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The incremental radical:
Bill English meets the Spinoff

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The incremental radical: Bill English meets the Spinoff

After eight years watching John Key from the deputy’s seat, Bill English was thrust into leadership late last year. In the first in a series of election-year interviews with our political leaders, Duncan Greive goes to the ballet with the prime minister, and chews over his new job and how he plans to keep it. Photography by Adrian Malloch.

The man from Dipton moves forward with the crowd as the house lights dim and the stage lights fire. He walks with purpose toward the stage at St Matthew’s in the City, a pretty church adjacent to an ugly casino on the fringes of downtown Auckland. The prime minister reaches an impasse and cranes his neck to better take in the action: the dying swan, performed by Laura Saxon Jones. Bill English: farmer, Catholic, policy wonk; lost in wonder at the ballet.

English’s best performing political stunt of the year has been outpacing former world champion David Fagan at sheep shearing in February. Even if the result seemed staged, it was a canny reassertion of his rural bonafides. But the country boy really does enjoy the ballet – “unofficially, I go quite a lot,” he says with a smile – an affection picked up from his wife, Mary. It’s his second consecutive year attending this function, a fundraiser for the ballet foundation, and the second straight year he’s been a critical part of soliciting donations.

His contribution is a dinner date at the French Café, auctioned off while he stands awkwardly on stage like a prize bull. He goes for $12,000, which seems at once like a lot of money for dinner, and a very cheap way to get an evening with a prime minister to bend his ear about whatever you wish.

Other items up for auction include a round of golf at Tara Iti ($4,000); a glass chalice ($6,200) and weekends in Taupo ($2,000), Queenstown ($2,600) and Paris (flights on you; $5,000). It seems fair to assume that the country’s young ballet dancers will be fine.

That’s not just because wealthy fans are able to support it through events like this. As English remarks, during a short speech delivered without notes, he toured the Royal New Zealand Ballet last year, and approvingly observed its efficiency. “Not long after, there was a decision to increase funding,” he tells the room to approving murmurs, a hint of smugness on his breath. The increase was, comparatively, enormous – 23% a year, one other arts and culture organisations with still-frozen budgets can only have marveled at.

This is what we are supposed to expect of the National Party. That they will look after their own, spending on events for the creaky and wealthy of Remuera while ignoring the cultural and social needs of lower deciles. Labour, when out of power, will spend its time and energy furiously critiquing that behaviour until they win, at which point National will commence loudly decrying their opponents’ profligacy.

This is the forever-narrative of New Zealand politics, one which still stands today despite the hurricane rupture that was the fourth Labour government. Yet, just lately, that story has had a bit of a reset, to borrow a phrase from English.

The party of Iwi/Kiwi and Orewa, of suspicion toward gay and women’s rights, of car crushing and beneficiary bashing – well, it’s been getting a bit weird. One very minor example: alongside that 23% increase in ballet funding was a 56% increase in funding for Te Matatini, the national kapa haka organisation.

‘Unofficially, I go to a lot of ballet.’ Portrait by Adrian Malloch, March 2017

‘New Zealanders are socially pragmatic’

These oddities are popping up increasingly often, to the point where we barely recognise how strange they are. The increase to benefits, the first in 40 years. Gay marriage, while not National policy, happened on its watch. Treaty settlements have cascaded at a far greater rate than under any previous government, and the rise of Whānau Ora and a sustained relationship with the Māori party show how far National has come from the Brash era. Only abortion is rising as a live issue – and not because of any attempt to increase existing barriers to it, but because the practising roman catholic English has expressed no desire to reform our clearly absurd and outdated law.

When people talk about the gap between the two parties shrinking, and of National colonising the centre, this is what they mean.

I sat down with English the morning after the ballet fundraiser, in an wood-paneled and windowless conference room at the Langham. He arrived a little late, as he had to the ballet, though stayed well beyond our allotted half hour. His press secretary Michael Fox, a young, handsome former Fairfax journalist stretched himself across a chair to our left, listening without interjecting as his boss went to work, striding relentlessly through the detail of policy and its basis.

As that great storm was gathering and preparing to drench the North last week, I asked him what had happened to the National Party, once the champion of social conservatism, now apparently so indifferent to it.

“It depends what you mean by social conservatism,” he says. “New Zealanders are, I would say, socially pragmatic. There’s quite a culture here – easier than in other countries – of live and let live. Ironically I learned that in a small, rural community. Because whoever’s there is there, and you get on with them. Across the country the collective’s made various decisions about its social mores which, I think even socially conservative New Zealanders have seen and thought, ‘ah well. Seems to work OK.’

