Election 2017

Bill English: The Great Redeemer

Bill English proved on Saturday night that he was New Zealand's most resilient politician. Fifteen years after a crushing defeat, he bounced back to win National the right to win an unprecedented fourth term under MMP.

One of the most telling moments in the campaign was when Paddy Gower threw the curliest of questions at Bill English in the Newshub debate on September 4.

Gower asked English what was different between his leadership now and in 2002, when English led National to 21 percent, its worst election defeat ever. It was English's lowest political moment.

Just over a year after the 2002 debacle, English lost a bitter leadership contest to Don Brash. English eventually worked his way back into the leadership group with the help of John Key, who in turn succeeded Brash in 2006, and led the party before handing over to English as Prime Minister in December. 

"I got up," English said in the debate with an immediacy and a brevity that showed his confidence and comfort with his leadership now.

He revisited that moment shortly after his speech late on Saturday night to National's supporters in its Sky City headquarters. His twitter account sent out the picture above with the message: "I got back up again, thank you New Zealand."

It capped off a night of almost-complete triumph for English. (Te Ururoa Flavell's election in Waiariki and an extra 18,000 or so votes for National would have made it complete.)

Many within and outside the National thought he would struggle to capture the affection of the public at large in the way Key was able to. He was seen before the election as a somewhat stiff and wooden politician who could not translate his mastery of policy into a connection with voters at large through the television, or the endless selfie tours through shopping centres.

He surprised many with his energy and his easy and relaxed performance in the shopping centres and warehouse tea rooms on the campaign trail. English's style is different from Key's, but he carries with it the same authenticity in the eyes of voters.

Bill English talking with students in a science class at Horowhenua College. Photo by Lynn Grieveson 

English was forceful in the debates and took his opportunities to put Labour's tax policies under pressure on the trail. His decision to include and showcase his family at campaign events and in the media also helped add some warmth and texture to a public image still dominated by eight years as the conservative numbers man behind John Key. 'Mr No' turned into the slightly uncool Dad with a heart of gold and cheesily bad taste in pineapple and spaghetti pizza.

Bill English's family life is central to who he is, and he even cited it as a factor in December just before he won the National leadership. He had been asked the very same question about what was the difference between English as leader in 2002 and English in 2016.

"The circumstances are quite different than in 2002. I was 39 years old then with 6 children under 13 so, if nothing else, I have got the opportunity to focus on the job much more now than was the case then," he said.

"I had a lot of obligations and that does affect your job. I have significantly less family obligations now," he said.

He was clearly in his element on Saturday afternoon during a photo opportunity at the Pullman Hotel after a morning of sleeping in and on holiday with his wife Mary and their six children.

That ease in talking to kids and people on the campaign trail became more and more evident the longer it went on. Some had questioned his skills as as retail politician, but his comments over the last week that he had enjoyed the campaign and felt energised rung true, whereas for others it might have seemed trite and formulaic.

Bill was just determined and unflappable over the course of the five weeks. Great energy

Steven Joyce

Bill English meeting voters in the Queensgate Shopping Mall in Lower Hutt during the campaign. Photo by Lynn Grieveson.

His campaign manager, Steven Joyce, may also have wondered too whether English could campaign like his predecessor. He noticed English's mood building too.

"I think he probably campaigned better than he expected, even," Joyce said yesterday.

"We all know him to be a better campaigner than a lot of other people do, because we see him around the cabinet table and all those sorts of things. So we had a chance to show the public a lot of what they haven’t seen previously," he said.

"But he really fed off it, probably, more than he expected. He’s been a great candidate. You know as somebody that’s run five campaigns. John was great, but Bill was just determined and unflappable over the course of the five weeks. Great energy."

English explaining his social investment policy to senior students at Horowhenua College. Photo by Lynn Grieveson 

However, it was English's willingness to confront head-on the issues of child poverty, homelessness and spreading the fruits of economic growth that lifted National's campaign onto another plane that John Key would have struggled to pull off.

English has been on a type of permanent campaign trail over the last four years pushing his big idea of social investment to business leaders, social groups and the bureaucracies in Wellington. His arguments about using big data to target spending at the most vulnerable to lift multiple generations out of poverty resonates across the political spectrum. His below-the-radar campaign as Finance Minister suddenly seemed new and interesting once it was presented to audiences of over a million in the debates. It meant he could appear energised and in possession of a big new idea to confront Ardern's fresh, compassionate and 'relentlessly positive' appeal to voters.

English's social investment idea seems at once to be compassionate without being profligate. The financial logic of using an actuarial approach to the lifetime costs of poverty to justify big up-front social investment appears flawless. It also seems intuitive to many that improving the lives of young poor kids would reduce the long term costs to the health, education, justice and welfare. English's social investment approach allowed him to promote social spending to a conservative set of voters who would otherwise baulk at spending money on other people who had appeared (to them) to have failed to live responsible lives.

That English's idea remains mostly still a theory with some early stuttering attempts at building a larger set of programmes was forgiven by many of the swinging voters who might not have cut Key the same slack.

I heard time and again on the campaign trail from voters who were concerned about the problems of child poverty and homelessness, but who said they believed Bill English when he said he would turn it around. His decision in that Newshub debate with Gower to unveil his target of reducing child poverty by 100,000 by 2020 after years of refusing to set a target was a key moment.

It blunted one of Ardern's key points of attack and presented him as the compassionate conservative that he is.

English is the only politician on the National side with the mana and EQ who could realistically have made that appeal. Not Paula Bennett. Not Joyce. Not Nikki Kaye or Amy Adams (yet). Not Jonathan Coleman and definitely not Judith Collins.

English's campaign was not perfect. He blotted his copybook by following Joyce down the non-existent $11.7 billion fiscal black hole, lending his credibility to an attack that should have limited to tough questions about Labour's spending plans outside of education and health. Instead, Joyce barrelled on and English felt obliged to follow him.

English listens to questions from journalists on a visit to a Levin market garden. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Can he turn victory into history?

If he confirms the fourth term, English also faces his own questions about his own ability to confront and deal with poor behaviour in his own cabinet. He let a few things slide, including: Murray McCully going rogue on Israel, Brownlee stuffing up his lines on Israel, Coleman's management of  his ministry, Bennett's gaffe on human rights for gang members, Todd Barclay generally and Alfred Ngaro's threats to community groups on housing. One trait of John Key he will need to adopt is the ability to sniff the public mood and then ruthlessly and quickly dump either the policy or the person creating the smell.

After this election result, English now has that unparalleled authority within National's caucus to be as ruthless as Key and not cause dissension on the back-benches. His first cabinet choice will demonstrate how confident he is in using that new power to carry out the promises he made to the public, particularly on the issues of child poverty, homelessness and social investment.

In a New Zealand way, English's story is just as potent as John Howard's long journey to the top, back to the bottom and up to the top again in Australia. While it is not quite Churchillian, no other politician in the modern era of New Zealand politicians has shown such grit and been able to recondition himself into a successful leader after failing so spectacularly early in his career. How he uses that new platform will determine how he is viewed in the longer sweep of our political history.

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