardson the party's spokesperson on finance. This was an attempt to pacify Richardson and her supporters, rather than an expression of confidence in her - it was well known that Bolger himself preferred the more cautious Bill Birch for the finance role. The move to defuse tension was only partially successful, and hostility between supporters of Bolger and supporters of Richardson remained. Many National politicians believed that Richardson sought to replace Bolger as leader, but even if Bolger was vulnerable, the two factions that opposed him (one led by Richardson and the other led by Winston Peters) were unwilling to cooperate. Bolger's leadership remained secure, and when his popularity rose, the window of opportunity was lost.
Minister of Finance
When National came to power in the 1990 elections, Richardson had enough support within the party to be made Minister of Finance, a role Bolger would rather have given to Bill Birch. Many people, having been told by National that the new government would adopt more cautious, conservative policies than the radical Labour government, were disapointed when Richardson continued the policies established by Douglas. As a result of the policies, Richardson became one of the most disliked politicians in the country. Her first Budget, which introduced severe cuts to social welfare, compounded this unpopularity.
Although National gained reelection in the 1993 elections, many people within the party believed that Richardson's presence was damaging to them. In addition, Bolger and his allies had still not been reconciled with her. Richardson lost her role as Minister of Finance, being relegated to the backbenches. She was replaced by Bill Birch, Bolger's original preference.
Ruth Richardson left parliament the following year, although continued to be involved in politics through her advocacy of the ACT New Zealand party. ACT, established by Roger Douglas and his allies, promotes policies very close to those of Richardson, and in late 2003, it was reported that ACT was attempting to convince her to stand as one of their candidates in the 2005 elections. She has also a number of roles related to business and corporate governance, and served on a number of corporate boards.
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