Bill English has described himself as specialising in “being boring”. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Smalltown southern boy with steady hand on the tiller
New Zealand’s new Prime Minister is a former farmer and literature student from smalltown Southland who once described himself as “specialising in being boring”.
Simon William “Bill” English takes on the top job 26 years after entering Parliament in the rural Wallace electorate near the bottom of the South Island.
He was raised in Dipton, Southland, and boarded at St Patrick’s Silverstream in Wellington, where he was head boy. After studying commerce at the University of Otago and English literature at Victoria University he moved back south to Dipton to work as a farmer.
He is married to Mary, a GP in Kelburn, who has only rarely made forays into political life to speak against euthanasia and abortion. They have six children. His brother, Conor English, is a former Federated Farmers head who has considered but not fulfilled a shift to politics.
Bill English is 54 years old but his dry demeanour and slow, monotonal speaking voice sometimes make him appear a little older. He recently held a press conference with reporters while holding a steaming Milo.
He is the quieter, more conservative, less populist half of the Key-English leadership team of the past eight years. A practising Catholic, he is opposed – unlike Key – to same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.
Deputising for Key, he has built a reputation as a steady, conservative Finance Minister, managing eight budgets and achieving his Government’s top priority of a return to surplus. In 2011, he sparked a major shift in the Corrections system from punitive measures to rehabilitation after famously describing New Zealand prisons as a “moral and fiscal failure”. He has also overseen the biggest reforms of state housing, including an end to a “house for life” and proposed sales of thousands of homes.
More recently, he has led the Government’s “social investment” revolution, which looks to use big data to channel funding only into rigorously tested social services. The social investment approach is likely to remain a core part of the Government he leads.
His career has mostly escaped controversy, aside from a spending scandal in 2009 in which he was found to be claiming a $900-a-week living allowance to live in his own Wellington home.
His political career began in National Party branch offices in Southland and Wellington, before he entered Parliament in 1990 in the seat that later became Clutha-Southland, the safest National seat in the country.
After stints in education, health and finance, he took on the National leadership, where he led the party to its worst election defeat in 2002, scraping just over 20 per cent of the vote. He was rolled by Don Brash the following year and later said he had no plans to ever lead again.
On Monday, he will go against that commitment, becoming National’s new leader and New Zealand’s 39th Prime Minister.
John Key has resigned as Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Key made the announcement at his weekly press conference on the 5th of December.
Key, his voice shaking with emotion, said he told his Cabinet of his decision that morning.
“This is the hardest decision I’ve ever made and I don’t know what I’ll do next.”
The National Party caucus will hold a meeting on December 12 to decide the new party leader and Prime Minister.
Key has led the National party since 2006.
Key built a career in foreign exchange in New Zealand before continued success in the industry overseas.
He entered Parliament in 2002 as National’s representative for Helensville. In 2004 he was appointed Finance Spokesman for the party and succeeded Don Brash as party leader in 2006.
Key led his party to win the election in November 2008 and repeated the victory in 2011 and 2014.
Key has governed the country through the recession of the late-2000s, formed the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority in response to the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake and created a much-protested policy for the partial privitisation of five state-owned enterprises.
Key has also withdrawn the NZ Defence Force from Afghanistan and worked to establish the TPP with the United States.
What you need to know:
- Prime Minister John Key has resigned.
- Bill English will be the new prime minister. He has 30 public endorsements – enough to make him the new PM – and Judith Collins and Jonathan Coleman have conceded.
- Andrew Little is calling for an early election. If he doesn’t get one there might be another by-election, as David Shearer looks set to leave for a UN job in South Sudan.
- Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges are both running for deputy, and supporting Bill English.
- The first poll since the resignation shows 37% of Kiwis support Bill English as a replacement. 75% say the resignation won’t change their vote at all.