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Bill English's legacy

Bill English. Photo/Getty Images

Bill English is stepping down at a time of his own choosing while leading the top-polling party. Few get that option.

The political career of departing Opposition Leader Bill English has been a lesson in commitment. He was not wrong when he said, in announcing his resignation, that the highs and lows of his 27-year parliamentary career have been higher and lower than most.

He could easily have slunk away after leading National to an electoral wipeout in 2002 or when Don Brash replaced him as leader the following year. But perhaps feeding stock in winter on a Southland farm was good training for politics – doing the job you have to do, no matter the adversity.

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Ultimately, the decision to stay on saw him become finance spokesman when his Helensville colleague John Key replaced Brash as Opposition Leader in 2006. Two years later, the relationship between the pair became the foundation of a three-term government, just as the relationship between Prime Minister Helen Clark and her Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, was crucial to the success of the previous Labour Administration.

One difference was that National went into office during the turmoil of the global financial crisis and with the Government’s books forecasting never-ending deficits. Key and English set out to turn that fiscal position around. It must be to National’s chagrin that its success in doing so brought the country back to surplus just in time for the Labour-New Zealand First Government to promise to spend it all. The public will now need to see evidence that spending will result in real progress on such issues as poverty reduction and clean water.

A brief stint as a Treasury official before entering Parliament and time spent as Health Minister and Associate Education Minister gave English a nuanced grasp of public policy. He championed Māori self-reliance and became an impressive speaker of te reo. Married to Mary – of Samoan-Italian heritage – he was confident in the Pasifika community, and having been a house-husband before it was commonplace, he was attuned to the needs of young families. He is an Aucklander’s Southlander. As Finance Minister, he was ambitious for the public service, believing it capable of more than it produces, especially on behalf of those whose lives are blighted. He was convinced – perhaps naively at times – that access to the new wealth of data and information could be used to make the state’s resources fit people’s problems, rather than the other way around. He called the policy “social investment”. The concept was often hard to explain, although significantly reducing the number of children living in homes dependent on welfare is an example of its success. It was no panacea, but its best aspects are worth retaining.

The smoothness of Key’s departure and English’s accession, followed by former Opposition Leader Andrew Little’s handover to Jacinda Ardern on the other side of the House, have made clean political transitions look normal. They are not. English partially alluded to that when he said this week that the past 10 years in National had been remarkable for their cohesion. It will be a challenge for the party to continue that once both its leaders from the past decade are gone. Opposition frontbenchers Simon Bridges, Amy Adams and Judith Collins are the front runners to succeed English, but whoever is victorious will face the challenge of Prime Minister Ardern’s popularity. As Labour found in Opposition, a popular prime minister is a formidable opponent. Managing an Opposition caucus as unusually large as National’s will also require a particular blend of leadership skills.

Following English’s disappointment at not continuing as Prime Minister, despite National being the single most popular party at the last election and still ahead in the polls, his desire for a new career and more family time are genuine reasons to go. He is, like Key before him, stepping away from politics at a time of his own choosing and while leading a popular party. Few politicians get that option. Even fewer take it.

Ardern was as gracious in her comments about English’s pending departure as New Zealand First leader Winston Peters was mean-spirited. Peters’ inability to contain his bitterness suggests the coalition negotiations were a charade. His resentment towards National is deep-rooted, and since the election, the feeling is reciprocated. It is unlikely that National’s change of leader will diminish Peters’ toxicity. That is no longer Bill English’s problem.

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.