“So I think it’s a social pragmatism in the same way that New Zealanders have an economic pragmatism. If it looks like it’s working they don’t get too worked up about the labels. Even across the Tasman in Australia it’s a much more vigorous debate about what things are called.”

That pragmatism, embodied by no one better than English’s predecessor, may be part of why New Zealand has so far forestalled the ugliest moods of Brexit or Trump, avoided nurturing a homegrown Pauline Hanson or Marine Le Pen.

Even immigration has latterly been framed for the most part as a debate about the quantity of skilled migrants we import and train and their impact on wage growth, with Winston Peters unusually and mercifully quiet about their migrants’ provenance. That restraint, along with the self-immolation of Colin Craig, suggests that Key was right to divine that New Zealanders really didn’t care all that much about what the National Party had long defined itself as: conservative.

Bill English, finance bot

Today the National party seems far more concerned with trying to cement its popularity by extending the time horizons under which it operates – the talk of 2040 and 2050 helps that task – positioning itself as the natural party of government for the long-term. It’s an approach which in appearance has a hint of the technocratic about it: just doing what the numbers say, rather than what a particular philosophy or ideology compels. But technocrat is a label English rejects.

“The term I’ve heard that I really like is ‘purpose driven, data informed’,” he says. “With respect to this incremental thing – occasionally people will say, ‘this looks too radical’. The changes to state housing, for instance, are generational. They will be long-lasting. We can never go back. Now, it’s taken quite a lot of incremental steps to get there. But the state housing across Auckland will largely be redeveloped in the next 10 to 15 years, in a way which you just couldn’t have imagined five to 10 years ago.

“Some of these other changes, are couched in technical terms, but amount to a quite different sort of sense of national purpose. Like with fresh water quality. It’s been a long technical argument – and political debate, actually – getting to a place where you can measure progress. Now, you can argue about the measurements. But no one’s saying we shouldn’t make progress. And no one’s saying that the framework won’t demonstrate progress. You can argue about how much. So I think the technical and the politically successful will go together.”

Whatever he calls the approach – and more on incrementalism later – it’s very different to the National Party of old. The one he joined in the early 80s, in Muldoon’s era. The one he entered parliament with in 1990. The one he ascended to lead in 2001, before being wiped out in a historic electoral disaster in 2002 and cast aside by Don Brash and his malcontents in 2003. Since that devastating loss he’s picked himself up and rebuilt his image into a kind of policy bot – one concerned less with ideology than with taking a desired outcome and trying to reverse engineer it as efficiently as possible. Despite his having been marked as a future prime minister since at least university, he seemed to have found a happy and natural ceiling. Yet, thanks to that shocking announcement in November, here he is – the happy engine room operator thrust blinking and a little wooden into the light.

Did he consider turning Key down?

“It’s always a choice,” says English. “You can always say no. So I took the time, particularly to talk with family. Because they are the people who don’t choose to be part of this circus. We had quite a long discussion. You can always say no, but it’s also a pretty unique and unexpected opportunity, and hard to let go.”

Despite his having held the position before, it’s not a perfect fit. Not just because he is, by popular assessment, a natural number two – but because he seemed to have evolved away from the game to a quite extraordinary extent. When I met him last September, with no leadership prospects apparently on the horizon, he was relaxed and contemplative. He spoke about cultural funding mechanisms and claimed to have watched The Real Housewives of Auckland. And he invoked a phrase which struck me at the time and has framed my understanding of him ever since: he described himself as being in his “post-party political era”.

I took the time, particularly to talk with family.’ Portrait by Adrian Malloch, March 2017

It seemed to imply that, after a quarter century in parliament, the bluster and posturing left him cold. That tribalism was of less interest than the work of government. It seemed to me a brilliant piece of political framing, disguised as a throwaway remark.

Yet “post party political” is also backed up – in theory, certainly not in outcome – in his signature policy of social investment. It is the idea that we can use big government data to predict, early in their lives, children who are likely to have “poor outcomes”, to use the official language. Poor outcomes in this context means imprisonment and drawing benefits, which cost us money and also don’t tend to be well correlated with happiness. The idea is that we use that knowledge, Minority Report-style, to prevent future bad life choices by providing wraparound social services to change that path.

As well as being English’s big idea, social investment is probably the single current National policy which opposition parties have most struggled to combat. This is not just because it barely exists at this point, or that its success won’t be truly measurable for decades. It is also because it appeals to the centre by suggesting a level of compassion to which National has never previously aspired (“social”), while also chiming with the fiscal hawks in its own base who want to know what they’re getting back for every buck (“investment”).

