*This article was written by Henry Cooke and was originally published on Stuff.NZ.
You probably have some idea of the man – bit southern, likes saying “fiscal” – but since he’s New Zealand’s new prime minister today, it wouldn’t hurt to learn a little more.
Here are six things you might not already know about “Simon William English”. (That’s his name.)
1. This is not his first rodeo
If you’re older than me you probably remember Bill English’s first time around as the leader of the National Party.
He lost. Badly. Worst election defeat the Nats have suffered. And so on.
But it may surprise you quite how long old Bill has been in politics. For a man who keeps his southern accent finely tuned and has enjoyed an image as “the farmer from Dipton”, English is about as beltway as you can get.
Indeed, English has been involved in politics for almost all of his adult life. After a stint leading the Young Nats branch in Southland in the 1980s English moved to Wellington for a Treasury position in 1987.
This took him off that famous mixed crop farm down south, but not for long, as he eventually was selected to run in a (deep blue) Southland electorate seat, winning an 8000-strong majority in 1990. He’s been in Parliament ever since, retiring from the seat in 2014 – that’s a whole other story.
In a North and South profile from 1991, English told journalist Bill Ralston he wouldn’t be in politics too long.
“I see myself looking down the barrel of retirement, that’s for sure. I’ve got young kids. The days when someone was in politics for 25 years are over.”
For those keeping count at home, English said this exactly 25 years ago.
2. He has an honours degree in English
You might think someone with a Treasury job in their 20s has a PhD in Economics of something. While English did get reportedly excellent grades during his Bachelor of Commerce at Otago, his postgrad study took him to Victoria in Wellington, and the most Wellington of all degrees – an honours in English.
Bill English will probably be first PM familiar with the work of Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, thanks to his time at VUW with Linda Hardy.
— Dougal McNeill (@Lismahago)
December 8, 2016
He told Jane Clifton in a 1997 Listener piece that he found this “intellectually challenging” – and that it helped him get his job.
“Treasury was under a bit of pressure about being all economists, and I had an English degree.”
3. English was once an eager backbencher himself
English rocketed up the National Party ranks through the 1990s, but it didn’t quite happen overnight.
While English last week worked to to win the votes from the influential “four amigos” group of ambitious male backbenchers, he was once part of a bit of backbench club himself, known variously as “the new young turks” or the “backbench boys”.
These groupings of MPs are often more media creations than real alliances, but English did agree to be profiled with others, and pose for photographs wolfing down McDonald’s.
4. English is very socially conservative
English has spent the last eight years deep in the budget books, where he is clearly a fiscal conservative, but nowhere near as ideologically driven as say, Ruth Richardson. On social issues however, this Catholic man is very solidly to the right.
He voted against the legalisation of same sex marriage. He voted against civil unions. He voted against prostitution law reform. He voted for a 2005 bill that sought to clarify that marriage should only be between men and women.
English is perhaps most vocal on abortions.
In 1997 he said Parliament had “fallen short in our duty to protect the unborn child”.
As Health Minister, he actively attempted to reduce the number of abortions, introducing a booklet about “other options” and foetal development.
His wife Mary, who is a Wellington GP, is on a list of doctors who have reportedly refused to provide abortion services or contraception.
She told NZME that the pair were “both conservatives on anti-abortion issues”.
(Hat tip to The Wireless for uncovering some of these links.)
5. English is quite the family man
When asked about his last go at the top job in 2002, English has mentioned several times that he had six kids under 16 at the time.
“It’s twice the national average,” English noted in a 1998 Evening Post profile – and then it was only five.
Six may seem large, but English himself was the 10th child in a family of 12.
6. He sealed the deal at some after-work drinks
After a few days of uncertainty last week, English had a seemingly easy walk to the finish on Thursday.
An array of MPs came out of the woodwork to say they publicly backed English that morning, with no obvious provocation – taking him over the line to 30 and making the leadership vote today little more than a formality.
What swung the race so decidedly in his direction? Well, according to veteran political journalist Richard Harman, some after-work drinks.
As Harman wrote on his website Politik: “Bill English got the numbers to take the Prime Minister’s job yesterday after meeting the National Party’s 14 MPs who came in in 2014 at their weekly drinks party on Wednesday night.”
The MPs, who are known to be quite influential, asked all three leadership contenders to speak to the group.
English obviously gave a pretty good pitch. As a tenth child, he’s probably pretty used to some competition.
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