One Question Quiz
illustration: Toby Morris
illustration: Toby Morris

PoliticsSeptember 14, 2018

‘Confident but paranoid’: Bill English reflects on election 2017

illustration: Toby Morris
illustration: Toby Morris

The former prime minister looks back on an enjoyable election that prompted massive public interest – an election which produced a unique result, and unique challenges for both the government and the new opposition 

This is the second in a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Stardust and Substance. Read Jacinda Ardern’s review of ‘the most extraordinary year of my life’ here. and Winston Peters’ explanation of why NZ First chose to coalesce with Labour here.

Coming into 2017 I was often asked how National, as the incumbent government, felt about the election. My standard answer was “confident but paranoid”, which, as it turned out, proved to be the right mental setting. One had only to look around the world to see that political events had become a bit more unpredictable. The fact that you couldn’t predict where the unpredictable would occur didn’t mean that it wasn’t going to happen, and of course it did.

I have often explained to people that the way MMP works means that on any given day the parties other than those in government can beat you – or almost beat you – because I had been part of a government, as a finance minister and then as a prime minister, with majorities of one or two and on some days no majority at all. So the presumption that many voters had – that a party that polls the highest is automatically going to win through – is, as we know, only a presumption. But it meant that our party was very well prepared for what turned out to be a highly competitive campaign. We were well organised, well financed, and had thought through our strategies sufficiently that when real pressure came on we didn’t need to fundamentally change. So that was one factor in approaching the election: we prepared as if it would be competitive and that turned out to be the case.

The second unusual factor was that as a government that had been in power for three terms we were more cohesive, more positive and had more sense of direction than any previous third-term government that I had seen in action – and I had seen a number of them. We were managing difficult coalition issues – intensive work that had been going on about the role of Māori in the Resource Management Act, for example, and the rewrite of child protection legislation – that were really testing for any kind of government, but I was proud that intellectually, and in our relationships with our coalition partners, we were able to deal with those issues running through to the election. So we were in pretty good shape; and then, of course, the extraordinary series of events unfolded which changed the way the election went.

I want to give some personal reflections on my involvement in the campaign as a leader. I think that the overriding impression for me was just how much I enjoyed it. As someone who had been unavoidably characterised in a certain way because of my finance role, it did take some time to adjust, and for public expectations to adjust, to my new role as a leader in a campaign. There are a number of reasons that I enjoyed it. First was that there was plenty to campaign for, again unusually for a party that had been in government for nine years. I had been personally strongly invested in many of the issues which were debated in the campaign – the economy, obviously, but also all the social issues, poverty, housing, water quality, and the environment, where we had done much intensive work over many years. When I was out campaigning we had a programme which I felt was worth arguing hard and positively for.

Another factor in the campaign, of course, was that the long form of the debates suited me. As someone who’d been around the place, a policy wonk, the opportunity to have an hour, an hour and a half, to debate issues – rather than the usual eight to 15 seconds – certainly was something that I looked forward to, and enjoyed, and I was impressed with the extent of public interest and engagement.

A third factor was that with social media we had the ability to bypass the mainstream media and better control how we represented ourselves: the unique opportunity to do both short impressionistic presentations and also long-form question-and-answer type arrangements, some on Facebook, others by media organisations, some by ourselves, was a feature of social media that I think all politicians found worked better than they expected. Vastly greater numbers of people engaged with that format than we ever anticipated, and again I think it’s something that worked in a campaign which had quite a strong policy focus. In my case, too, the opportunity to work with my children on social media was something that we all enjoyed.

All of that added up to a fourth factor that made the campaign enjoyable, and that was the intense public interest. One of the media outlets told me that since a month or two before the campaign started, on average six of the top ten stories every single day had been political stories. So there was a public appetite, which makes politicians, with their tender egos, feel relevant. But in my case, having been in politics for 27 years, the experience of being treated like a new face to the public, escaping the confines of the characterisation as a finance minister (and I know people were surprised to find that a former finance minister could walk into a shopping mall and spend an hour taking photos) was something I didn’t quite expect, I must say, but it worked. In addition, our base of volunteers was energised and organised in a way that was quite remarkable for a fourth-term campaign. Wherever I went I was supported by people who were highly motivated.

So that was the campaign, and then, of course, a government was formed – legitimate and unique. There can’t have been too many oppositions who have got 44.4% of the vote – certainly not in New Zealand: that has never happened under MMP.

