Bill English talking about Suits* Portrait by Adrian Malloch, March 2017

Virtue signalling is not for me: Bill English doubles down on rejecting ‘feminist’ label

In an exclusive interview with the Spinoff, the prime minister invokes the term ‘virtue signalling’ and reveals why he decided to break with predecessor John Key on superannuation

Bill English has reiterated that he does not consider himself a feminist, suggesting in an interview with the Spinoff that the term is not applicable to men, and that, among the women with whom he works “virtue signalling is not really something that matters to them much”.

In December, the freshly anointed prime minister told reporters, “I wouldn’t describe myself as a feminist. I don’t quite know what that means.”

In the months since, following deputy prime minster and women’s minister Paula Bennett’s “most days” remarks about feminism and a spate of discussion about politicians’ identification with the term, English hasn’t quite undergone a feminist awakening, but he has apparently encountered the term “virtue signalling”.

“I believe in equality for women,” he told the Spinoff. But “I wouldn’t confuse people by using the label.”

‘I wouldn’t confuse people by using the label’: Bill English. Photo: Adrian Malloch for the Spinoff

Asked to explain how the label was confusing, he said: “It’s not really a male term, is it? … 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.”

Paula Bennett recently defended his record in an International Women’s Day op-ed for Stuff which pointed to his record of rejecting male-only lists of government board appointees supplied by Treasury. “He would still always choose the best person for the job. He just insisted on having the best to choose from. And what do you know, 48 per cent of his board appointments as Finance Minister were women.”

‘The generation behind the Baby Boomers is more articulate, more competent, more confident’

In an interview with Spinoff editor Duncan Greive, the first in a series of broad-ranging election-year conversations with party leaders, the prime minister revealed that he had quickly determined that he had to break with the cast-iron pledge of his predecessor not to recalibrate superannuation.

The decision was taken “reasonably early,” he said.

“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 that.”

Asked about the potential for the policy shift, which would see the age of superannuation eligibility rising to 67 by 2040, to foment resentment from generations unimpressed by the transfer of wealth to their elders while being locked out of the housing market, English said he could “empathise with young people who are feeling the pressure around those issues”.

He added: “I’m sure there is a bit of resentment. 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 a more stable environment in which to deal with those challenges.”

Read the full interview here

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