The most urgent task in New Zealand politics may well be that facing the National Party’s political chiropractors as they try to make Bill English seem, well, less stiff.
He’s a televisual turnoff waiting to happen – six months out from his first election as Prime Minister. And for all his personal jollity, deep competence and policy pedigree, he has a problem with an uptight posture and rat-a-tat delivery that could cost his party a critical vote or two at the ballot box.
At times, such as during an AM Show interview with Duncan Garner last Monday, he was physically locked up. Shoulders tight. Head and jaw in traction.
Very much the opposite of John Key’s ‘pretty relaxed’ demeanour on just about everything. The interview was a train wreck as the PM conceded, among other things, he didn’t read, see, or know about his tweets on the @pmbillenglish twitter account.
The tweet in question wasn’t a minor one: it was someone called @pmbillenglish saying the government won’t shy away from the hard decisions. It was subsequently deleted as the government shied away from the hard tweets.
It wasn’t just what English said but how he appeared, how he came across and how that will have been taken by the audience.
The Garner interview was acutely bad but the performances have been average across the TV spectrum. It is hard to warm to him down the TV screen.
He is in danger of making the uncompromising, peering, spectacle-free Labour leader Andrew Little of recent weeks look laid back and supple.
The way English presents on TV should be a priority for National’s finest communications minds. Ex broadcaster Bill Ralston is said to be in high demand as a presentational Svengali.
Granted, this PM is hardly likely to prioritise appearance or posture over what he says and does and that is a fair position to take.
Until National remembers that before John Key got it right, Don Brash and English managed to lose their messages in the medium. Messages and ultimately elections.
So, what to do?
English assumed office three months ago yesterday. He’s taken over a government he already co-managed. The administration seems to have kept plugging away, relatively seamlessly.
He hit a political highpoint on Waitangi Day, confidently addressing the issues for Maori and Pakeha in a future New Zealand. He took a risk last week with the things-we-may-never-see long-term changes proposed for national superannuation.
Those watching him before live crowds see a Prime Minister who, off-the-cuff or with his own handwritten notes, can be masterful in setting out the challenges and options the country faces.
They also see a PM still being finance minister, too wrapped up in details of policies. The PM who knew too much. One example was his chipping in when ministers announced initiatives like making streams and rivers swimmable by 2040.
Overall, and to no one’s surprise, English has taken the leadership handed to him by John Key and managed it.
Can you manage your way to that rarest of New Zealand electoral achievements, a fourth term in government?
Rob Muldoon failed. The combo of Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley failed. Clark failed.
There are two broad ways of looking at this election.
One is that MMP makes things tight, even in the early days of popular governments. That the public tires of the same faces after nine years, that the likely end of Peter Dunne’s United Party as a coalition partner and doubt over the Māori Party now Hone Harawira and Mana are in tow, and the likelihood Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First could have the numbers means National is toast.
The other is Bill Clinton’s winning dictum vs George HW Bush that: “It’s the economy, stupid”. In this case, it can be used by the incumbent. The economy is going relatively well. Unemployment is still around the 5 percent mark, interest rates and inflation are low, GDP is growing at an internationally enviable rate, and voters don’t kick out governments when their back pockets are safe.
If National is to benefit from that strand of thinking, Bill English is the right man to do the talking. He has managed this economy and understands the economy, stupid.
But he needs help. One of the reasons his breakfast television appearances are problematic is because English does them standing up from the Beehive theatrette, the venue for the PM’s weekly press conference. Where Key was in Auckland and dashed about in the Crown limousine from studio to studio before heading to the airport and to Wellington, English being a Wellington resident is doing it all remotely. And stiffly.
Perhaps that Sunday night in Wellington for the family roast needs to be re-thought, just for a while, just until a challenging election is won.
Ralston, or whomever is advising him on his presentation for TV, needs to loosen him up. A massage or acupuncture beforehand? Just kidding. But an awareness, after all these years and thousands of TV interviews, that how he looks and flows is as important as clipping his answers and not ceding ground to clever-clogs interviewers.
Find some better answers than he has been giving. The “wait and see” to Lisa Owen on The Nation before the superannuation announcement was unnecessarily defensive. The repetitive “we’ll let you know” to Garner the next morning was worse.
Does he entertain enough debate with his staff before he appears on screen? As a veteran, it will be hard to persuade him that what he’s always done is not enough.
What he’s always done has not, however, involved an against-the-odds fourth-term victory. All the factors mentioned above that, on the face of it, could spell doom.
Winning viewers over on TV by unleashing a relaxed, authentic and still credible Bill English won’t win such an election on its own. But if it comes down to the margins, a percentage here or there, it’s hard to see National scrambling back without it.