The important issue here is that how a government is formed, and how it starts, matters. Because this one has been formed, and started, in a unique manner, then it’s going to face unique challenges. Some of these are obvious. It has a structural challenge: two coalition partners who, left to their own devices, may not agree on much about how the world works, and that’s expressed literally in how they’ve been seated in parliament – an unusual configuration, with New Zealand First at one end, Labour in the middle, and the Greens down the other end, in the hope, perhaps, that each of them will forget that the other is there.

The new government sorted out a programme to cover its first 100 days in power: the 100-day programme is the easy bit, as we have a minority coalition government that will need to get the agreement of all three parties to proceed with anything. And if you’re going to have a different sort of government, then you’re going to have a different sort of opposition.

This is a completely different after-election atmosphere than has been the case previously. I’ve seen governments change before, in 1999 and 2008, and in each of those cases the supporters of the outgoing government had essentially lost faith in the competence, and to some extent the direction, of the party that was leaving government. For those who have been involved in political parties, it’s your supporters who are your toughest critics. In each of those examples the support base itself thought that the politicians needed to go away, have a pretty hard think about what they’d been doing, have a rethink, and then work their way back towards public support. This time it’s different, with 44.4% of the vote – 45% if you count ACT – giving National more seats in parliament than Labour and New Zealand First put together. In practical terms what does that mean? Firstly, of the 12 subject select committees, seven of them are effectively controlled by the opposition because they’re tied in numbers and business can’t proceed without opposition agreement. And with five of those committees an opposition MP is the chair. This has not yet sunk into the body politic but it does fundamentally change the dynamics of how the parliament will work. The government has predictably chosen a number of the committees where it has a majority of one, committees aligning with their programme – environment, transport and infrastructure, social services, education and workforce, finance and expenditure. The opposition effectively controls the health committee, for instance, and the justice committee. So National will be engaged much more positively as an opposition in the law-making process, but also externally with those who want to influence the law-making process.

We took a fairly constructive approach, building on the strength of our electoral position, and our position in parliament, and on the expectations of what remains an energised support base – and not a small one; a large one, the single largest support base in the country – who are at us to be vigorous, to be positive, and to continue to argue for things which we, and they, believe have set a positive direction for New Zealand. New Zealand has a resilient economy, resilient government books. Those are not accidental. They are a comparative advantage for our country, lifting incomes and creating jobs. They have made our government more effective and we are going to argue to maintain that, and to improve it, as we did during the campaign.

In a number of areas the government will simply have to adopt past policies, however it campaigned. The policy on water quality is an example. Most people involved with creating our national measurement system under the previous government will argue that the new government should keep it. The approach to poverty, which has to include the concepts of social investment alongside lifting incomes, is another. And we can predict that this will also be the case with climate change, where we supported the Labour Party on maintaining the emissions trading system despite the Greens’ wish to get rid of it. The same is true in trade, where again we supported the Labour government on trade agreements – unconditional support in the case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

All of these things are important for the ongoing welfare and well-being of New Zealanders. Of course, when the government tries to undo those things our party will oppose them. So it’s a post-election environment where robust political debate can and should be expected. The uniqueness of the government arrangement does not require the opposition to give the government a “free pass” out of politeness, because actually, roughly half the New Zealand public didn’t want the result that they got, didn’t like the way that it happened, and don’t see the model of New Zealand overseen by the previous government as a failed model. We look forward to that balance, arguing positively for those things which will enhance our welfare and our well-being and robustly opposing those things which won’t.

I have had to explain to some of my email correspondents that it is the nature of the New Zealand system that we have an opposition. They may favour the new government; they may have voted for those parties; that’s fine. But democracy has opposition as well as government. In the last three terms the opposition wasn’t effective. From my perspective in government, they never really sorted out how to put pressure on us in their role as an opposition. We strove to sort that out pretty quickly and we believe that it will lead to constructive and positive outcomes for New Zealand.

So, in summary, the 2017 election delivered a unique result; a government that has started from a unique place, which means that we’re going to have a unique opposition, and, I suspect, ongoing and intensive interest from the New Zealand public.

This is an edited extract from Stardust and Substance: the New Zealand General Election of 2017, ed Stephen Levine (VUP)

The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.

Sign up now

Keep going!