By Dougal McNeill
Bill English, like John Key before him, has long cultivated an image of himself as a dull, middle-of-the-road moderate. A bit boring, no surprises. His 2002 election campaign – around the slogan “all paddling in the same waka” – anticipated Key’s rejuvenation and liberalisation of the National ‘brand’, shedding its older Pākehā racism in favour of a modern, multicultural pro-capitalist business party. But, just as with Key, this carefully crafted ‘anti-politics’ image is in service of the rich and powerful. Bill English has spent his life as a class warrior.
English plays up his Southland and farming connections but, in truth, most of his life has been spent either in Treasury or Parliament. He worked for Treasury during the Rogernomics years of neoliberal reform under Labour, and then was an MP and Health Minister in the 1990 – 1999 National governments. These governments oversaw savage cuts to benefits, the Employment Contracts Act, significant increases in inequality and unemployment, and English was there through it all. As Health Minister he pushed through market reforms to the public health system. His only regrets? He told a reporter in 1999 that the party should have avoided ‘theoretical debates’. In other words, get the reforms through without seeming to be pursuing ideology. Sound familiar?
He exudes the sense of entitlement that comes from the ruling class and its servants. In April 2016 he described young unemployed men as “pretty damned hopeless”. When it comes to his own financial affairs, however, he’s nowhere near so stringent. In 2009 it was revealed that English was claiming almost $1000 a week in state subsidies to live in his own Wellington home (valued at over $1 million). At the time he was earning $276 700 a year.
There is one difference between Key and English, however. Key was always unfussy when it came to social questions, happy enough so long as the rich – whatever their gender or sexuality – were getting made richer. But English is a social reactionary.
He opposes a woman’s right to control her own body, having voted for every anti-abortion measure that has come before Parliament in the quarter-century he’s been there. The anti-abortion group Southlanders for Life – responsible for the harassment and intimidation of women and medical professionals – have listed him as a ‘friend’, and with good reason. English stayed silent in 2012, when his ‘friends’ were pestering and publicising the details of medical staff who performed terminations.
English voted against prostitution law reform in 2002; against civil unions in 2004; and against equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples in 2013. His record is consistent: against legal protections and rights for sex workers; against democratic rights for LGBTI people; for the state having powers to meddle with women’s bodies and choices. What principles English has are reactionary and bigoted.
Putting it in plain English: this is a class warrior for the rich. The sooner we see the end of his government, the better.