Opinion by Simon Wilson

My favourite moment in the career of Bill English came at the end of the Joseph Parker fight last year, two days before he was elected leader of the National Party.

Parker won the fight but the decision was controversial.

A reporter asked him, what did he think?


English, looking good in a tux, leaned into the camera and grinned. He said that quite often in a contest you think the aggressor is winning because they're the one making all the moves. You don't notice how well the defender is deflecting the blows and tiring the other guy out. The defender might be controlling the match.

He grinned again, those boyish good looks filling the screen.

In that moment Bill English was unparalleled. The night was a sea of clichés and babble but he gave us a real idea to think about. He showed boxing expertise and used it to deliver a metaphor: nobody would have missed the political overtones. He mashed up intellectual smarts with the basest sporting contest ever invented, and he did it modestly, with off-the-cuff informality. In just a few seconds he was memorably entertaining.

English liked to say John Key gave him a daily masterclass in leadership. But in that same situation Key would have spoken in platitudes and been entirely forgettable. English, just before Christmas, demonstrated with aplomb that he was going to be a formidable foe for Jacinda Ardern. And so he was.

Just not formidable enough. His great undoing was the decision to claim Labour had an $11.7 billion hole in its budget planning.

I don't mean it was his electoral undoing, because that claim did not collapse his party's support. But it did undo his potential to become a credible, respectable, fine prime minister. I have a bit more to say about this because I think the decision to make the $11 billion claim was the most defining thing about him.

It was finance minister Steven Joyce who said it first, but Joyce was not a rogue element in the National Party. He ran their election campaign and he worked closely with the PM.

It's inconceivable that English was not in the room when the decision to make the claim was made. Inconceivable also that he did not approve it. He was the boss.


Besides, if he didn't approve it, what does that say about his ability to be the boss?

English never once distanced himself from the claim, and media gave him so many opportunities to do so. He owned it.

Why was it so terrible? Because it corrupted what were supposed to be his two greatest strengths: his fiscal prudence and his integrity. English was the finance minister who kept New Zealand safe from the worst ravages of the Global Economic Crisis. Well done. He was also the conviction politician, a practising Catholic motivated by a set of beliefs, who wasn't afraid to stand up for them.

Misleading us so grossly about Labour's budget suggested either that he was fiscally incompetent or that his economic skills could just as easily be put to dark arts as fair ones. It also suggested that truth did not rank especially high in his value system.

And when he kept doubling down on the claim, what did that show? That he wasn't good at tactically regrouping after a setback. That he couldn't or didn't see the virtue in acting decisively when something's gone wrong.

All of these things suggest a personality far less suited to leadership than has been widely suggested. Is it wrong for us to expect moral authority?

It quickly became a trope after the election that English had done very well. But really? He had two jobs: win as many votes as possible and make National appealing to Winston Peters. He did win a lot of votes, but contrary to the popular view, he did not sweep provincial and rural New Zealand. The swing to Labour was stronger in the South Island than the North, stronger in the smaller centres than the bigger ones and, most telling of all, it was very strong in the three South Island electorates most directly affected by the dairy irrigation schemes.

Put it this way. Corporate farming likes the transformation of rural Canterbury and the McKenzie Country brought about by irrigation, but a lot of the people who live there have other ideas. Bill English's National Party does clearly still speak for farmers - it still won those seats - but that's far from the whole story.

As for Winston Peters, let's just say, for starters, that a leader with true determination and clout would have dealt decisively with the leaking of Peters's personal superannuation information.

Bill English went to Pasifika at Western Springs a year ago and he owned it in a way then-Labour leader Andrew Little could not. English made the most of his wife Mary's Samoan heritage, which wasn't just expedient. Clearly, he was comfortable in the Samoan world she had introduced him to.

And he spoke with conviction about the work his government was doing to lift people out of poverty. His social investment programmes have a thousand fish-hooks, but so do all welfare programmes. But he believed in them as a way to make a real difference. To identify the factors that hold people in poverty, to identify the people most in need of help and provide the wraparound services that will lift them from despair. To break the cycle of poverty.

His motivation showed the best of him; his execution less so. He sold social investment to his party faithful, at conferences, as a way to reduce spending. It sounded small-minded and it meant there wasn't a lot of real understanding among his followers of what he was trying to do. Some of the ministers he had running those programmes – most obviously Paula Bennett – revealed they also lacked that understanding.

Worse, he barely tried to sell the idea to the public. For many years as finance minister he was busy trying to reform the welfare state, but until just the last year he was essentially doing it behind our backs.

The conservative in him, the politician suspicious of change, undermined the reformer and revealed – as all the big things about him reveal – that whatever his skills as a manager, he was not a leader.

We saw that last year in other ways. He didn't seem to know there was a poverty crisis far bigger than was allowed for by the targeted reforms of social investment. He didn't seem to know, either, that Auckland housing was in crisis. Why didn't he?

Most of all, he didn't grasp that in a strong economy there is no excuse for ignoring the suffering of the most vulnerable – or, from a political point of view, of leaving yourself open to the charge that you don't care.

Bill English was a man you'd want in your team. He could get things done when he thought they should be done, he was a calm voice and an insightful analyst. He made John Key look good.

But as leader, not once but twice, most of that deserted him. What did he stand for, when it was up to him to define what his party stood for? We didn't really know. He deserves to be remembered for better, and assuredly will be. But he did bring his downfall upon himself.