Bill English looking forward to life after politics after calling time on 27-year career
13 February, 2018
The only moment Bill English took pause to steady himself, as he resigned from a 27-year political career, was when he reflected on the toll on his family.
The National Party leader announced his retirement from politics on Tuesday in sudden, though not necessarily surprising, fashion.
Known for his steely Southern-man persona; a dry wit, a slow drawl and a respectable speed shearing a sheep, English broke for a moment, only when he was forced to reflect on the moments his family had stood by him.
"Your strength and tolerance has enabled my career, now I look forward to our time together," he said, choking back some tears. His wife Mary, and three of his six children - Xavier, Rory and Bart - were standing behind him.
After a career in which he took National to devastating lows, led the party from the highest office in the land and spent eight years as one of New Zealand's most popular finance ministers, he said he would be pursing more personal and business opportunities, but he was also looking forward to more time in Dipton.
Talking to Stuff, English said life after politics would involve travelling with Mary, more domestic chores, and a new career with some business opportunities. It's understood he may follow in the the footsteps of his close friend and former boss John Key and focus on a career overseas.
English's departure is set to spark a leadership runoff, however the party would need to decide on the process first. That's likely to happen over the next few days. Batting away retirement speculation for the past two weeks, English admitted he had been thinking about it while spending time with his family over the summer break.
English said his family supported his decision to retire from politics; "If they think I'm happy with the decision, then they're happy".
Bill English resigns as National Party leader, quits politics. His wife Mary and two of his sons stand by his side.
He had returned to his family home in Dipton over the summer break, and while English has lived in Wellington for a number of years the former Clutha-Southland MP has long considered the small Southland town that contains the family farm, home.
He was looking forward to a new direction and life after politics.
"There's a couple of things about politics where you miss out. So we've never really travelled as a couple. That's partly a combination of politics and children. And in a sense in politics, you don't get to choose who you work with.
"And when you're in Government there's all sorts of rules and propriety about that, and I think I'll probably enjoy the freedom to deal with things I want to focus on. In politics you have to deal with everything."
He told Stuff his year-long tenure as Prime Minister was a career highlight, but it may have been a stint as Health Minister in the Bolger Government following the 1996 election that set English on his intricate path of policy that drills down into individual lives.
"I think my experience as Minister of Health was very challenging. I had been trained on policy and as Minister of Health was involved quite intensively with people who had had experience with the failure of health services, sad stories.
"Some of it was quite high profile nationally. It was a fantastic experience in the connection between theoretical policy and what actually happens with people."
It's likely no coincidence he sought to develop and champion the past Government's social investment programme, to tackle some of New Zealand's most entrenched social issues. It's a programme he counts as one of his proudest achievements, although its continuation is in doubt under the current Government.
Stewarding New Zealand through the Global Financial Crisis, English would likely be judged one of New Zealand's most competent finance ministers, putting the country back into surplus.
Leading the party to its lowest ever polling result in 2002 was a fortifying moment. It taught him about timing, the importance of the cohesiveness in a political party, and the extent of his own personal resolve.
"I learned I could handle quite a lot of pressure, even if it was difficult to do it.
"And a self belief in my own skills and relevance in the decision to continue after I lost the leadership in 2003."
But English shied away from talking about his "legacy".
"I'm not a great believer in legacies - you have to be satisfied with what you do and your actions in politics, on behalf of the people in New Zealand that you care about," said English.
He said it was important the Government managed the economy well, and he hoped it would pick up his social investment programme. Not because it's a legacy, but "because it could change the lives of a great many people".
Over the past two weeks, English has doggedly refused to entertain his impending retirement in public, but he admitted he'd informed his deputy Paula Bennett and number three Steven Joyce of his decision more than a week ago. The caucus was kept in the dark over the course of their two-day strategy session in Tauranga last week and only informed about an hour before he announced his resignation.
He would not be naming any preferred candidate to take over the reins and rejected suggestions he was stepping down because he did not think he could beat Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the next election.
"It's been a huge privilege to lead the party and serve in politics since I was first elected to Parliament just over 27 years ago."
Reflecting on what has changed in the almost three decades he's been in Parliament, English said the "speed of the news cycle" was an obvious one.
He also said there was a "higher expectation around discipline and cohesion" in the party caucus and there were many new ways of communicating with the public, which meant MPs weren't bound to newspaper editors like they used to be.
"If I think of the National Party caucus that I first joined in 1990... it was a much more unpredictable and rambunctious environment.... That would be fatal to a government today, people now expect cohesion and unity."
English's resignation has prompted reaction from all sides of Parliament.
Bennett told media on behalf of the caucus that English had huge mana and had led the party "incredibly well".
"We're going to miss him a lot. I don't think New Zealand will ever appreciate the depth of his thinking."
Bennett, who was under fire two weeks over following a leak within the party suggesting the caucus was not happy with her leadership, wouldn't answer questions about whether she would run to replace English.
Key said in a statement he was "saddened" to hear his friend was bowing out.
"Like so many Kiwis I am saddened to hear my close friend Bill English is leaving Parliament. Bill has given remarkable service to a party and a country he loves.
"His dry wit, outstanding economic leadership and rolled Rs will be missed - enjoy your new life mate," said Key.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the level of respect English commanded both inside and outside of Parliament showed the level of contribution he'd made during his time in politics. Ardern also acknowledged his work as finance minister throughout the GFC.
"Bill has made a huge contribution through his time in office and to politics generally. I admire those who serve NZ in this place, and Bill did for a long time, and he did it well. My best wishes," she said.
Meanwhile, NZ First leader Winston Peters said he saw it coming.
"I always thought, with the National Party caucus being as ruthless as they are, they were going to do this regardless of the outcome of the last election."
Peters called the National Party a "modern, ruthless machine". Asked whether he had a preference as to who took over the leadership, he said he didn't.
"I can't for the life of me see the talent that's required to win the next election inside that caucus right now."
English's last day as a politician will be February 27, and he will return in March to give his valedictory speech.