Bill English: the Catholic conservative who will be New Zealand’s next PM

Having once led the National party to worst ever electoral defeat, the farmer turned politician is now getting a chance at the top job

A socially conservative former farmer with 11 siblings is set to become the next prime minister of New Zealand, after Bill Englishs rivals withdrew from the leadership race on Thursday.

English led the National party to its worst ever defeat in 2002, but the former deputy prime minister and three-term finance minister says he has grown since then, and has much more energy now the youngest of his six children are teenagers.

English was first elected to parliament in 1990 and during his time in office has voted against same-sex marriage, abortion and the euthanasia bill.

Born in the tiny Southland town of Dipton in 1961, English studied commerce and English literature at university in Dunedin and Wellington before becoming a farmer. He then returned to Wellington to embark on his political career.

Of growing up on his familys 125-year-old farm, English told the New Zealand Listener magazine that politics was the stuff of life.

My parents always had strong opinions and tended to act on them to do with farming, education for their kids, English said.

They werent interested in politics for politics sake.

Despite being involved in politics for 26 years English is still something of an enigma, said Professor Raymond Miller, a political scientist from Auckland University.

The greatest strength English will provide to this government is continuity and his ability to keep the markets stable, and his great weakness is his defeat in 2002 and his seeming inability to excite the public, said Miller.

Nobody knows too much of Englishs background and personal life despite his many years in politics, as he has largely had his head down all these years as finance minister. But we do know he is a social conservative from a rural background who is a devoted and practising Roman Catholic.

What is known, however, is that his wife is called Mary and she is a GP.

He also revealed a little about his faith in an interview in 2008 with Weekly Challenge, New Zealands Christian newspaper.

It is very good for someone in public life to spend a minimum of an hour a week participating in … in my case, going to mass and hearing language like forgiveness, mercy, sinfulness, worship none of which you hear about in day-to-day political life, said English.

And also hearing stories of humanity going back four or five thousand years. It creates a more rounded perspective on the events of the day.

Don Brash, the former National leader who displaced English in 2003, said the laconic southlander never displayed any bitterness towards him after he was rolled, and his dry sense of humour was sometimes lost on the general public and during speeches.

Bill is low-key and very self-deprecating, and he can cop some criticism for that which is unfair, said Brash. He has a different style to John Key but I dont rule out him developing a strong relationship with the New Zealand electorate.

Although English was not Brashs first choice for the top job (he preferred Judith Collins), he said he admired Englishs intelligence and strong work ethic. The new prime ministers confidence had flourished during his three terms as a widely-respected finance minister, he said.

Raymond said he was not expecting any significant changes under Englishs leadership, and that recovering from the Kaikoura earthquake and addressing the housing crisis would be priorities heading into next years general election.

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