WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English is fighting to keep his job when the nation votes in the general election on Saturday.
He was finance minister for eight years before taking the top job in December when his predecessor, John Key, unexpectedly resigned. English, 55, is campaigning on his success steering the economy, pointing to budget surpluses and economic growth of between 2 and 4 percent over the past five years. He is promising tax cuts.
His conservative National Party was well ahead in opinion polls until last month when Jacinda Ardern took over as leader of the opposition and led a stunning revival in the fortunes of her liberal Labour Party. Recent polls have been volatile but indicate a close race.
English talked to The Associated Press about his previous failure as National Party leader 15 years ago, when he led the party to its worst-ever election defeat, as well as the importance of his large Catholic family and his aspirations for the South Pacific nation of nearly 5 million people.
“New Zealand’s done well, but of course it’s not enough for a lot of people who are just starting their business or just entering the workforce, or want to get higher incomes. So the election will be, to a large extent, about how to take the New Zealand economy forward, to deliver more benefits, and also how to spread them right across the community. Because people can now see the power of a successful economy and being able to lift everybody.”
“Look, there’s been some concern about immigration. But we take the view we should remain open to trade, open to investment, open to getting from overseas the skills we need for the jobs that we have. That’s what’s going to make us a confident economy that can deliver benefits to everybody.”
U.S. AND CHINA
“It is encouraging to see that while there are all sorts of international tensions, there’s a fundamental recognition by the U.S. and China that they need each other for each other’s success. They need the stability. We have different relationships with them. Fundamentally an economic one with China and a defense and historical relationship with the U.S. And we work to keep those in balance, to get the best out of it, in our interest, but also to encourage them to work together and to both participate in international institutions, which is where often smaller countries can have some influence.”
“Well I was brought up in a large family on a farm, with self-educated, highly intelligent parents, who spent a lot of their time discussing the broader affairs of the world, whether it was religion or politics, as well as their extensive knowledge of farming, not just in New Zealand, but in different parts of the world. So it was a place of pretty vigorous discussion among my parents. They were very active, particularly my mother, in political activism, changing things, and I learned from that that you can change the world through politics.”
THE 2002 ELECTION
“It was the low point of politics for me, that’s for sure, but not necessarily the low point in my life, because that was an opportunity to think pretty hard about what you’re trying to achieve, how to best use your skills. I had a family and thought it was important to demonstrate to my children what I’d always said to them, which is ‘If you get knocked down, you have to get up again.’ And so if I didn’t do that, they’d read about it in the newspaper. Pretty tough test. So I’m pleased that I decided to stick around with politics.”
ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND HOPES
“I think the accomplishment over the last nine years has been getting New Zealand onto such a stable economic footing at the same time as we are addressing some of these issues that are so important to our long-term future. The spreading of the benefits of growth, the kind of long-term investment that we need in infrastructure and in people. The opportunity in this election is to build on that success, in a way that enables us over the next five, ten years to really change people’s expectations about how they can realize their dreams here in New Zealand.”