New Zealand's new prime minister is steady, not flashy

AP News
Posted: Dec 11, 2016 11:53 PM
New Zealand's new prime minister is steady, not flashy

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — There's nothing flashy about Bill English. Critics say the former finance minister and farmer who became New Zealand's prime minister on Monday is downright boring. But English hopes his steadiness and experience in handling the economy will prove reassuring when New Zealanders go to the polls next year.

For the past eight years, the 54-year-old has played the role of dependable deputy to the more charismatic John Key. And it seemed it would stay that way heading into the 2017 election, until Key shocked the nation last week by resigning.

English was chosen as the new leader by the conservative National Party caucus after two other candidates for the job withdrew last week.

A practicing Roman Catholic, English is more conservative than Key on social issues. He is opposed to abortion and euthanasia, although he said Monday that he's changed his mind on gay marriage, which he voted against when it was legalized in New Zealand three years ago.

"Just seeing the impact it's had with couples, I think it doesn't erode marriage," he said. "In some ways, it's an affirmation of the concept."

English said he won't use his new role to try to influence policy on such issues, which are often left to the conscience of individual lawmakers rather than voted on by party affiliation.

In some ways, English embodies the qualities that many New Zealanders value, casting himself as a down-to-earth rural bloke, a father-of-six who believes in hard work and steps into the limelight with some reluctance.

But his history is more complicated. He studied commerce and then literature at university, graduating with an honors degree. He did work briefly as a farmer but has been a politician for most of his career, after he was first elected to Parliament 26 years ago.

He rose to become leader of his party in 2001 and led them to a disastrous defeat in an election the following year. The National Party gained just 21 percent of the vote, its worst-ever showing.

After he was replaced as leader in 2003, it seemed his star had faded. But he learned from that defeat, he said.

This time, he has his economic record to highlight. After becoming finance minister in 2008, English helped the nation weather the global downturn and has since helped return annual GDP growth to more than 3 percent and unemployment to below 5 percent.

He's put a lot of emphasis on getting the government books into shape and has managed to return small budget surpluses over the past couple of years. His economic platform remains more prudent than exciting.

"In the coming months and years we will focus on building the roads, public transport, schools and houses needed to support a strong economy and a growing population," English said. "We'll also focus on better incomes for households, safer communities, and smarter government support for the most vulnerable."

One of his biggest challenges will be curbing runaway house prices which have made it difficult for working families to buy homes, especially in the biggest city, Auckland.

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English will also find it hard to emulate his predecessor's ability to charm other leaders and elevate New Zealand's role in world affairs. Key played golf with President Barack Obama and helped New Zealand secure a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council.

"We've had a period of a good relationship between John Key and President Obama, and that's now changed," English said. "As a small country, we have to do all of the work."

Key, who said he wanted to leave while he was on top of his game and spend more time with his family, said he didn't expect English would travel much next year as he focused domestically on the election. But Key said English would build relationships over time and already had a good international reputation as finance minister.

Key departed with his party doing far better in opinion polls that the main opposition, the liberal Labour Party. But his opponents have been buoyed by Key's resignation.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little said English had "basked in John Key's fame and glory" and doesn't represent the change that New Zealanders want or need.

"It's not right in a country like New Zealand that thousands of young couples can't afford to buy their first home," he said. "It's not right that thousands of elderly people who need hospital care turn up to their hospital and get told the hospital can't afford to treat them."