Tales from the trenches: How Bill English reacted in a tricky moment

by Joanne Black / 12 December, 2016
Bill English and John Key. Photo/David White

For MPs, the price of having their work as well as their lives under relentless scrutiny is a high one. 

Even as Prime Minister John Key was still answering questions at the press conference at which he announced his resignation, it was interesting to hear that the “Come on, what’s the real reason?” questions were already being asked. The media has made cynics of us all and in my time as a journalist, I have contributed to not just questioning politicians’ veracity – which is the media’s job – but also to belittling and mocking them. It becomes corrosive to the extent that the public now does not even want politicians in politics, which is an impossible ask. Politicians have contributed in no small way to the disillusion, but I think Key and Bill English – whom I covered as a reporter, then went “over the wall” to work for – have scraped back a little lost ground.

For me, working in the Beehive was a great privilege. But for MPs and ministers, the price of having their work as well as their lives under relentless scrutiny is a high one. A trivial mistake can be a headline. I was always anxious. When I look back on working for English and assisting Key’s office from to time, it is not the satisfaction of getting the share offers completed or even getting back to surplus just after I left that are memorable.

I remember such things as the winter my elder daughter had a lengthy bout of illness and the morning I was at work when Key walked in. I asked what I could do for him. “Nothing,” he said. “I’ve come to see how your daughter is ­getting on.” His neighbour’s daughter had the same ­illness. We talked for 10 minutes until, knowing his schedule was always booked within an inch of his sanity, I said, “You’d better go.” He looked at his watch. “Oh,” he said, “there are people due in my office. They won’t mind waiting,” and we talked on.

When he emerged, his office had been ringing around the Beehive, desperately seeking him. I said, “Sorry, I’ve made you late.” “Well,” he said, “some things are more important than others,” and he scooted off.

On my worst day in the ­Beehive, I inadvertently emailed a sensitive document to someone outside the building with the same name as the intended recipient, who worked for another minister. The person who received it behaved honourably and nothing came of it, and the next day it became public anyway, as intended.

But I will never forget my ­torment when I realised there was ­nothing I could do that could fix my error. That was the only occasion I have ever deliberately banged my head against something – my desk, in this case. (It hurt, and it didn’t bring back the email. I do not recommend it.)

Key’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, came in to work out what to do. I went to Bill’s office and waited for a meeting to end so I could tell him what I’d done. He listened, looked down at his papers and said, “Bugger.”

Although my actions must have disappointed him, he did not raise an eyebrow, much less his voice. You need to be more than just a decent person to succeed in politics.

A minister and a Prime Minister who were not only politically on top of their game, but also believed in public service and were calm and humane in that high-stakes environment, inspired great staff loyalty. I’m sorry to see the team breaking up, but can only think that Key must have woken up smiling every day this week.

This article was first published in the December 17, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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