Bill English: 'I specialise in being boring'

By Jarrod Gilbert

Sociologist Jarrod Gilbert sits face-to-face with the country’s straightest politician to find out why the Government’s money man is leading a social policy revolution.
The first time I met Bill English was at last year's Parliamentary Press Gallery party. Photo / Doug Sherring
The first time I met Bill English was at last year's Parliamentary Press Gallery party. Photo / Doug Sherring

The first time I met Bill English was at last year's Parliamentary Press Gallery party. His press secretary had arranged to make an introduction. As someone who studies crime, I had reached the unlikely conclusion English was New Zealand's most important politician. I was keen to test that theory.

But this was a boozy evening and in the interests of good cheer I may have traded away my ability to engage in intellectual conversation. As I shook his hand, he looked like the straightest man I'd ever met. I tried to think sober thoughts.

It was 2011 when English first shocked criminal justice circles.

He proclaimed prisons were a "moral and fiscal failure" and heralded the Government's dramatic policy shift towards prisoner rehabilitation.

English is now fronting initiatives to target dysfunctional or struggling families in an attempt to help at-risk kids before they become the next generation of prisoners.

English is overseeing what amounts to a social policy revolution.

The timing of this shift is interesting. By 2011, the Sensible Sentencing Trust's enticingly simple "lock 'em up" solution had hit a remarkable peak.

Political debate around law and order had crumbled to the point of National and Labour simply fighting over who could be the toughest on crime. New Zealand had become a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. With 199 prisoners per 100,000 people, our per capita imprisonment rate was 44 per cent above Britain and 50 per cent above Australia.

Reoffending rates were high, particularly among young people. Of those locked up before the age of 20, 91 per cent were reconvicted within five years and 65 per cent were back in prison, according to a Corrections report that does not contain the actual numbers.

It wasn't clear we were solving problems and in many cases it appeared likely we were making them worse.

If a bunch of US bankers hadn't plunged the world into an economic recession, things may not have changed. But if there's one thing that tunes the moral compass of a Finance Minister it's a global financial crisis.

The problems of the prison system were easy to overlook when times were good, but as the economy tanked, the costs were hard to ignore.

As English penned his 2011 speech, New Zealand had nearly 9000 prisoners, each costing about $100,000 annually, and projected growth in the prison muster meant three new prisons were needed.

But locking people up had become such a ubiquitous remedy for our social ills that no politician dared argue otherwise. The political risks were too high.

I was pondering these things and warding off the effects of Heineken when I asked English if changing how we addressed crime was difficult. As he replied, it dawned on me that few people know about his efforts in these areas.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert. Photo / Kelsy Carter
Dr Jarrod Gilbert. Photo / Kelsy Carter

I said, I'd like to hear the whole story and write about it. He said, Okay, come and interview me some time. Sure, I said, why not?

The second time I met Bill English was on the seventh floor of the Beehive. There wasn't a Heineken in sight.

Earlier in the day I attended the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand presentation where English had launched data that identified youth who are at-risk.

With his back as straight as a headmaster's rod, he addressed the bureaucrats in a humming monotone. The thing most at risk in that particular room was consciousness.

But if the delivery was dull, the content was important. Using the new Integrated Data Infrastructure, which stores multi-government-agency information, Treasury had identified four risk factors linked to poor social outcomes: CYF reporting abuse or neglect; reliance on a benefit since birth; having a parent in prison or on a corrective sentence; and having a mother without formal qualifications.

For example, only 50 per cent of kids who experience all four factors will go on to gain school qualifications compared to 78 per cent who have no risks. Twenty per cent of children with all the risk factors will end up as a sole parent on a benefit, whereas just 2 per cent of luckier kids will.

One of the first targets were the families in and around gangs. English wanted to reach into these families in an effort to steer young people away from crime.

One of the reasons he was keen to target youth was because it has proved hard to fix adults. Since 2011, reoffending by released prisoners has reduced by 8 per cent, a long way off the target of 25 per cent that Corrections hoped to reach next year.

English finished his presentation. The first hand in the air belonged to one of those people who makes a series of statements and never asks a question.

She rambled on and then chided English for using the terms "at risk" and "broken" to describe families.

English was polite but unapologetic: "Some families are broken."

