‘Our op­por­tu­nity comes with eco­nomic suc­cess’

De­spite the un­ex­pected twists in the plot, Bill English is still ex­pect­ing a happy end­ing to the saga that is Elec­tion 2017.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Clare de Lore

De­spite the un­ex­pected twists in the plot, Bill English is still ex­pect­ing a happy end­ing to the saga that is Elec­tion 2017.

If any­one knows what it’s like to feel the po­lit­i­cal sands shift­ing, it’s Bill English. In 2002, he led the Na­tional Party to its worst-ever elec­tion re­sult, with just over 20% of the vote. In re­cent years, he has seen suc­ces­sive Labour Party lead­ers go through sim­i­lar soul- and con­fi­dence-sap­ping times, most re­cently An­drew Lit­tle, dur­ing whose ten­ure the party sank to a 25% poll rat­ing. Now, Jacinda Ardern’s pro­mo­tion to the party lead­er­ship seems to have given Labour a real shot at elec­toral suc­cess.

Where English scores highly is in the au­then­tic­ity stakes – what you see is what you get. English pro­motes the “safe pair of hands” mes­sage. As much as pol­icy, lead­er­ship will sway some crit­i­cal votes in this elec­tion. English’s record of achieve­ment is of an as­tute Min­is­ter of Fi­nance and the driver of so­cial-in­vest­ment pol­icy, de­signed to fur­ther the wel­fare of chil­dren.

South­land-born and from a fam­ily of 10 chil­dren, English lives with his wife, Mary, in Welling­ton. Their six suc­cess­ful adult chil­dren are in var­i­ous parts of the world, but English places a pri­or­ity on keep­ing in touch with them. He gained a com­merce de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Otago and an arts hon­ours de­gree in English lit­er­a­ture from Vic­to­ria, and he worked at the Trea­sury be­fore en­ter­ing pol­i­tics.

If and when you have time to read th­ese days, what’s on the bed­side ta­ble?

I’m fin­ish­ing a book called An­gle of Re­pose by Wal­lace Steg­ner. It’s fic­tion – set in the Amer­i­can Mid­west. I’ve re­ally en­joyed it; it’s beau­ti­fully writ­ten – that is what mat­ters to me most – and the way it is con­structed is also in­ter­est­ing. It uses real let­ters from the writer’s grand­mother and then the writer fic­tion­alises in be­tween. They are great sto­ries. That is enough for me. I don’t get too in­tel­lec­tual about it.

Do you have a favourite po­lit­i­cal book?

For po­lit­i­cal junkies, the best books I have ever read are Robert Caro’s about Lyn­don Baines John­son – The Years of Lyn­don John­son. He has ded­i­cated his life to th­ese books, but he’s sick now, so per­haps he won’t fin­ish [the fifth and fi­nal vol­ume]. It’s the vivid de­tail that politi­cians cer­tainly recog­nise, and LBJ’s story is pretty amaz­ing. He ended up pass­ing the Civil Rights Act in the US. If you don’t read th­ese books, you can’t un­der­stand how that hap­pened.

LBJ was a pretty ruth­less politi­cian, wasn’t he?

Yes, ruth­less and un­pre­dictable.

And an ac­ci­den­tal pres­i­dent …

That’s right, and he used the op­por­tu­nity pretty well.

Do you iden­tify with any of his story?

It is quite a dif­fer­ent world in the US, but what I like about his story is that he de­vel­oped a sense of pur­pose and got out and achieved a few things. Our op­por­tu­nity comes with sus­tained eco­nomic suc­cess. We are in one of the longer pe­ri­ods of sus­tained growth of in­comes and jobs that New Zealand has seen for years and a lot of things that peo­ple wanted to hap­pen from chang­ing New Zealand are hap­pen­ing. It is a big mo­ti­va­tion to cam­paign for a coun­try where we can make the best of that op­por­tu­nity.

“We are in one of the longer pe­ri­ods of sus­tained growth of in­comes and jobs that NZ has seen for years.”

Given the path you took at uni­ver­sity, am I right to as­sume you’re a life­long reader and good lit­er­a­ture mat­ters?

Of ne­ces­sity I read a lot of non-fic­tion, so I am choosy about the fic­tion I read. I en­joy good sto­ries, and a lot of those are cap­tured in good books, but they can be cap­tured in other ways. On Satur­day night, I went and watched the New Zealand ver­sion of Ib­sen’s A Doll’s House, at Circa The­atre.

And your ver­dict?

I would rather have watched the tra­di­tional ver­sion, be­cause the con­tem­po­rary Kiwi ver­sion was a bit dis­turb­ing.

In what way?

The Kiwi-bloke avoid­ance strate­gies: “Keep it happy, don’t say too much, work hard, hope all goes well.”

Sounds like a good prin­ci­ple, at least for an elec­tion cam­paign …

This was more about re­la­tion­ships than pol­i­tics.

Isn’t pol­i­tics all about re­la­tion­ships?

Yes, that’s true, re­la­tion­ships with the peo­ple.

And be­tween par­ties and other lead­ers?

