But perhaps it should not have been because widespread respect for English, following his steady, careful performance as minister of finance through the worst financial crisis of the past 80 years, has been growing. A complimentary remark by a respected American economist on English’s performance at a conference in Sydney recently, was not untypical and it prompted a highly regarded New Zealand economist, Matt Nolan, to comment: “This is not the first time I’ve heard people overseas sing Bill English’s praises [it is probably in double-digits now] . . . we have a finance minister who understands the issues and tries to communicate them clearly.”
English came to office with an economy that had already been in recession for almost a year, when the global financial crisis hit. He had a measure of luck – there was no housing bust and although there were nervous moments, the New Zealand banking system did not buckle. But English responded to the crisis pragmatically and skilfully, avoiding severe retrenchment but focusing determinedly on reducing government debt and balancing the budget. Contrary to opposition propaganda, the government did not bring with it any dogma or hidden agenda.
A shock could, of course, upset things. The balance of payments deficit and overseas debt continue to be relatively high and to cause concern. But English’s overarching goal of getting the Government’s books in order, which looked hopelessly remote five years ago, now seems achievable, if only by a whisker, next year.
No surprise that I agree. Bill English has had the most challenging circumstances of any Finance Minister, and done very well. On top of that he is pushing a micro-reform agenda across Government that is making a difference.
While David Shearer was ultimately brought down as leader of the Labour Party by his woeful public communication, the role of weak, ill-thought-out policy in his downfall has probably been underestimated.
It is a factor the three contenders for the Labour leadership – Grant Robertson, David Cunliffe and Shane Jones – do not seem to have cottoned on to. In the beauty-contest meetings held so far, they appear mostly to have been diverted by essentially trivial issues such as the so-called “man-ban” or by seeing how far they can go in outbidding each other in implausible left-wingery.
The Labour leadership contenders have, in some areas, moved to the left of the Greens. That takes some doing!