John Key's parting advice for Bill English was, "trust your instincts". It is good advice but I'm not sure English is taking it.

First there was the response to a question that came out of left field on just his second week in Key's chair. "Are you a feminist?" he was asked after his deputy and newly appointed Minister of Women's affairs had said she was, "most days".

English replied, "I wouldn't quite know what that means." Of course he knows what it means but the more interesting question is, why did he say that?

It was the wrong answer on several levels. It was not true, it was not credible, it struck an odd note in the news and it was not where the National Party has been under Key.


Imagine how he would have answered the question. "Well, at the end of the day I believe women are just as capable as men and we shouldn't have barriers in their way." There's a more heartfelt answer many men would give: "You bet I am, I have a daughter." But almost anything is better than, "I wouldn't know what it means."

Key's instinct was to look for common ground and say something no sensible person would disagree with. English's instinct either tells him the middle ground of New Zealand is more conservative than he is, or his instinct is to speak to his party's base. Either way he is going to be a different Prime Minister and his Government will be different.

Every practitioner of politics, and all of us when we discuss politics, operate on a sense of what most people around us probably think, want and value. Polls and other professional research are the best evidence available but they can only go so far. People do not always say what they really think, and if they do, their actions can belie what they think they really think. Everyone has to operate on instinct, which is why Andrew Little's recent appeal, "tell me where the centre is", must be a worry for Labour.

John Key had an urban liberal view of New Zealanders. Bill English's response to the feminism question sounded like the sort of thing I used to hear from relatives in English's old electorate. When they think of feminism, they think only of joyless women who deny the glorious gender differences and prohibit references to beauty. That sort of feminism will be the reason Paula Bennett said, "most days".

English might simply have been trying to support her but that, too, is not something Key would have done. Key used to give his preferred view regardless. That is a Prime Minister's privilege. They set the tone and political positioning of their Government.

English's second definitive step so far is the decision not to go to Waitangi. Key made the same decision last year but Key was not a new Prime Minister. He had been faithfully attending the Waitangi ceremonies for years, ignoring a bit of jostling at the gate the first time he went there as Prime Minister. He thought it important to be there every year, and for a long time it was.

Defending his decision, English said this week, "There was a time when the protest at Waitangi was nationally relevant - 15, 20 years ago. That time has passed because we have made so much progress on relations with Maori and the Treaty settlements." English knows how much progress they have made because he, even more than Key, has been central to the Government's role in it.

English is a deep and liberal thinker on these subjects. He cares for the place of Maori in national life. He has always been close to Hekia Parata and her husband Sir Wira Gardner and their efforts to keep the National Party in step with New Zealand's post-colonial progress. But he probably kept that side of his politics well hidden from the Southland constituents he represented for 20 years and seems still afraid to show that side of himself.


He is right that Waitangi is a sad sideshow to the progress the country is making. It is a reflection of the state of Ngapuhi and how far it is falling behind iwi that have made Treaty settlements. But how hard would it be for the new Prime Minister to make sure he is seen up there?

He did not need to speak at Te Tii's powhiri. The speeches are made inside the meeting house and the media do not go in there. The real test of a Prime Minister is at the dawn karakia next morning when a little bit of soul is required. English would be very good at it, better than Key probably. But he seems determined to be a backwoodsman in public. Pity.