BILL ENGLISH INTERVIEW
INVESTIGATE: In terms of what you see as the biggest issues for National over the next two years, what would they be?
ENGLISH: As the finance spokesman, the biggest issue for me is taking the economy forward in a way that rewards people who take risks, and shares the benefits and growth with New Zealand families, and it doesn’t all end up in the government surplus.
INVESTIGATE: There has been an issue for several years now about the red tape, the compliance costs, and even the negative incentives that go on, how are you looking to tackle some of this?
ENGLISH: Look, I think that’s really important, because we’ve gone down the track where the bureaucrats have set out to eliminate every risk. Now, you cannot have economic growth and success in business without risks, so New Zealanders want to work in a team but they want an entrepreneurial, and aspirational culture. And that is gradually being mothballed by continuous unnecessary regulation that is designed to get rid of every risk – and you can’t.
INVESTIGATE: You see it not just in the business sector though. With this particular administration, you are seeing that same attitude applied right across the social sector, and protection for everything. Is that a problem overall?
ENGLISH: Yes, it is a problem. It’s a problem because of the kind of attitudes it creates. Because if the government says that it’s got the answer to everything, and if there’s any problem they will fix it, people lose a sense of responsibility and consequences. National’s view is, the government is there to underpin what people do, not dominate it.
INVESTIGATE: I asked John Key this, about bureaucracy capture in the civil service. Given that many of the people in senior positions were liberals appointed by the original Lange administration in the 80s, an incoming National government has to deal with that. How do you deal with a civil service that is possibly inimical to what National stands for?
ENGLISH: Well I don’t believe all of them are, I mean, this is a public service who want the opportunity to serve the public instead of the Labour Party. I meet civil servants regularly, who are frustrated with the way that Labour thinks that putting together a list of things to do is the same as doing them. And that putting out a strategy to deal with some issue amounts to fixing it. What they want is the chance to be treated with respect, regarded as professionals. They don’t want bucketloads more money, because they know that that’s leading to a soft spending and low quality government. So I’m reasonably optimistic that the civil service is as tired of the Labour government as everybody else is.
INVESTIGATE: Is there enough accountability in the public service at the moment in your opinion?
ENGLISH: Not at the moment, no. And where there is, it is the wrong sort of accountability – I’ll give you an example, this is Labour’s definition of accountability: you remember a guy named Kit Richards? He wrote an e-mail the government didn’t like. The guy loses his job, and can never be employed in the civil service again, while Labour are in power. Liam Ashley dies, brutally murdered, while he is in the custodial care of the state. No one has resigned, no one is responsible, no one is accountable. And that stinks. So Labour focuses on accountability for meeting Labour’s political objectives, and if you get in the way of that you get dealt to. But accountability in the public service? That’s long gone.
INVESTIGATE: Looking at the Brash years that followed on from your own leadership of National, why do you think National bottomed out, then bounced back up – what do you see, having had the advantage of being there at the helm, what was the thing that turned it for National?
ENGLISH: When National came out of government, it had a bad dose of low morale. I had some views about where it should go, that amounted to a longer term strategy, and I didn’t articulate that very well. They wanted quicker results that got them back in the game and rebuilt the confidence of the party. Don Brash came in as a bit of a punt at the time, he only just got across the line to the leadership, but it turned out the public responded to him better, I think, than most people expected. It also meant that with a small caucus after the 2002 election, once the leadership changed it did settle down, because we stopped arguing about the leadership and got on and did a bit of work. What Brash did was gather up – in the 2002 election a whole lot of centre-right voters knew National didn’t have a chance and Prebble and Peters picked a lot of them up, and Peter Dunne, with some pretty simple messages, and Brash gathered them all up. The job now is to extend beyond that group of voters.
INVESTIGATE: Jane Clifton in the Listener called John Key “Helen lite”, there is a perception that by sounding softer that National might abandon some of the ground that it has won. Is there any danger of that happening, or does the party have a cunning plan?
ENGLISH: No, there is no danger of abandoning core positions that have been hard-won and are good for the country. Some of this is just about the man for the times, and I think John Key has had a great start to the leadership because he is seen as the man for the times. Don was suffering a bit, just from being seen as a guy who had outstanding public service in the 90s, but might not be able to carry that through. So we are not going to be abandoning core positions. Look, our view of the world is fundamentally different from Labour’s and I don’t agree with this “Labour lite” stuff. We have to work within the constraints of MMP, which means you need to have 51% support in the Parliament for what you do – you used to be able to do it on 35%. So, of course, our job is to convince the public that we can manage the politics on their behalf, and at the same time achieve our direction, because increasingly we are moving to wanting a direction that is about aspiration, responsibility, risk-taking, and getting ahead.
INVESTIGATE: Just on the MMP point, you’ve seen over selective governments the damage that MMP actually does to the minor parties, every time a party enters into a formal coalition with a major one they get eaten. How will that affect politics long-term?
ENGLISH: I think it would be a mistake to judge MMP on what has happened so far to the small parties, because a number of the small parties are personality cults. So there’s no particular reason for New Zealand First to exist except Winston Peters, you saw what happened to the Alliance, and then Progressives because that was dominated by one guy, Jim Anderton. United Future are going to find it hard to live past Peter Dunne’s life in politics.
Now you are getting the emergence of parties that have a much stronger base, and that is the Greens and the Maori party. They’ve got a stronger base because they can exist regardless of the leadership – and the Greens have shown that, without Rod Donald they are still polling pretty well. They have learnt from watching all the variations that Clark has put in place, that they can get the right amounts of independence and influence, so I would see MMP in the future reflecting this. Those parties will be much more resilient than the ones who’ve been at the centre of MMP so far.
INVESTIGATE: One of the things that the Greens and the Maori party have done is to try and steer clear of formal coalitions.
ENGLISH: Yeah, that’s one of the lessons! Don’t let them swallow you up, and don’t spend too much time around the Cabinet table because then you become responsible for everything instead of just your own brand. And the second thing is, that you have to have a strong clear brand that is about issues, not personalities – and that’s where Act have a challenge because Act have lost their way on issues, they’ve become a personality party. And if they stay that way then they might get through a few more elections but they are not a permanent part of the system.
INVESTIGATE: In terms of her Majesty’s loyal government, Helen Clark and team, how daunting are they, heading into a potential fourth term, for you and John Key?
ENGLISH: We are not daunted at all. This is a government that has done what it came to do, they are now looking tired and scratchy. I can see the signs, because I’ve been there, the signs of a fading government. They think the process is much more important than the result, so you just get endless strategies and collaborations and partnerships but no results.
They are getting scratchy and bad tempered and trying to bully the media, the past results of their personal and political judgements are catching up with them. That’s what happens to third term governments, and we are not daunted by them at all. They got a long way in the past by talking their own book about what competent political managers they are, but in the end you get judged on results, not political management.
INVESTIGATE: During the Brash years, what would you say are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of National coming out of that time?
ENGLISH: I think the biggest strengths would be the hard work that’s gone into building some strong positions with the New Zealand public around lower taxes, around the way government should deal with Maori – we’re not going to give those things away. I think also Don’s temperament and professionalism had a big impact on how the National party operates, it’s a hidden effect, but a very important one. The party became more professional and better at making decisions under Brash. Coming out of it I don’t see too many weaknesses really, John and I would be the first to acknowledge that we have a terrific platform of 40 plus percent of solid public support to build on.
INVESTIGATE: The Nicky Hager book, as the dust settles from that, there seems to be a growing suspicion that there was no leak out of National, but instead somebody hacked into the Parliamentary servers and stole your e-mails. What are your views on that?
ENGLISH: Yeah, look, what you are seeing here is years of spying and burglary and theft at the highest levels of New Zealand politics. Watergate was one burglary, this is much more extensive than that. So it is really important that the police focus on getting to the bottom of how all that material came into the hands of Nicky Hager and his book. Hacking is one option, I think theft and burglary is another, and I think the rash of political stories we’ve had about politicians in the last 12 months indicate that there’s been fairly extensive private investigator or other spying activity on senior politicians, and who knows who’s next.
INVESTIGATE: I have covered governments for something like 25 years now and in my view this administration would have to rank as one of the most corrupt – at an objective level, just in terms of all the stuff coming up around them – what’s your view?
ENGLISH: This is an administration that has corrupted the whole political process. I have seen good, strong, experienced civil servants, reduced to gibbering idiots, because of the arbitrary control and punishment systems run by the government. I have seen all sorts of interest groups who have strong views, and in the past had advocated them aggressively in the public arena, bought off by the current government, with threats and promises. And then we’ve seen the straight out corrupt use of the taxpayers’ money and Parliamentary privileges, just this year, in the pledge card and Taito Phillip Field. That comes on top of a record that stretches back four or five years – no Prime Minister has been interviewed more often by the police than Helen Clark.