Yes, but I al­ways feel de­fen­sive when peo­ple com­pare pol­i­tics to House of Cards, be­cause it is not like that … Pol­i­tics is like a good story – it is im­por­tant not to get too dis­tracted. I don’t like au­thors who get too dis­tracted. I like di­rec­tion in a story.

How do feel about cen­tral char­ac­ters be­ing sud­denly killed off – that is very Game of Thrones, isn’t it?

[Laughs.] It is all part of the drama and it is im­por­tant to stay calm.

So with Win­ston Peters’ cam­paign against you re­gard­ing your text mes­sages and the Todd Bar­clay af­fair, is there more to come? Has he got any­thing on you you wouldn’t care to see out in pub­lic?

I am not wor­ried.

Po­lit­i­cal sci­ence is a pop­u­lar uni­ver­sity sub­ject. Do you think the prac­tice of pol­i­tics can be trans­lated into words or a sub­ject and learnt?

Peo­ple can learn the struc­ture of power and many do. They are fas­ci­nated by it. But I think each politi­cian ap­proaches pol­i­tics in a way that is unique to them and it is hard to ex­plain that.

What’s your ap­proach?

I like a clear sense of pur­pose, whether in gov­ern­ment or op­po­si­tion. By that I mean clear that each day is adding up to achiev­ing some­thing in par­tic­u­lar and un­der­stand­ing what the is­sues or trade­offs or per­cep­tions are, be­cause when you un­der­stand them, you can ex­plain them. When you can ex­plain, you can mount your own ar­gu­ment, and that is per­sua­sive.

Every three years – if I think of Auck­land and its trans­port woes, for ex­am­ple – we’re sud­denly awash in politi­cians try­ing to be help­ful and per­sua­sive …

Well, it has been awash in con­struc­tion for years now, and come a cam­paign, ev­ery­one does fo­cus. The pub­lic en­cour­age the mak­ing of plans, be­cause they start to fo­cus on politi­cians for a brief pe­riod be­fore the elec­tion. And that is good to know; peo­ple want to know what they are buy­ing.

But with MMP, they never can be quite sure of that, can they?

That’s right, but they can make sure.

By vot­ing in a first-past-the-post way?

Just by be­ing clear who they are vot­ing for and why. Gen­er­ally not try­ing to be too tricky by try­ing to vote for one thing to get another.

Jacinda Ardern has come out of the blocks pretty strongly – what’s your im­pres­sion of how she’s do­ing?

She’s a com­pe­tent politi­cian and will need to pass the test of whether the new lead­er­ship means any dif­fer­ent poli­cies or ideas about New Zealand and what a Labour Party would do if it was in charge. With the res­ig­na­tion of Me­tiria Turei and el­e­va­tion of Ardern, how much are you hav­ing to ad­just Na­tional’s cam­paign? Our fo­cus is on get­ting our sup­port high enough to form a good gov­ern­ment af­ter Septem­ber 23. So although things have changed on the left, they haven’t changed that much for us. We need to get a few more per­cent­age points, and there will be pe­ri­ods in the cam­paign where it drops back and you have to lift it up again. We have a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on lift­ing our sup­port, and the changes on the left are hav­ing the ef­fect of gal­vanis­ing our sup­port base whereas a few weeks ago they may have been a bit com­pla­cent. As front­man of this ef­fort to get a fourth term, what pres­sures are you un­der? The days have been fairly long since I be­came Prime Min­is­ter. In a cam­paign, you need to make sure you are fresh and well slept every day, so we will prob­a­bly shorten them a bit. But I have re­ally en­joyed it. I don’t feel in­tense pres­sure. This is a Gov­ern­ment that has a team that is used to op­er­at­ing to­gether and has ways of do­ing things that have been suc­cess­ful. So we have the chal­lenge of fo­cus­ing on that pretty strongly to win an elec­tion. I have done cam­paigns where things have been much less or­gan­ised; this is miles bet­ter. We’ve got the re­sources, good de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses and a pub­lic who are gen­er­ally quite pos­i­tive about the Gov­ern­ment, so that re­duces a lot of pres­sures that could be there.

The changes on the left are hav­ing the ef­fect of gal­vanis­ing our sup­port base whereas a few weeks ago they may have been a bit com­pla­cent.

Are there peo­ple in your ear sug­gest­ing you do things dif­fer­ently – say­ing walk, talk, or dress dif­fer­ently?

[Laughs.] There is al­ways ad­vice – that hasn’t changed since the day I be­came Prime Min­is­ter. But in a cam­paign, when the scru­tiny is strong, you are best to be who you are. You can’t sud­denly con­struct some­thing dif­fer­ent. Most of the ad­vice I get from the gen­eral pub­lic is along the lines of just be your­self. It makes it eas­ier to deal with pres­sures.

How else do you deal with pres­sure other than read­ing?

Ex­er­cise – at the gym if I have to, but I pre­fer to get out­side if I can. By the time I do my job and ex­er­cise, I spend time with my fam­ily ei­ther in per­son or over the phone. I en­joy that.

English in 2001, shortly be­fore he re­placed Jenny Ship­ley as leader of the Na­tional Party.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.