So, Bill English is now our Prime Minister. It was an extraordinary turn of events, from John Key’s shock resignation, to a brief 75 hour leadership contest, that saw Mr English quickly prevail, and an only marginally longer contest for the Deputy’s position before it was similarly bloodlessly decided in favour of Paula Bennett. Barely a week from start to finish. How other parties with more cumbersome and tortuous processes for determining new leaders must have looked on with envy!
Now, a cottage industry has developed trying to work out what Mr English stands for and the direction he will take the National Party and the government. The analysis is made more difficult because of the Key phenomenon. John Key was an intuitive, not an ideological leader, who trusted his instincts and who had an acute sense of the pulse of New Zealanders. He was the man who snapped the National Party out of its post 1990s torpor, and made it electable again. Having achieved that, and not spent too much of the political capital acquired along the way, he has left the party in a position where it can now redefine what it means to be a modern conservative party.
Bill English is exceptionally well placed to lead this next stage of the National Party’s development. Politically blooded in the hard-line era of the 1990s, and being intimately involved in the unsuccessful attempts to rebuild in the earl y 2000s, he can capitalise on the refresh of the Key era to define anew what the National Party stands for today. Over the years as Minister of Finance he has formed a clear and comprehensive view about the suffering of dysfunctional families, and more importantly how the levers of government can be used in a more strategic way to give them some hope and uplift. He understands that the old arguments about cutting expenditure to let enterprise flourish are sterile and do not work, in just the same way that throwing more and more money at complex problems in the hope of smothering them into submission does not work either. The English approach is more fundamental – clearly understand what the basic problems are and then focus policy and resources on addressing them. It is methodical, thorough and painstaking. And it means National becoming a more socially and strategically interventionist party in a way that parties of the left never could be.
Of course, his more immediate challenge is that there will be an election within a few months. Only two governments in the last nearly 100 years have won the fourth straight term in office National will be seeking. Here is where the political capital built up by John Key becomes important. While the English government will almost certainly make bold and unexpected moves in a number of key areas, it simply will not have the time to complete the social and economic transformation Mr English seeks, before the country goes to the polls. But it will be able to paint a very clear picture of its ongoing vision, and use some of the capital built up by Mr Key in doing so. With Labour likely to focus its campaign on a few particular flashpoint issues, as Mr Little has already indicated, the space will be there for National and Mr English particularly to appeal as the government of substance, mixing achievement with vision, leading New Zealand forward. It will not be easy – the rarity of fourth term governments shows that clearly – but it is eminently possible. And Mr English, who has spent most of the last twenty years or so watching closely the ebbs and flows of New Zealand politics understands that opportunity better than most.
The ease of National’s dramatic leadership change shows a party comfortable with itself and its soul. It is a stark contrast to the protracted leadership campaigns Labour has had in 2011, 2013, and 2014, which have really been battles to reclaim the party’s soul, and still have an unfinished air about them. While voters are often critical of this party or that’s particular policies, they can tolerate them, if the mood is right. The one thing voters revile above all else is infighting and disunity. If they cannot get their own act together, how on earth can they run the country, the maxim goes. National’s seamless change passes the unity test, compared with continued rumblings about what is going inside Labour.
So while all the stars may appear to be aligning in National’s favour, it is perhaps sobering to realise that everything is subject to the glorious uncertainty of politics today. After all, at the start of this year, who would have imagined that by year’s end Britain would have voted to leave European Union, Donald Trump would be President-elect of the United States, and John Key would have abruptly walked away from his job as our Prime Minister?
On that sobering note, Dunne Speaks takes its leave until later January. In the meantime, best wishes to everyone for a happy and peaceful Christmas and a 2017 that allows you the opportunity to fulfil your dreams.