This means Labour has ended up complaining about its name, with its implied emphasis on saving the state money rather than improving lives, rather than the more slippery fish that is the policy itself. As with the critique of the Ministry for Vulnerable Children (which English unfailingly refers to as Oranga Tamariki), it emerges largely as a semantic rather than substantive argument, which might explain its lack of traction.

As a result social investment manages to be a number of different and useful things and squarely fit English’s “post-party political” motif – while also being very politically useful for his party.

‘I can empathise with young people who are feeling the pressure’

English says he doesn’t recall using that very specific and loaded “post-party political” phrase. “I’m sure I was being reflective,” he says, as if admitting weakness, then blows his nose. He seems to have a cold. It doesn’t seem to slow him down; he still delivers argument brick by boring brick, methodically building his wall until it it’s structurally sound and hard to get over.

Something about his delivery makes it hard to concentrate on what he’s saying. Devoid of the changes in volume and cadence which most humans use to denote excitement or emotion, it can be difficult to figure out what he’s emphasising – when a point is being assembled and when it is made. Yet when you listen back to tapes for transcript, he is always answering the question. Even when making a circuitous route, the destination is clear. This makes him a rare politician and a favourite of broadcast producers, who can be confident that he will at least address the subjects at hand.

Still, while his anti-style made him broadly popular in the finance role, it’s not yet clear whether it will translate to the vision and mass communication elements of his new job. The ‘Boring Bill’ idea is bedding in, and as ‘Angry Andy’ Little knows, once they stick these reputations are tough to shake. I ask how he’s handling the transition to a more public and combative role.

“I’ve got a different role now, which is as the leader of a party and a government,” he says. “So that’s a change from being in the engine room, where you can focus more on policy. I happen to think that good politics is about doing things that make sense to people, that they can understand, and show progress. And I think that matters in the long run more than partisan contest.”

That’s both inarguably true and essentially irrelevant, in that you only get to impose your version of progress on a country if you win the partisan contest first. English is in that exceedingly rare position of having inherited the office of prime minister without death or dishonour, and with his party still polling spectacularly well. For his first few months he largely plodded along uneventfully, bedding into the public consciousness and coming in at a very respectable 31% as preferred PM, per Colmar Brunton.

Then came the first episode of The Nation of the year, and that reference to “a bit of a reset” on superannuation – the very issue Key had vowed to resign over should it be touched. What exactly was a “bit of a reset”? We’d just have to “wait and see”.

Likely in part due to his being asked about it dozens of times in the ensuing 48 hours, it turned out we didn’t have to wait all that long to see. Monday afternoon, 4pm, to be precise. It was then that English announced that the age of eligibility would rise to 67.

In 2040.

At once a prudent fiscal decision, albeit pushed into the distant future, and a move on what had been considered an untouchable issue for generations of politicians. Few saw it coming, and fewer members of the pundit class have seen it as sensible. I asked him when he picked that issue as the one he’d use to assert his own character with.

“Reasonably early,” he says. “Partly because of the way the media interacts with politics. And that is because John had made a particular undertaking – that he’d resign if it changed – that I needed to make an early decision about whether to repeat.”

He clearly decided against repeating the vow, but at the same time warding off changes until well after the last baby boomer has boarded the super ship. This has created a curious situation for the young. As commentators quickly pointed out, it had the effect of transferring around $30,000-$50,000 more to baby boomers. It took on the appearance of a final greedy cash grab by the most privileged generation at the end of their lives, just because they could. For a country which, rhetorically at least, prides itself on a fair go – to the point where a show by that name has been one of our most popular for 40 years – didn’t it seem a little bit, you know, unfair?

“The first point is that the policy we’ve announced ultimately reduces the load,” he says, in that maddeningly processional argument-building style of his. “Which is the irony of the party posturing. The alternative is to leave it at 65 and be paying more to people who are healthier, who are living longer, who are working longer. So in the long run we’re reducing our load on a workforce which is shrinking, relative to the ageing population. So I don’t agree with the idea that we’re increasing the load.

“The second thing is that I can understand –” he catches himself, “– empathise with young people who are feeling the pressure around those issues. That’s why it’s important that the approach to the economy gives them a sense that they’ve got the opportunities. That their incomes are going to be able to increase. That the types of jobs that they’ll be able to get will be satisfying and rewarding. Because that’s the best way to deal with the perception of a burden. And some of these issues like housing – there’s shorter run and longer run solutions to those. And we’re pushing both short and long run solutions.”

For millennials and much of generation X however, even if changes to super were inevitable, it feels galling that they are, yet again, going to miss the boat thanks to the 2040 cutoff. The timing looks deeply cynical, and has simply added more fuel to the rising resentment between generations.

