The political mind of Bill English
By Richard Harman (author)
Even though he’s acting Prime Minister, or maybe because he is, Bill English can afford to lean back and exude a quiet confidence that National is on its way to forming a fourth term Government.
While earlier in this third term other Ministers were calling for a “big idea” to get National through the next election, English is much more prosaic.
He says it will be about whether the electorate believes the Government can deal with things or to use a phrase much loved by National insiders; whether it can keep things tidy.
Even so, he readily acknowledges that there are potential sources of untidiness spread across the political landscape.
For a start, there is Winston Peters and NZ First's full on effort to win over provincial New Zealand hoping to repeat its success in the Northland by-election.
Some of this is uncomfortably close to English with a former constituent, Mark Patterson, leading New Zealand First’s campaign in English’s old Clutha electorate.
Patterson has been particularly motivated by the proposed sale of Silver Fern Farms to the Chinese company, Shanghai Maling.
English knows him well and has even stayed with him. He’s familiar with the sort of attitudes that have led Patterson and others in the district to switch across to New Zealand First.
“Part of it is a style thing,” he says.
“They got very impatient with me because they just wanted the government to sort it (the merger) out.
“They weren’t quite sure what it was they wanted, but they wanted action and Winston gives them that feeling of action.
“And part of it is policy, and they want the Government to be more active.
“And they like the way Winston talks about the regions.”
Perhaps because he understands the motivations of his former constituents who are shifting their allegiances to NZ First; perhaps it’s the intensive polling National does every week, but English believes that NZ First is taking some votes off National but that it is also taking them off Labour.
To counter this, particularly since Northland, he says Steven Joyce and Jonathan Young have been running a very pro-active regional campaign.
And he says the secret is partly in convincing the provinces that the Government can’t do everything for them.
He points to the Hawke’s Bay where orchardists have come to rely on the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme which brings in Pacific Islanders on short-term visas, to pick fruit.
He says the orchardists traditionally have regarded it as the Government’s job to provide them with workers but now they are becoming more engaged and taking more responsibility for finding the workers themselves.
And over and above the seasonal peaks, the orchardists have now worked out they will need 1000 extra full-time workers over the next five years which they will try to find locally.
“Yes, if you go to Hawke’s Bay now, there are people vulnerable to Winston, but the opinion leaders, instead of tilting off us, as they were two years ago, they are now tilting in."
All this is very much typical of the way Bill English does Government. It’s a practical approach founded in evidence which puts an emphasis on getting issues managed.
That’s a bigger challenge in Auckland than anywhere else.
And the single biggest challenge in Auckland is housing though English is sceptical that the situation is as bad as the Government’s harshest critics make out.
“People sort of understand that to the extent they are worried about it, the solutions are actually quite difficult.
"They are quite complex, and they just take time.
So the bit that will become clearer is more examples of what I announced last Thursday; in Northcote, we are going to do 1000 houses; we're going to do 5000 in Tamaki.
“So you’ll roll into next year being able to do the thing that people think the Government should do, which is build a lot of reasonably priced houses.”
On immigration, which English concedes is “Winston’s issue” he suggests that the Government can change the levels if it needs to.
“The one thing that would really get us in some difficulty would be if the electorate thought we couldn’t change immigration and I think that’s one of the lessons from overseas like Brexit.
“It’s partly the issue but it’s aprtly the sense that no one seems to be able to change anything because it’s too complicated or it’s too far away.
“So, let’s go and vote for the angry guy or vote to get out.
“They are quite legitimate concerns, and we need to be able to demonstrate consistently that there are issues there, and we are able to act on them."
On the other big Auckland issue, transport, the publication last week of the Auckland Transport Alignment Report was a major milestone in the Government's response to Auckland congestion.
But it has raised big questions about how future transport infrastructure is to be funded.
There is a political difference between the Government and the likely next Mayor, Phil Goff, over this.
English is surprisingly critical of Goff.
“He has signalled that his answer to most problems is that he is going to be the Leader of the Opposition in Wellington.
"And the sort of passive, moderate Auckland voter is probably going to take too long to figure that out."
And then praise for the outgoing Mayor, a move which will surprise many National supporters in Auckland.
“Len Brown has been very good to work with.
“He has been straightforward, predictable, doesn’t leak, focuses on the issues – and he’s dealt with some tricky ones – and he ahs brought his Council along.
“Goff is not disposed that way at all.”
But English believes that the Government is now so engaged in Auckland that it will be difficult for the next Council to obstruct it.
As he ticks off the issues that will define next year he doesn’t devote much time to the macro economy.
That’s because he believes the Government has got that more or less right.
But in practical political terms what he is well aware of is that winning the largest share of the vote is one thing, forming a Government will be another.
And here he talks about the Maori Party.
He believes that Tuku Morgan is right and they may win another two seats.
But what impact will the Kermadec issue have on the relationship between National and the party?
English's response to this question reveals the pragmatic political operator at work, a side of his character he usually keeps well hidden from the public.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve taken any damage over this.
“It’s actually worked for them in that just at the time when Maori politics is starting to bubble a bit they get their principled issue.
"And provided they don't look like they have caved in and we haven't given away any ‘Maori stuff' it can work for both of us.
“It would be good if we could find a solution because for the moderate voter the damaging bit is when it looks like you can’t any longer deal with the issues.
“We have an interest in getting a solution eventually. Firstly for environmental credentials; secondly becaue our voters don’t want to hear too much about ’that Maori stuff’ --- ‘you guys just go and deal with it; just keep it tidy’.
“Thirdly it's a pre-2017 coalition test.
“That’s because whatever you can't solve now they are going to try and solve in the coalition negotiations and that will be harder from our point of view.
“If they win a couple more seats and we need them, they are going to be a handful.
“They will be ambitious.”
That then leaves Labour which English believes is trapped by its Memorandum of Understanding with the Greens.
He says that Labour’s in much the same position National was when he led them in 2002; caught between two other parties – the Greens and NZ First – whereas he was jammed between ACT and United Future.
“People are starting to understand that they don't have the choice of a moderate Labour party as the Government, and that will become much more obvious next year.
“So you can’t just kind of slip off the National Party and John Key and just vote Labour to get something a bit different, a bit fresh.
"You are going to be forced into thinking what does all of this stuff mean now over there.”
And that's the heart of it. Between now and the election National will be trying to keep things politically tidy while it turns the spotlight on Labour and the Greens. It will be hoping to keep NZ First’s leverage as low as possible by directly contesting the provincial vote and it may hope to continue attracting a few defectors from the Greens as it continues to earn its environmental credentials.