[Opinion] Mr. 39 – What to expect from Southland’s own

Sorry Jono, it looks like Bill is a shoe-in to the Prime Minister’s office, so you can kiss bye the small bout of name recognition you enjoyed over the past few days as the public slowly forgets who you are again.

Newshub broke the news live at 6pm last night. Some argued they’d jumped the gun, and by Thursday afternoon the New Zealand Herald and 1 NEWS were both reporting English as the victor, without a single party room vote being counted.

A senior National Party MP and source to Patrick Gower had done the numbers and leaked; 45 MPs were planning on voting English, leaving only 14 MPs to be divided among Coleman and minister Judith Collins. Collins resigned from the leadership contest and formally endorsed Bill English, who had been given the outgoing Prime Minister’s approval.

It’s English’s second successful leadership contest, after defeating Jenny Shipley in a party room ballot way back in 2001, where after he led National to one of the most humiliating electoral defeats in New Zealand history that some touted as the death of New Zealand’s centre-right.

Today Bill English assumes the leadership of a party considerably ahead of its opponents in the polls, well-funded and whipped into order. He will also become the first Prime Minister to hail from outside of Auckland since Shipley (also a South Islander) and the first ever Prime Minister to not hold an electorate seat.

Both Wellington and English’s home province of Southland can claim the incoming Prime Minister as theirs.

The English victory marks an end to the fear of a right-wing revival, strongly backed by former leader and Hobson’s pledge founder Don Brash, and controversial blogger Cameron Slater. However, English’s leadership will (expectedly) be rockier than Key’s, with the knowledge of who exactly wants his job playing in his psyche.

As someone who has served in parliament for almost thirty years and after his mammoth 2002 election defeat declared he had absolutely zero interest in serving as Prime Minister (a line he repeated when questioned by media in 2013), questions may already be being asked over exactly how long English intends to stay in the job.

English lacks the same charm, natural connection and familiarity with the public that Key had built over his past decade as the country’s preferred leader. If she is to assume the role of deputy leader, it is likely Paula Bennett will do more of a job at filling Key’s huge shoes than English, as her style is similar. This could be both a blessing and a curse for Bill English and the National Party he leads, as Bennett may fill the gapping charisma hole and excites some in the electorate. On the other hand, Bennett could easily outshine English, fuelling desire for her to take the leadership sooner rather than later, a similar problem faced previously by Andrew Little with respect to his star frontbencher Jacinda Ardern.

In many respects, his leadership already has some uncertainties.

But to the business and farming communities, National’s primary base, English represents the status quo and a safe pair of hands. Nothing controversial, and no reason for them to stop voting. In some ways English’s rise looks like a return to the National Party of old, without the added extremism of Ruthuansia.

His politics are best summed up in the two words ‘Christian democracy’. English, an active Roman Catholic, is a centrist, perhaps even more so than his predecessor. Whilst he supported John Key’s promised tax relief measures in 2008, English recently doubted if there was room in the budget for more despite Key’s unhelpful suggestions there might be. A supporter of the welfare state, English told Duncan Garner’s Drive program that he was keen to “share the wealth”, implying the economic gains of the country were not being felt by the middle.

Whilst taking a centrist approach to the economy, English certainly represents a shift to the right on social issues. Where Key supported same sex marriage when it emerged in political debate in 2013, English was opposed – albeit not so vocally. He voted against the bill in all three of its readings. English takes a pro-life stance on the issues of abortion and euthanasia, and has spoken in opposition to any reform of the law surrounding cannabis.

The English years (or months) will not be marred by controversy. If anything, there will be continuing distraction with conversation over the future of the National Party. Those expecting anything big like reform of the Resource Management Act like Collins proposed will be sadly disappointed.

It’s more of the same, only without the glow and reassuring promise of John Key. If English tries to fill the boots of Key by being the same guy – happy go-lucky and dorky – and appearing on commercial radio skits, the country will cringe. They’re expecting English to be his own man, for better or for worse. If he runs on three more years of promised stability, he could yet lead National to a smashing victory. Time will tell.

Bennett Morgan, Capital HardTalk.

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