“I’m sure there is a bit of resentment,” says English. “And I can see how they get to it. But equally I see a lot of aspiration. The generation behind the Baby Boomers is more articulate, more competent, more confident. And, I think, have got better prospects, actually. In the sense that the way our community and our economy works is relatively successful. Compared to, say, from the mid-70s through to the mid-90s, where you had a country in turmoil of different sorts. Ranging from the Springbok tour, which was very disruptive and tense, through to the economic restructuring, which didn’t really settle down again until the late 90s.

“We don’t have to go through all that again. So there’s certainly economic pressure on that generation. But in that sense [there’s] a more stable environment in which to deal with those challenges.”

Broadly speaking, he’s right. Whether you curse it as neoliberalism or hail it as overdue restructuring, no serious person disputes that the reforms of the ‘80s enacted by David Lange’s Labour government were the most significant economic changes to New Zealand in the last half-century. But the decade commencing 1984 saw tertiary fees introduced, a major slowdown in housebuilding and a reduction in tax payable and social services provided, just at a time when boomers had mostly aged through the period where those things were useful to them. Whether that was the motive or simply a consequence of a global philosophical wind which swept the world, that was the net effect.

Now we seem to be facing another period of convulsive change, brought through a combination of technology and trade, and potentially the chill wind of bad politics sweeping much of the West. English, who remains – almost irritatingly – calm irrespective of the subject under discussion, is very aware of the scars that linger from the 80s and 90s. He points to the public’s long memory as a warning about the danger of trying to do too much, too fast.  

“I think there’s some lessons from the past about over-reaching, over-promising, and not being able to deliver,” he says. “There’s also some lessons from the past about maintaining public support.”

We have become a lot more involved in local government function than central government ever has.’ Photo: Adrian Malloch

The incremental radical meets the housing crisis

This government has been frequently characterised as “do nothing” or “lacking vision”, or, more charitably, “incrementalist”. The latter label is the kind of descriptor conservatives in the literal sense of the word would likely embrace. Micro-movements to alter direction, rather than heaving the wheel to change course. When asked to sum up his political philosophy, English chooses two predictable descriptors: “Economically liberal. Socially conservative.” And a surprising third: “incremental radicalism.”

Like social investment, it has a seductive quality to it – creeping to the desired direction so as to both maintain public support for the move, and so as to minimise the casualties of rapid change. The lack of support for those unsettled by globalisation and technology is widely accepted as the foundation of the forces which brought us Brexit and Trump; English seems to be betting that a slow pivot gives both individuals and sectors more time to realign.

This makes sense in most areas: the tension is present but bearable in many sectors, and work is being done to meet the scale of the demand. Except one: housing, both the blaring signal issue of our time, and the place where a softly, softly nudge-driven approach seems least appropriate.

Because the consequences of getting it wrong here are vastly more serious: last year’s harsh winter revealed the cars and garages many families now call home. The hidden slums in our biggest city exposed the true nature of what crisis means when applied to housing. When asked about why the government has proven unable to move this issue on from the media agenda the way it has so many before, English methodically builds a case that central government has done all it can, and that it is local government which deserves the blame.

“The core trade-off there is the extent to which ratepayers and voters are willing to have central government take over local government function,” he says. “That’s the core of it. We have become a lot more involved in local government function than central government ever has before. The special housing areas being one. Central government for the first time getting involved in detailed planning processes. Now through projects like the CRL [the Auckland City Rail Link] and the housing infrastructure fund, which are multi-billion dollar projects. We’re now getting quite closely involved in the structures and decision making of your council.

“So we reckon we’ve gone about as far into the council business as is reasonable.”

All this can be true and still insufficient. Because it walks around other levers the government does control – immigration, student visas, Housing NZ – and those it could assert more in, across taxes and duties, lending to property speculators (too easy for too long) and to property developers (too hard, just when we really need it). As a result, housing remains the biggest impediment to that fourth term, a deep and growing fissure seemingly absented from the government’s long-term vision.

Virtue signalling is not really something that matters to them much.’ Portrait by Adrian Malloch, March 2017

‘Well, I believe in equality for women’

For all the so-called “incremental radicalism”, for all the progress made across a range of social issues, Prime Minister English has refused to say that he is a feminist, a word which has proven oddly contentious for National. The previous Minister for Women disdained it; the current one will only, perhaps with admirable candour, admit to being one “most days”. Asked if he was a feminist in December, English said he didn’t even “know what that means”.

I offer a common definition – belief in equal rights for men and women – and ask whether he remains unwilling to adopt it.