And he is right.

New Zealand has the fifth-highest rate of child abuse in the OECD. Last year I discovered that the period in which a New Zealander is most likely to be murdered is before the age of 3, a time when they cannot defend themselves, find sanctuary or even beg for help.

Shame on us.

But if this type of information moves the Finance Minister, it's impossible to tell. Indeed, if English has emotions, I'm yet to see them. He references family violence and the harm done to kids but he always returns to a single driver: cost.

With his back as straight as a headmaster's rod, he addressed the bureaucrats in a humming monotone. The thing most at risk was consciousness.

English has run the numbers on the kids of broken families. On average, children brought up in environments of high risk will cost the state $270,000 over their lifetime compared to just $33,000 for those we might deem risk-free.

As English leaves the hall, I catch his press secretary and ask her if he's always that goddamn straight? Following a nervous laugh, she asks if I'm planning to ask questions like that. Almost certainly, I said to myself.

We start late. English has come from the House where Question Time ran longer than scheduled. He seems harried. I'm not anywhere near the top of his priority list and I get the feeling he's looking forward to more important things. I was looking around for that Heineken.

In what might not be seen as the most rapport-building of questions, I ask if he is boring and humourless. "I can enjoy myself. I'm not uptight, if that's what you mean," he says without a glimmer of humour.

And just as things might get awkward, he gave me what I was looking for: "It's okay," he says, "I specialise in being boring." He figures the public will see that as a reflection of a man who has a steady hand on the economic tiller. And I'd bet he is right.

Since National came to power in 2008, the Australian-based political think-tank Transtasman has rated English among the top three performing politicians in Parliament. The only person to consistently outscore him is John Key.

These are heady days for English, but perhaps unkindly I remind him of harder times. In 2002, he led National to their worst-ever election result and he was quickly rolled as leader. Such a devastating defeat seems rather old hat now Labour mimics it so regularly, but for English it was the toughest time of his political life. "It's not so much the events but the public nature of them. It's a pretty public failing.

"I'd been telling my kids for years that if they get knocked down they should get up so, in a very public event, I kind of had to do it myself. I had to do it myself to demonstrate integrity to them. That was a big motivator."

So English dusted himself off as a lesson to his children; and they provided a fair-sized audience. Bill has six of them.

When the Dirty Politics saga broke in 2014, many politicians dismissed the revelations made by Nicky Hager with ad hominem attacks. English was the exception. While the Prime Minister refused to condemn even the most extreme comments made by blogger Cameron Slater (like calling some Christchurch quake victims "scum") English spoke out and his views were unequivocal: not only was he not involved but he didn't like what was happening, either.

He told me: "I don't pretend I'm shining with virtue in politics but I have learned from experience that generally that style of politics doesn't get you too far. That sort of negativity doesn't work in the long run of politics."

I paused to consider this as Judith Collins fronted the Government's gang policies.

The Minister of Police could not have contrasted more with the measured approach favoured by English. Collins hammed up the rhetoric, including the claim that gangs were working together to sell methamphetamine to "middle-class kids who go to good schools".

There was no evidence to support the claim, and the Drug Foundation says methamphetamine use has halved in the past four years.

At that moment, I realised English's importance to policy areas that lend themselves to being so highly politicised.

English has reached his political ceiling. He has no desire to have another shot at the leadership. He is as high up the ladder as he wishes to go. He doesn't have to make a fuss to make his mark.

And more than that, the complex social policies he favours can be easily derailed by the passions and politics that surround debates on crime.

One reason the "lock 'em up" message became so successful was the ease with which it could be understood. To explain the approach favoured by English will require more than a news soundbite. The Government's new direction has to be carefully managed.

At first blush, reaching into families and fixing them may sound a bit too Labour-like for many of the National Party faithful, but English makes it sound a conservative manifesto. "In a sense what you're trying to do is make the basic unit more functional and less dependent on government and in the long run that's how you get smaller government - I'm a fan of smaller government."

He's also a fan of small interviews. At 23 minutes, I'm gone.

But if I meet English for a third time, I will give him a knowing wink. I had initially believed his buttoned-up personality hid the reasons for his involvement in this social policy revolution. Actually, it's an utterly vital component of it.

- Herald on Sunday

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