After the surprising resignation of John Key last week, this week New Zealand installed a new prime minister: Simon William “Bill” English. English was elected unopposed by the Parliamentary members of the National Party, enabling him to assume the leadership of both the party and the country. English had been the country’s finance minister from 2008, when the Key-led National Party was first elected.
English is a veteran politician who was first elected to Parliament in 1990. In his time in the Parliament he had once previously served as the leader of the National Party, while the party was in opposition, for a two-year period between 2001 and 2003. However, during this time he led the party to its worst ever electoral defeat in the 2002 elections, where the National Party won just 21 percent of the vote.
This result sits in stark contrast to the most recent election in 2014 when the popularity of Key was able to secure 47 percent of the vote for the National Party. Key had maintained consistently high approval ratings during his prime ministership, making him a tough act for English to follow. With an election having to be held by November 2017, English will have 11 months maximum to establish himself as someone the public trusts to maintain Key’s legacy.
But while Key may have been the smiling face of the New Zealand government for the past eight years, it was English, with his technocratic tendencies, who was responsible for much of the Key government’s policymaking. The direction of the government was significantly molded by English not only in his capacity as finance minister, responsible for stabilizing the economy during the Global Financial Crisis and delivering budget surpluses, but as the architect of much of the government’s direction on issues of welfare, education, and housing.
After taking office, English indicated that he wishes to the use the government’s current budget surplus to cut taxes, upgrade the country’s infrastructure, and pay down some of the government’s debt. However, with resources having to be diverted to assist rebuilding efforts after the recent Kaikoura earthquakes, some of English’s ideas may have to be put on hold.
Upon being sworn in as the country’s new prime minister, English stated that he believes the purpose of his role was to “Lead by digging up the diamonds in those around you.” English indicated that his function in this regard would be extended through to the greater New Zealand public, not just his parliamentary colleagues. Indicating a preference for solutions developed within civil society, not directed top-down by his government, English explained, “The Government isn’t the answer to everything; most of our answers are in our own families and communities. Sometimes Government gets in the way of that. This is a Government that will be focused on understanding, at a very individual level, what is going to work with people and then supporting them to achieve it.”
While this is an admirable trust and faith in the public there remain a number of concerns English will face that will require the levers of government in order to find positive outcomes. The cost of housing, particularly in Auckland, is one of New Zealand’s most pressing problems. It is an issue that Key avoided, however, and English will most certainly have to at least investigate what policy options are available to reduce skyrocketing prices, particularly in light of the country’s growing population, and its growing number of homeless residents.
As New Zealand’s most important relationship is with Australia, English will be keen to quickly establish a close working relationship with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. While Key and Turnbull had an especially warm relationship, both being former investment bankers who inhabited the more progressive regions of their conservative parties, the English/Turnbull relationship will undoubtedly bloom quickly and maintain the closeness of the Australia-New Zealand relationship.
Preserving the recent rapprochement that Key established with Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama will be an important arm of English’s foreign policy. Bainimarama’s distrust of New Zealand (and Australia) was overcome by Key’s charm and hospitality toward Bainimarama. It remains to be seen whether the Fijian PM views the rapprochement between the two countries as being dependent on his relationship with Key; if so, with his resignation the recent improvement may have been reset.
Taking over from an immensely popular prime minister like Key, and to do so without an electoral mandate of his own, is going to be a tough task for English. Key was able to boost New Zealand’s international profile and consolidate the country’s reputation as a strong and prosperous liberal-democracy that is open to trade, investment, and immigration. Not succumbing to the recent global shifts to undermine these principles will be English’s most important task.