Bill English: Let them eat cake

Airy dismissals, as Marie Antoinette found, can be lethal for politicians. National is learning that lesson

Bill English has many things going for him. He is a smart, determined, dominating figure in the National government. He has an astute political brain. He has an inquiring mind. And he can slug it out in Parliament with the gnarliest of opponents.

English was, for a long time, the opponent Labour really feared. He is, after all, the farmer-Treasury-boffin-rugby-playing-honours-degree-MP, with a Samoan wife who just happened to be GP, and a home in the rural heartland. He looked to have a singular capacity to build bridges to communities outside National’s core vote.

That turned out not to be the case. Labour never quite figured what it was about him that caused voters to desert National in such droves at the 2002 election – after accounting for its own brilliance, of course. Undoubtedly he made some mistakes, and in the desperateness of that election campaign, those errors snowballed into a humiliating election loss.

For all his talents, he miscalculated again this week over the uproar over his ministerial housing allowance. Airily dismissing the issue for several days – saying he has ‘more important things to talk‘ – was top quality grist to the mill for talkback callers, op-ed writers and the newspaper letter writers. When Labour ministers tried to do likewise over ‘trivial’ issues confronting them while in government, English was usually their fiercest and most effective critic.

Airy dismissals also just wind up the Parliamentary press gallery to dig a bit more. TV3's Duncan Garner might be a cuddly bear deep down, but he hates being told his stories aren’t important. And the airy dismissal soon becomes more notable than the issue itself.

Helen Clark, particularly by her third Prime Ministerial term, was often accused of being out of touch. It became widely – and somewhat unfairly – perceived that she airily dismissed the Taito Phillip Field saga as a ‘beltway issue’.

How that transpired was that some weeks into that controversy, a TV One poll was being released showing Labour’s support holding up well. Guyon Espiner asked Clark to explain why Labour’s support was holding amid damaging revelations. She replied along the lines that perhaps some issues resonate widely, and others don’t – that they’re ‘beltway issues'. What was a semi-academic answer to a specific question relating to a particular poll quickly mutated into airily dismissive ‘arrogance’ as Labour’s polling subsequently began to slide.

Sometimes politicians need to ‘fess up, admit wrong – even when desperately unfair – and kill an issue. English, rightly, has done so now. If he had accepted the same accommodation rate as he did as an MP, no one would have cared. But he’s doubled his salary and doubled his accommodation support at a time when he’s demanding sacrifices from thousands of teachers, nurses, adult community tutors, and disability support workers. In a contest for the public’s sympathy, teachers, nurses, adult community tutors, and disability support workers tend to edge out MPs. He finally realised that.

Apropos of airy dismissals, John Key might want to consider his words more carefully than he did when advising Keisha Castle-Hughes to "stick to the acting" rather than having the temerity to be concerned by global warming. Public discourse on substantial issues is generally regarded as a good thing in most democracies. It also begs the question of why Key, a money trader, thinks he knows more about the science of carbon emissions than actors?