INVESTIGATE: What do you think of Helen as a leader?
ENGLISH: She’s a ruthless and clinical leader, she’s respected for her political competence, and not loved for anything else, except perhaps in the arts world. She has set a benchmark for MMP management that future governments have to reach for stability, because she has had a stable team. She is focused very much on her own stretching power, and that is shown by the fact that she has failed to renew the Labour Party. She has gone for making sure that her prime ministership is stable and not contested. She hasn’t tried to ensure that the Labour Party can keep on governing, and they are about to pay the price for that.
INVESTIGATE: In light of your own political career, do you regret the Brash years in any way?
ENGLISH: No not at all. Politics comes and goes, timing is everything in politics, some of the things I was trying to do were just before their time. But the time is right now. Don Brash added much to the National party that I could not have added, even if I had been more experienced than I was. So, no, I have no regrets. I think we are in great shape now for a long and stable period in government, and that’s what we are working to achieve over the next 18 months.
INVESTIGATE: Your relationship with John Key appears to be good, people were speculating that Bill might put ambition before the task at hand but you seem to have a good relationship.
ENGLISH: Yeah, we do. And that’s because we think the same way about a lot of political issues, so that helps, we can make decisions quickly, because we are not arguing the point, and I think that’s been demonstrated recently. The other reason it works is that we complement each other. John is a terrific marketer, a very appealing media presence, and I’ve got the experience of government and policy. I think we have a strong professional respect for what each can do it, and that’s why it is working so well.
INVESTIGATE: Labour has made such an issue out of social engineering, its social policy programmes and the like, how does National achieve its new focus without being seen to be slipping towards what Labour has made such an issue of?
ENGLISH: Look, I think that’s a real challenge. When you look at Labour’s track record, the things they really cared about were those things where they were telling other people how to live their lives, and doing their social engineering. On the economy, and their delivery of services to the public, there’s been a lot of talk – billions of dollars – but they are not really that focused on it, so they haven’t got anywhere. One of National’s core principles is freedom, we need to make sure that we don’t get sucked along, in the environment that Labour has created, into accepting things that unnecessarily take people’s freedom away or that have the government telling people they can’t take risks that any consenting adults would think they should be able to take.
INVESTIGATE: On the whole global warming scenario, which I know Nick Smith has done some work on, there is, it appears, emerging with the National a belief that global warming is human caused. Yet there is a lot of scientific argument to the contrary. Is National wedded to the idea that it is human caused? Because if it’s not human caused, then there is nothing we can do about it.
ENGLISH: We are open to the science, there’s got to be good science, and not hysteria, driving the policy. We’ve become quite worried that policies are going to be driven by this Armageddon mentality that the world has far too many people and far too much carbon, and it’s all going to unwind within the next 20 years. So we want to make sure, we’ve got an open ear to the science, we don’t go along with this idea that Labour do that you’re either – what do they say? – Helen Clark calls you a ‘climate change denier’, and it sounds like something out of the Inquisition – ‘how dare you!’. In fact, the science is complex, in our view it has moved in the direction of human causation, if more and better science says that’s not the case we are open to it. In the meantime, we do believe that the risks are great enough that we need some insurance.
INVESTIGATE: What about the United Nations report suggesting cattle are a bigger contributor to global warming than cars? I would have thought, if you go back 8000 years, there would be millions more bison, elephants and antelope roaming the planet, than we have cattle now.
ENGLISH: The difficulty with climate change is going to be untangling the political agendas from the real science. It is going to suit a whole lot of people to believe that cars are not as polluting with climate change, because it would be very unpopular to curb people’s capacity to drive their cars around. In New Zealand, that is a very dangerous idea, because our biggest single exporter is based entirely on cows, and that’s Fonterra. Our job as a political party is to come up with sensible and reasonable policies that don’t put our economic growth at risk, that don’t put people’s freedom to make their own decisions at risk because of some hysteria. That is a real danger, we are going to see Labour casting around trying to rebuild credibility on the environment, and look like a government with some vision, and there’s a risk we’ll get some pretty stupid policies as a result.
