• Can Bill English Manage the Transition?

    The emergence of Bill English as National party leader and therefore as Prime Minister was in some ways almost a non-event – it did of course produce an important and clear-cut outcome, but the contest was over before it began.

    From the moment that Bill English was endorsed by John Key, it would have been a major surprise if he had not prevailed, and the absence of any real sense of contest was compounded by the surprising thinness of the field that he had to overcome.

    Challenges from Judith Collins and Jonathan Coleman were never going to have him quaking in his shoes – and hardly spoke volumes for the talent allegedly to be found on National’s front bench.  Judith Collins had really no claim to be considered, having surely disqualified herself from high office by her unsavoury connections with dirty politics and Cameron Slater, and her inability to separate her ministerial responsibilities from her husband’s business interests in China.

    Jonathan Coleman has proved himself a decently competent Minister, but his problem in pitching himself as the party leader can be seen from the fact that the only time he has hit the headlines concerned a fight he got into at a function hosted by British-American Tobacco, when he blew cigar smoke into the face of another guest, and refused to desist.

    So, the hot favourite won going away.  That, however, was the easy bit.  Bill English now has to jump higher hurdles, including winning a general election – and that is a hurdle he has fallen at in the past.

    He can fairly claim to be the architect of much of National’s policy platform, but selling it to the public is now his responsibility and can no longer be contracted out to his predecessor, who – unlike him – had the advantage of being a born salesman.  There is an eerily close parallel between his predicament and that of the former UK politician, Gordon Brown.

    Brown was handed the premiership, after a long wait, when Tony Blair – who is variously reckoned to have been either a brilliantly persuasive communicator or a ham actor and con man – was persuaded to remove himself from the scene.

    Brown was a dour Scot, not given to levity and small talk.  The contrast with Blair was all too apparent.  His advisers told him that he must smile more – with the result that often, in the middle of a television interview on some humourless topic, he would suddenly remember to smile and, at the most inopportune moment, break into a kind of rictus, baring his teeth in an alarming way and appearing almost manic.

    Bill English is not, of course, similarly afflicted, but he does not have John Key’s easy manner, and – when he remembers to smile – he can often look as though he is enjoying a private joke at the expense of his interlocutors, perhaps because he knows he is cleverer than they are and knows things they don’t.

    But his problems are not just presentational.  He, more than anyone else, has been associated with, and has claimed the credit for, giving priority to “the deficit’ – not the country’s deficit (the one that really matters) but the government’s.

    Cutting the deficit matters, especially to policy wonks, but a price has been paid for the cuts – particularly by ordinary people who have found that their housing, health, education and living standards have suffered while the government has pocketed money that could have been spent on them.

    And he is still at it.  As we speak, he has authorised a further sale of state houses in Christchurch to absentee landlords in Australia – more money for the government’s coffers, but a further loss of government-provided housing for the badly housed and homeless.

    It was one thing to be hard-nosed as Minister of Finance, but quite another to be a hard-nosed Prime Minister.  The combination of a smiling front man and a tough number two served the last government well, but English and Joyce – two hard-nosed money men who focus more on figures than people – may not work as well.

    That leaves the Deputy’s position.  The call from the rival candidates, Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges, was for change and refreshment – a call that could be echoed to advantage by Andrew Little come election time.

    Bryan Gould

    10 December 2016


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