If Bill English was a stockmarket it would be an understatement to say the sentiment around him is bullish.
Entering the election campaign’s final week, he and National sense an unlikely lead-wobble-then-come-from-behind win next Saturday.
Asked if he was a betting man what he would say five days out, English was all: “Aw, we’re going to win.” Asked if that meant win more than Labour or win a majority, his humility extended to only: “Well, we’ll certainly win more than Labour.”
National’s polls have them slightly ahead. Their instincts tell them they’ve ducked a Jacindamania bullet in this campaign.
English is so upbeat that with his wife Mary late on Sunday at the Croatian Society Hall in Te Atatu, Auckland, he told a fervently supportive crowd: “My hope is to get enough votes that on Monday the 25th of September I hope everyone [in his government] is back at work because everyone knows what’s happening.”
“I’ve gone through the list of all the things we’ve announced, and guys, we have a lot to do, an awful lot to do.”
He told his deputy Paula Bennett, who introduced him, he was looking forward to election night’s vote count. “There will be that special moment about 7.30 or 8 pm, Paula, when all the early votes that have been made are counted and they suddenly appear and basically whatever that number is is what it is going to be. And I’m really looking forward to that.”
In an off-the-cuff, informal pep talk the crowd of supporters, he revealed: “Up until a week ago – maybe four or five days ago, we were really to having to push hard to get people to listen. But it started shifting when people started to understand the choices that they needed to make once the stardust settled and people had to reflect. It is not about some kind of celebrity race. It’s about what is to happen in New Zealand in the next few years.”
Asked as he left the hall what his gut told him with five days campaigning to go, the Prime Minister looked pumped up. “My gut tells me that as people are looking at the choice, if they’re unsure, they are opting for National.
“I’m in intense interaction with the public every day and they’ve become much more positive and assertive about their support for National.”
He didn’t take the bait over whether a record All Blacks win against the Springboks on Saturday night tilted things the way of the incumbents. “Look, if the public are in a good mood and they want further success, then maybe they might but I’m not too much into the superstition about sports and politics.”
But English was clearly buoyed by another day on the hustings. It was two malls, a market and the social club.
At the malls, the 2017 campaign theme of crowds, selfies and snail pace progress continued. His underlings were at his side as progress stalled. MP Melissa Lee brought him a takeaway coffee with Bill written on the side. He sipped, handed it back. She, in turn, handed it to the lower ranked list MP Parmjeet Parmar. Wife Mary brought him patient young fans through the throng to have photos with.
English reckoned the public reaction was different from a couple of weeks ago.
“That whole vibe has changed. Now they are coming up to us saying: ‘You have our support’. Even just two or three weeks ago they were standing back a bit. I could see it when they would come in. Now they have turned. They want the photos.”
He revealed the introduction of some of his six children into this campaign was a result of their comments on what had been happening. “We’ve not had them involved in campaigns before but they were giving me so much advice I said ‘I’ll just get you to do it yourselves.’ And they’ve been a big help to me as well.”
English said a social media video on his life and his family had been an unlikely hit. “You never know what is going to have an impact on people. About half a million people have looked at it – isn’t that amazing?” A humility gene kicked in and he added: “I think that’s because Mary’s in it.”
Interestingly, at his first stop of the day at the La Cigale French market in Parnell, a customer told him the video of him and his son on Father’s Day had impressed her. Kiri Prentice, of Tauranga, who was in Auckland for the Matilda show, said she’d also liked the way the two leaders respected each other in the debates.
The National leader is not the natural charmer that John Key was or Jacinda Ardern is. But with teenagers and children his PhD in fatherhood means he gives nothing away to the charismatics. He comes in close, can do the authentic Polynesian handshake and sets the kids at ease. At Botany mall, that fatherhood instinct kicked in and he leaned down and tied two young boys’ shoelaces for them. He told another under-20 year-old who repeated ‘Good luck, good luck, I hope you get across the line” and pledged a vote, “Get some of your mates to vote for us as well.”
Meeting a young Asian woman at St Lukes who told him she’d voted National already, he said: “Great. Get some more. Is this your Mum? Can your Mum vote for us?” Unfortunately not, the woman responded. She was not a resident.
Say what you like about National’s campaign – screechingly bad television advertisements, big and embarrassing over-reach by its campaign chair Steven Joyce on Labour’s numbers, peculiarly naff social media posts, a dog-whistle here and a crackdown there – English himself has exceeded expectations.
His three debates have been creditably close. In this writer’s view he won the two TV debates narrowly and might have dipped out before the crowd at Stuff’s Christchurch event. He has loosened up and lightened up on the hustings. The weekend wear of open neck shirt, tweed blazer, Italian ‘Canali’ jeans and RM Williams boots works for him. His stump speeches have always been best when unscripted and he’s backed himself. He smiles warmly, greets people genuinely and does not grimace off camera about the endless selfies, the inane interactions of the malls.
And the messaging has been basic, politically arguable of course, but simplistic. “People understand that the alternative is a bunch of failed policies from the past. Just because they have a young leader, doesn’t change things. They did not work.”
He claims National is five or six years into building roads, bridges, better schools and expanded health services. “We can keep doing that for 10 years.”
So upbeat is the National leader, and possibly so over-confident, he latched onto a young man wearing a woolen hat bearing the word: ‘Undefeated” and made him join him for a photograph.
The 2002 debacle, when English as opposition leader took National to 21 percent on election day, obviously doesn’t count. Maybe, in English’s mind, it is undefeated as Prime Minister. That legacy is on the line in five days.