INVESTIGATE: Mark Steyn’s new book, America Alone, is warning that the world is about to become a whole lot more unstable as Western civilisation heads into an unprecedented death spiral, caused by falling birth rates, rising abortions and rapidly ageing populations, while Islam is set to take over Europe within a generation. That’s a pretty grim picture, if National becomes the government, how do you prepare for that kind of future?
ENGLISH: Demography is destiny, I am absolutely convinced of that. A community that stops breeding, which the Western – particularly European – countries have, is going to get swamped by those who do breed. It’s a pretty fundamental fact of life on Earth. And we, in some respects, are not a lot different in New Zealand. There’s a couple of points that matter: firstly, societies that can adapt to it I going to do well, and societies that really struggle with the demographic changes are going to be riven with conflict. And we’ve seen how nasty and brutal as conflicts can be. You’ve seen it in Iraq, you’re seeing it in Africa, you are starting to see signs of it in the Pacific. I’m optimistic about New Zealand, though, because we have had our own reasonably intensive internal debate about history and who belongs where, and actually we have managed it pretty well by any international standard. So I think one of our advantages is going to be our ability to adapt to these demographic changes. The hard bit is going to be sorting out our role in the Pacific, where you’ve got the Chinese and the Taiwanese competing for influence, you’ve got ethnic strife in a number of places we hadn’t expected before, you’ve got political instability in the Solomons, Fiji and Tonga. We’ve got a number of those communities heavily represented in New Zealand, and I don’t think we’ve got a clue what to do – New Zealanders are so used to having the moral high ground, where we can preach about foreign policy and cultural difference to everyone else, that we’re just a bit bemused at the moment about what to do when we actually have to deal with the ugly reality of these issues. National has started already this year, on really trying to get its head around what is going to be quite a different world than the one that National was attached to, which actually ended around about 1985.
INVESTIGATE: One of Steyn’s points in his book is that countries like New Zealand and Australia, because of the distance from world trouble spots may end up becoming immigration magnets for cultures fleeing Europe as those societies continue to break down.
ENGLISH: We are going to look a lot more stable, just because we don’t have the geographical pressures, we don’t have these populations on our borders, but I think that flight won’t just be English-speaking for European – it will also include the middle-class of every country from Indonesia through to Zimbabwe. In fact, the arrival of the Zimbabwe migrants here is perhaps the shape of things to come, but they certainly won’t be all European or English-speaking. So our ability to adapt to it is still going to be really quite important.
INVESTIGATE: With an incoming National government, is the anything in terms of Labour’s – particularly their social agenda – policies that you would tweak?
ENGLISH: It depends what you mean by social agenda. The one thing that you can be sure of is that National is not going to carry on down the road of social engineering. When Labour had got through the prostitution bill and the civil union Bill, in 2005 the public said ‘enough!’ and every politician got that signal. What I find out is that the public are much more worried about the breakdown of fundamental social order, particularly around families, than they are about creating ever more rights and responsibilities that lead to that breakdown.
INVESTIGATE: As education spokesman, you’d be where of the tensions that exist within the education ministry and the teaching profession, whereby a lot of them are what you would call urban liberal Labour supporters and have a particular worldview that they have brought to the education portfolio themselves. Does National have any plans to look long and hard at where some of these things are ingrained in the public service?
ENGLISH: With respect to education, we’ve got one definite plan about teaching kids how to read, write, and do maths – and that is a private members bill of mine that got drawn last month to set national standards for literacy and numeracy which will focus schools on making sure kids can read and write and do maths, regardless of the political leanings or the educational theories of the people who are teaching them. They’ll have a job to do, it will be clear what is, and they’ll have to get on and do it. I think there is scope a stronger focus on schools on citizenship and a proper understanding of New Zealand’s history. The problem is that too many people in the education establishment believe the same thing at the Labour Party: that the history of New Zealand is the history of the Labour movement, and that is wrong, and that’s been one of the things that got us into trouble about Maori issues – that whole left-wing view of history. The third thing that I’m interested in – and these last two are not policy yet – is getting an ethos of enterprise and entrepreneurialism into our schools. Traditionally our state system has been anti-business, and anti-private enterprise, because of the political backgrounds of a lot of the staff. I see some very good things going on in schools now, through things like the Young Enterprise Scheme, but in the future I’d like to see business, in particular, take a really strong interest in their local schools. Get trades and business right into the heart of the education system and show our kids that there is a pathway for aspiration that is about self-reliance, about initiative and about reward for risk. There’s not near enough of that in our schools now.