Bill English is leaving on his own terms as a popular politician with a passion for investing to lift people out of poverty. But his vision was only partly achieved. His bigger legacy was successfully managing the economy through the GFC, writes Bernard Hickey.

It’s only now I can feel I can tell this story safely of a night in 2009 when Bill English quietly dripped tears onto a lectern in front of an audience of ACT-supporting Aucklanders as he explained why he got into politics. His speech that night about his rural upbringing and his Samoan in-laws was quietly electrifying and changed my view of him, as I’m sure it did for many in that audience.

Back in 2009 I was a grizzled economics journalist with low expectations of New Zealand’s current crop of politicians. I grew up during the amazing era of Robert Muldoon vs David Lange in the 1980s when politicians were larger than life and the ‘vision thing’ was even bigger. There was cut and thrust in the debates and the oratory flew as high and as wide as the economic reforms enacted by ‘we won, you lost, eat that’ Governments that dominated Parliament with a minority of the vote. But by 2009, MMP appeared to have rolled the verve and style and vision out of politics. Politicians were centre-hugging pragmatists who looked down on ‘the vision thing’ and sought to stay one step behind their median voters. Fair enough. MMP achieved its aim of making Government more representative and reducing the wild swings in policy, but it also stripped some of the inspiration and big ideas out.

Helen Clark and John Key were seen as clever political managers able to maintain party discipline and keep their parties close to the mainstream, and preferably just behind public opinion. Their role was to hold together a coalition as much as to enact reforms. You never got a strong sense, particularly with Key, that they were conviction politicians who wanted to transform the country. Neither could give a speech to save themselves, but in one-on-one settings they were both charming, briefed to the eyeballs and as sharp as hell. But both were clearly political animals where the power was just as important as the policies, especially for Key. I never expected to be surprised by inspired by their ideas or turn of phrase when I listened to their speeches, although it’s also my job to be a professional sceptic rather than a believer, so that’s not too shocking.

One of English’s strengths – but also one of his biggest weaknesses – is he cannot fudge or tell a lie to save himself.

Back before that night in 2009, my view of English was set from a long distance. I saw him as a fiscal and social conservative who had failed as an Opposition leader, but was a capable wing man for John Key. The Southlander seemed a typical MMP politician from a provincial National Party background who would serve his time competently without changing much. Back then I wondered whether, after less than a year in Government, he would be able to give Key some strategic and moral backbone, but it was still early days.

I went to the Formosa Resort that evening expecting a technocratic speech about the economy and the Governments finances in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis. But the organisers did something interesting. They asked English to talk about what had inspired him to become a politician and what motivated him. It’s not an easy question for anyone to answer honestly in front of an audience of hundreds of voters and quite a few journalists, although the speech was off the record.

One of English’s strengths – but also one of his biggest weaknesses – is he cannot fudge or tell a lie to save himself. He tends to address questions head on and respectfully. He loves to get down into the details of the policy and the political arguments, rather than dodge and weave through a news conference to give little for an opponent to attack. As an example, his rabbit-in-the-headlights performance during the Todd Barclay affair was a political low point as Prime Minister, and he never adopted Key’s breezy and evasive style — to his credit. So when he was asked to reflect on his political motivations in 2009, he did exactly that.

I didn’t take notes, but recall how he almost immediately had the room in the palm of his hand with his personal reminiscences about his family life and his connections to both his wife Mary’s Samoan family and the personal connections National had built up with the Māori Party.

He talked of his admiration for his father-in-law’s family ethos and hard work in raising a big family in Wellington, despite the struggles of arriving with little from Samoa in an unfamiliar city. He also talked about a quiet chat he had with a kaumatua on a marae about the problems of Māori youth, and the need for strong communities with their own resources. His point was that he admired the self-reliance and quiet conservatism of family and community life. He saw his role as helping those communities and pulling Government out of the way to let them get on with it. It wasn’t an ugly or dry form of libertarian scorched-earth politics. It was a deeply humane and thoughtful approach where Government was supposed to treat people with empathy and dignity and as individuals, rather than as just another beneficiary locked into welfare for life. His views on helping to lift people out of poverty were a precursor to his championing of the social investment approach, which he was only just starting to roll out through the Government as Labour returned to power in late October.

As he spoke about his in-laws and his wife and the dignity and self-reliance of those conservative Samoan and Māori communities, he stopped for a few moments. The tears rolled down his nose and splashed onto the lecturn. You could hear a pin drop. The audience was with him though. English’s story was utterly authentic and thoughtful and showed a depth of humility and humanity that struck a chord that night. He got a standing ovation when he finished.

Since then I’ve listened to English give countless speeches off the cuff that connect with audiences of all types up and down the land. Some thought he was a dry policy wonk who would struggle on the campaign trail, but I was sure he would connect if he was able to make his case on his feet in debates and in interviews, rather than in scripted speeches. He has an intellectual heft and a thoughtful approach which distinguished him from Key and the rest of the cabinet. He also showed his moral fibre when criticising Judith Collins openly during the Dirty Politics affair. English emerged with a lot more credit from that episode than both Collins and Key.

