Bill English: A gambling man

by Graham Adams / 29 September, 2017

Bill English at a media conference after the election, facing questions about coalition talks with New Zealand First. Photo / Getty Images

The Prime Minister put a lot on the line to win this election — including his reputation as an honest politician — and it may cost him.

Bill English must be sweating right now — a lot. The euphoria of election night has evaporated and it’s clear from his demeanour when he is asked about how he will deal with Winston Peters that any mood of triumphalism has gone.

A few days after the giddy experience of guiding National to 46 per cent of the popular vote, English’s plight recalls the contestants in the final episode of The Block who thought they had won only to find the rules allowed another pair to swoop in late and claim the prize.

English’s references to Winston Peters are suddenly laced with the word “respect” and repeated pleas for “strong and stable government” and “moving on with what the voters expect us to do” — which are barely disguised reminders to Peters that he is obliged to side with National because it got the most votes on Saturday night.

Unfortunately, the rules say otherwise — whoever can command a majority wins. Even with 46 per cent, English has no divine right to rule and he is at risk of being punished by Peters for his hubris.

While it is widely accepted that Jacinda Ardern gambled too heavily on voters being willing to give her the authority to impose a capital gains tax, English took even bigger gambles this election and he may be the bigger loser on account of it.

He believed he could knock Peters out of the race altogether — by an aggressive campaign in Northland and an attempt to force NZ First’s vote under five per cent. National indeed succeeded in taking back the seat Peters had won in 2015 but English’s attempt to convince enough voters to “cut out the middleman” and turn the election into a simple “drag race” between National and Labour failed. Polls had showed NZ First balanced precariously on the five per cent threshold but on Saturday night the party got a comfortable 7.5.

So Peters is sitting pretty as a list MP and now English is counting the cost of his campaign to oust him. He is reduced to grovelling to a man whom, just a month ago, he lampooned in a political ad as a bumbling fool tied haplessly to Labour and the Greens, while his own followers powered past in turquoise tops. It was part of his strategy to convince voters that National could govern alone or with the usual suspects of United Future, the Maori Party and Act.

English’s nightmare now is that the raggle-taggle band of Labour, Greens and NZ First will power past him and deny him his chance of becoming the nation’s elected leader rather than only an unelected caretaker prime minister for 10 months.

It may turn out to have been very unwise to have antagonised Peters quite so much, especially given the possibility - albeit denied - that senior National politicians leaked the details of his superannuation overpayments in an attempt to knock him out of politics altogether. 

And that’s not all that English gambled in pursuit of his goal of a fourth term for National. He wanted to win so badly he was willing to put at risk his reputation as a honest man. His dissembling over the Todd Barclay debacle mid-year severely dented his reputation for probity. Then the furore over Metiria Turei’s confession of benefit fraud gave journalists reason to revisit his notorious accommodation allowance scandal in 2009 that showed he was willing to push the boundaries of what was legal far beyond what most people thought was ethical to snaffle extra taxpayer cash.

Despite these blows, he must have imagined he still had enough political capital as “Honest Bill” to risk the reputational damage of further dissembling because he waded happily into very murky waters. He repeatedly backed Steven Joyce’s outrageous assertion about an $11.7 billion “hole” in Labour’s fiscal plan and claimed Ardern would raise income taxes when in fact she was only going to cancel cuts planned for next April.

The latter won him extensive negative publicity when TV3 political editor Patrick Gower nominated the income tax gambit as the biggest lie of the campaign.

In the last days of the campaign, historian Dame Anne Salmond summed up the feelings of even those formerly inclined to think the best of him: “It was sad watching Bill English in the last leaders' debate – a fundamentally decent man lying through his teeth to try and win the election.”

The perception of English as a fundamentally decent man has probably been irrevocably damaged now. It took a few years for most people to click to the sort of politician John Key was but English is not as smooth and practised an operator as Key.

Thomas Coughlan, writing for Newsroom, recorded that research done by UMR in April 2011 showed the words most associated with Key were “charismatic, honest, personable, intelligent, leader”. By September 2016, they were “arrogant, smarmy, liar, untrustworthy, and smug”.  

English’s fall from grace will be much swifter, not least because people expect more of him as a church-going Catholic and social conservative. And that fall is already well under way.

On September 1, after the first leaders’ debate, Newsroom financial analyst Bernard Hickey was appalled by English’s denial that New Zealand was in a productivity recession but he resorted to a euphemism to condemn him. “English’s outright denial of a productivity problem in the debate was Trump-like in its brazenness and disappointing from a former Finance Minister who knows that productivity improvements are ultimately the only way New Zealanders get richer in the long run.”

By the end of the campaign, few journalists were being euphemistic and talking about “Trump-like” statements. They were openly discussing English’s falsehoods and scare-mongering  and occasionally confronting him in those terms.

Consequently, in the aftermath of the election, it’s hard to take a lot of what English says without a very large grain of salt. It is painfully obvious, for instance, that his claims to respect Winston Peters are motivated more by necessity than sincerity.

Once the result is settled, the media will return to possibly the biggest scandal of the year which blew up in the campaign’s final fortnight but was sidelined by politicking. They will want to know who exactly National’s list MP Jian Yang is. He was a member of the Communist Party and allegedly involved with China’s military intelligence but so far questions have been fobbed off as part of a smear campaign and racism.

Nevertheless, whether National is returned to office or not, journalists will want to know what English and his party knew about Yang’s background and when. And why did the SIS take an interest in him, as has been alleged?

But is anyone now going to believe what English says on the matter?



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