“Well, I believe in equality for women,” he says, somewhat haltingly. “I wouldn’t confuse people by using the label.”

Confusing how?

“It’s not really a male term, is it?” he says. I start to respond, before he clarifies. “I just think of all the smart, motivated, determined women that I work with. And virtue signalling is not really something that matters to them much. It’s how you treat them. How they treat you. What opportunities you can support.

“Put it this way: I don’t think you have to call yourself a feminist to behave in a way that is appropriate of women getting opportunities. And in politics I have the opportunity to do that. And am quite happy to be tested on that.”

Perhaps the aversion towards “feminism” is simply the National Party of old lingering like the last guest at a party, straining against the pivot. Modernise too much, of course, and you risk a complete loss of character. Many of the most consistent and trenchant critics of the current National government have come from the right (just as some of its most grudging admiration has come from the left).

Mike Hosking was dismissive of English’s appointment, Matthew Hooton seems to loathe half of cabinet. And while there is a consistent hum of criticism from the left, you almost sense a quiet mourning, too. That Key could never be vanquished, declaring his innings rather than being dismissed. And that English just doesn’t arouse the same kind of passions, with his sometimes plodding demeanour. Certainly he’s not at risk of making Dirty Politics villain Cameron Slater relevant again. The blogger’s attack politics are “not my style”, said English when the scandal was in full flare.

And yet, scratch the surface and the old National party lines still rise up. Tensions remain particularly acute when it comes to the public service – not least on English’s signature policy. “If you take the case of social investment,” he says, sounding slightly frustrated, “we can’t deliver any faster than the willingness or the ability of the publicly funded services to adapt. And that’s not going to be fast – because they don’t have to adapt quickly.”

“I think they’ve struggled with it. The public service prefers universal services. And that is a supplier driven service that works for most people. Most kids at school. Most patients at a hospital. Most people on welfare.

“They struggle with the need to be more personalised or customer-focused for those for whom universal services don’t work. And there’s plenty of evidence that there’s 10-20% of people in any given service where that doesn’t work.”

That a percentage of people are left behind by the state is hardly in dispute. The government, through both big data and the possession of eyes and ears, has followed its predecessors in noticing that there are a large group of New Zealanders, disproportionately Māori and Pasifika, who show up everywhere you don’t want to: intergenerational welfare lists, prisons, hospitals, graves. National wants to prove that their solution of targeted, holistically conceived delivery of social services can do what generations of government haven’t.

He also wants to do it without having an inquiry into what prior experiments with state-sponsored intervention have wrought.

“The whole approach to social investment is partly determined by, and originates in an understanding of the damage government does when it does a poor job,” he says forcefully. It’s quite a moment – the political animal finally baring his claws, finding a what the traditional right views as an iron-clad political truism illustrated in graphic and heartbreaking detail.

“I don’t agree with the centre-left view that if the government turns up, that’s a great thing. That it can’t help itself from doing good. In fact, we’ve got a whole history of government action making problems much worse for people. Not better.

“I completely understand the analysis that says a lot of damage has been done. In fact I’m pleased to see that more and more acknowledged. Because that should burst the traditional social democrat complacency about the positive agency of government: it’s destroyed lots of lives, and damaged many.”

He remains steadfast, so far, in refusing the increasing clamour to commission an investigation into those multi-generational failures in the form of an inquiry into abuse in state care as demanded by, for example, the Human Rights Commission. He remains confident that his version of a solution will lead to a different outcome to those of prior governments without finding out where they went wrong or the extent of the problem.

I don’t agree with the centre-left view that if the government turns up, that’s a great thing.’ Portrait by Adrian Malloch, March 2017

A fourth term?

Inquiry or no, the emphasis placed on social investment remains a major departure from the National Party of old, one of an increasing number that English and his caucus hope will ultimately lead it into that rarest of electoral air: a fourth term.

Political history and convention should make this almost inconceivable, and yet by any measure English is easily the best positioned of all our party leaders to be sworn in as prime minister after the next election. In September the electorate decides whether a new leader, on his second chance, leading an old party with a new style, merits a fresh mandate.

No one foresaw him in this position a year ago, and some of the political muscles he’ll need to flex in the next six months have withered in his time in finance. Yet watching him interact personably with the crowd and speak confidently off the cuff from the stage at St Matthews, English seems a different politician from the faltering figure who fell apart in 2002.

He talks animatedly about young people as being “more confident and competent” than his own generation, and is increasingly designing policy which targets the decades by which time they will be the age he is now. What remains to be seen is whether the electorate will allow him to enact this long-range vision, or decide that the problems we have now need more urgent attention.


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