Both a policy wonk and a retail politician

English proved to be a formidable campaigner last year who connected with millions of voters in the televised debates with his social investment ideas and his earnest and believable approach to addressing poverty. His announcement of a doubled target of child poverty reduction surprised many who might have previously seen him as a fiscal dry and policy wonk, but those who have listened closely to English over the years would not have been surprised at both his policy approach and his ability to do retail politics. He was the key driver in Key’s various measures to outflank Labour on the left with free doctor’s visits for kids, and the first real benefit increases in 30 years. He added his own flourish with last year’s ambitious budget to reduce child poverty by increasing working for family and accommodation supplements.

Bill English with Rodney Wilson, a client of  Te Tihi o Ruahine Whanau Ora Alliance in Palmerston North, during the election campaign. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

English categorised himself as a policy wonk in an exit interview he gave me on the day of his resignation, but said he was confident he would connect with the broader public when he got the chance again in last year’s election.

“You get seen or portrayed according to how you’re defined. If you’re the Minister of Finance, they’re not looking for you to do retail politics, but I’ve always done a lot of retail politics. They’re not looking for your ability to connect to a wider audience,” he said.

As a policy wonk, he cited policy wins both large and small as things he is proud of.

“One thing I’m particularly proud of is down south we managed to get the rural health services out from under the DHB 20 years ago, and they’ve been stable and non-controversial and viable,” he said, pointing to the relative failure of Queenstown’s services, which stayed in the DHB.

“That’s a lasting benefit, that stability.”

In the news conference he even pointed to his reforms of Treasury’s approach to asset management as a lasting win that had helped the Government identify and then improve dilapidated school property.

He had a good GFC

English also cites his stable and smooth partnership with Prime Minister John Key for eight of the nine years that National was in power.

“The bit I’m most pleased about was getting through that difficult period in 2009/10 in a way that gave people confidence, in particular the most vulnerable, and got us to where there was a hangover of debt — which we can manage because it’s not that large — but the kind of solutions that were put into place were accumulated into a lasting sustainable position for the Government and the economy — compared to even Australia, which is still trying to resolve things that weren’t that well managed during the GFC.”

“The key to it was the cohesion between myself and the Prime Minister.”

“Good intentions are not enough. They’re not even a start, because there’s been a lot of money wasted and lives wrecked on the basis of good intentions expressed through public services.”

English said there was never any question of slashing spending or using the crisis to shrink the size of Government, as some other conservative governments chose to do with austerity budgets during the GFC — with disastrous effects. Instead, he and Key maintained benefits and spent heavily to support the economy and the vulnerable at a time when it was needed. They were able to because they inherited a strong balance sheet, but a chaotic or mean Government could have done some real damage.

His essential conservativeness often shines through, particularly on macro-economic issues and in challenging the good intentions of public servants.

“Whatever the fashions, sound economics matter. They might be a bit boring, but if you stick to them that’s what works. People are always trying to find shortcuts and leapfrogs and I’ve seen most of them come to grief,” he said.

He said he had learned that the effects of the public sector on the economy and peoples lives were often under-estimated, and often negatively.

“Good intentions are not enough. They’re not even a start, because there’s been a lot of money wasted and lives wrecked on the basis of good intentions expressed through public services,” he said.

English made the point in his exit interview of saying he wanted to leave on good terms when his party wanted more of him, rather than less.

A good legacy

English with son Bart and wife Mary the morning after the 2017 election. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

The man from Southland who can read a literary novel as quickly as a Treasury document is a real loss to New Zealand politics at the age of 56. But he has served 27 years and deserved his choice of leaving when the public and his party wanted more. He could have chosen to leave when his own colleagues didn’t want him in 2003 after he led his party to its worst electoral defeat in history.

Instead, he kept his head down and chose to serve with both Don Brash and John Key as a senior colleague. His phlegmatic and disciplined approach eventually bore greater dividends with Key as Prime Minister. He made Key a better Prime Minister and put a moral and policy backbone into the cabinet that served National well.

Now he leaves with his reputation and popularity on a relative high. Most politicians don’t get a second chance. He took his and made his party and the country better for it, many would argue.

English had his flaws. His inability to sidestep questions weakened him as a politician on occasion, but it also served to underscore his authenticity. His judgement on some people was sometimes poor (Todd Barclay comes to mind) and his inability to be ruthless with colleagues may have cost him over the years.

But the Bill English I saw that night in 2009 was as genuine and as thoughtful a politician as I’ve seen in New Zealand, who was able to turn that decency into some policy wins and an economy that has mostly served the nation well.

Some may blame him for the housing crisis that Labour inherits, which is responsible for most of the inequality and dysfunction in New Zealand society. But English was held back by Key’s inability to think strategically on housing between 2009 and 2012, and by home-owning voters’ own reluctance to kick their habits of tax-free capital gains and restricting investment in new housing developments because it changed the environment and increased council rates.

English is retiring with dignity and can have a third act of sorts with his family and new career. Most will wish him well. I certainly do.

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