Bill English has been making an effort to share more of his personal side with the public since his promotion to Prime Minister in December. The 56-year-old former farmer says it’s been “a bit of a challenge”.

1 Why have you found revealing more of your personal side so challenging?

I'm quite a shy person. I guess it's part of that rural, big family, Catholic culture that I'm from which tends to dampen excessive self-awareness. It's just, "Be humble. Don't go out there telling everyone how great you are. Someone else is probably doing it better anyway." But I'm enjoying it more than I expected. I was at a school in Porirua recently where a lot of the kids are Samoan. In the past I wouldn't have talked about the fact I've got Samoan family but I've found that it does matter to them.

2 Your wife Mary's father is Samoan and her mother is Italian. What have you learned from them?

They're a remarkable example of the promise of coming to New Zealand being realised. They raised 13 children on one income and own their own home. They had a very strong focus on their kids getting educated and maintaining their health which is a challenge in a large family on a low income. I have enormous respect for their effort and I'm so pleased I've had exposure to different cultures which I wouldn't have had as a Pakeha farmer from Southland.


3 You grew up in a family of 12 kids on a farm in Dipton. What was your childhood like?

A mixture of discipline, hard work and adventure. We were expected to contribute to the farm and the household to the maximum of our ability at whatever age. When I was 10 I was sent out to plough our paddock on the tractor with very little instruction. At age 12 I cooked breakfast for 20 people when the shearers came up for breakfast. It was pretty basic, eggs cooked fast in hot fat. The sibling rivalry was constant. I was part of a mob of five boys at the tail end. As long as you stayed in your place it was trouble-free. I did better at school than some of them but it wasn't like you were allowed to stay home and read books. It was a household where other skills were highly valued. You might get the best grades but were you the fastest shearer or the best fencer? My father said we were more nuggety than talented.

4 What sparked your interest in politics?

I wanted to be an MP from about age 10. My parents were heavily involved in all sorts of political activity including the National Party. Mum co-founded the New Zealand Farm Workers Union. She wanted to ensure farm workers were properly housed and their kids could get to school. It was an environment where labels like "left" and "right" didn't look that relevant. At the dinner table they talked about everything from changes in the Catholic Church to how the wheat board was performing. Our local MP, Brian Talboys, had a big impact on me. He'd come back to the local hall and tell the farmers about going to Brussels for trade talks and discussions with Rob Muldoon about the freezing workers' pay rise. I thought, "I want to do that job."

5 Can you remember meeting your wife Mary for the first time?

Yes. I'd gone to university in Dunedin after being out on the farm for a year. She just looked beautiful and talked a lot which was good because I didn't have to say anything. I thought something would come from it right from the start but it was another two and a half years before we actually got together. I had very bad acne at an age when you're most sensitive about these things. But I just carried on and eventually she came round.

6 You have six children and Mary works full-time as a GP. How do you juggle work and family?

We've got good at prioritising which things matter. We have a strict rule of no politics at home. My job as a father is to take an interest in our children's lives. Mary's very organised and I'm happy to take my share of the load. We do the cleaning late at night. There's a lot of lessons in cleaning toilets, more guys should do it. Our kids are now aged 17 to 29 but we had about 15 years of nappies and getting up and down in the night. We always got some help in. There's real pressure on mothers and it's important to reduce that where you can.

Bill English and Mary English. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Bill English and Mary English. Photo / Mark Mitchell

7 What was the hardest time of your career?

There were some tough times as Minister of Health in the late 90s. Sometimes public policy can be challenging when you've got large families because almost any decision you make affects someone in your family. One benefit is you get direct feedback. My toughest time was losing the election in 2002. As the party leader, of course you take it personally. I was 39 when I became leader, we had six children under 14 and were pretty stretched. National had some divisive internal philosophical debates that I probably didn't have the skills to handle. When I lost the leadership I questioned whether I should stick around. My kids were my primary motivation for staying. I was taught that if you get knocked down, getting back up again is what matters so I had to set an example. I would never have expected to be Prime Minister at that time, or even six months ago. Occasionally I think, "Oh yes - that's me!"

8 What have you learned about leadership that you didn't know back in 2002?

When people put you into a leadership position, they expect you to exercise your judgment when it really matters. I've tended to take a consultative and collective approach but looking back I should have followed my intuition a bit more and not relied so much on advice. The most common thing members of the public tell me is they like leaders who are authentic and who enjoy their job.

9 When have you been embarrassed?

Oh, dozens of times over the years but I've learned that as a public person it's best not to show it or you just embarrass everyone else. One occasion I can recall was not long after the 2002 election. I was speaking at an Anzac Day ceremony down south and I starting shedding tears. There was no reason for it. I knew a lot of the descendants of the soldiers whose names were on the memorial but it was probably more about my internal state at the time. I was so embarrassed.

10 What role does your Catholic faith play in your political life?

My faith is a significant part of who I am so it can't help but affect my personal decision-making. It's part of your conscience. I go to church most Sundays. I like sitting down the back as just another congregation member. You hear ideas around humility, forgiveness and mercy which are not part of the general political round. I find it very balancing.

11 You've changed your stance on gay marriage. Would you ever change your stance on abortion?

No. Parliament treats it as a non-partisan issue and in that context I've got one vote, the same as anyone else. I would never exercise undue political influence on that issue. I've been in Parliament for 27 years so people can look at the record.

12 How do you relax?

Most of my spare time is spent with family. I try to get out for a run or mountain bike ride a few times a week. I love reading. My honours degree was in English Literature.

At the moment I'm reading Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. As Finance Minister you don't get invited to

many arts events but Mary and I go to the orchestra, ballet and Circa Theatre in our private capacity quite a bit.

13 Bonus Question: Apart from the economy, what's the issue you care about most?

What I call social investment; getting better at supporting our most challenging families and communities. The traditional government structure hasn't been nearly as proactive as it should have been in addressing complex problems. We're starting to do that but we have to reorganise. A good example is our new Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki.