Bill English talks leadership, big families and faith

By Jordan Grantham, 19 October 2018
The English family last year. Image: Supplied.


Sir Simon William English, 39th Prime Minister of New Zealand until late 2017, is a prominent Catholic leader, highly respected for his economic management and for his family values. While Prime Minister, he had the most children of any government leader in the developed world.

Bill, as he prefers to be known, is married to Dr Mary English, a medical practitioner and together they have six children. This is more than President Donald Trump (5), Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (5) and Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong (4).

The contrast is most striking with the leaders of Western Europe, who are mostly childless, according to Washington Examiner commentary. 

“Our family is by far the most important endeavour of our lives,” Bill told Catholic Outlook. “Whatever happens in politics with its fickle twists and turns, your family’s always there.”

Bill English served in the New Zealand Parliament for close to 30 years and was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance before becoming Prime Minister.

When recently appointed to the Board of Wesfarmers, one of the largest companies on the Australian Stock Exchange, Chairman Michael Chaney lauded Bill’s achievements. These included “guiding the New Zealand economy through the global financial crisis to be one of the faster growing developed economies with sustainable government surpluses”, tax reform, partial floats of government companies and financing reconstruction after the Christchurch earthquakes. Australians may consider his career comparable to that of former treasuers Paul Keating or Peter Costello.

Bill acknowledges his childhood in a big Catholic family, as one of 12 children, as great preparation for his leadership success.

“It was always busy and exciting and a bit adventurous. We were raised on a farm, so everyone working on the farm was a way of life,” he said.

Did he learn to make a strong argument among 12 competing voices? “Occasionally, but more often how to listen. My parents expected to be listened to and we did a lot of listening. That’s an important and underrated skill.”

“My parents discussed religion and politics extensively, alongside farming, probably more intensively than most people who lived in our community so I was exposed from a young age to lots of philosophical ideas from the Catholic Church but also from other sources and I’m quite sure that had an impact on how I went about politics.”

Bill describes faith as his anchor during his political career.

“There’s a lot of pressures in politics and it’s important to be anchored somewhere, even if you’re not always sure just how tightly you’re anchored,” he said.

The philosophy of Personalism is key to understanding Bill English. It maintains “the fundamental integrity of every single person,” he said.

He also values individual motivation and hope within the context of human dignity.

“No matter what the situation, no matter what they’ve done, whatever you’ve done yourself, there’s always redemption.

“That’s a profound motivator for some people, when occasionally, hope is all they have.”

Cardinal Dew, Archbishop of Wellington, spoke highly of Bill in his interview with Catholic Outlook.

Bill said he shared “strong common views around Catholic Education.”

Bill has an impeccable voting record on all life and family issues.

On conscience issues, such as abortion and euthanasia, his views are “very much aligned with the views of the Bishops Conference,” Bill said.

Bill and Dr Mary made a powerful return to New Zealand Parliament in August, arguing against a proposed law allowing assisted suicide. He pointed out unacceptable flaws in the logic of euthanasia, “How can we say it’s a bad thing for a young person to take their life but a progressive thing for a sick old person to think about taking their lives when 17 and 18 year olds feel the same existential pain, probably more, than the adult?”

Bill has a keen interest in the underprivileged and suffering, putting his body on the line in charitable sporting events, such as the Coast to Coast race and Fight for Life boxing.

Has Bill ever prayed for All Blacks victory? He laughs for a while. “I have to say I haven’t taken that view of my faith as assisting the All Blacks. Basically, when I’ve been doing my own sports activities I’ve prayed for the wisdom next time not to start!”

Chasing after six children has also kept Bill active. His youngest son, Xavier, even challenged Bill to race down the long corridors of government on social media.

Bill said mothers and fathers benefit on an individual level from considering their priorities.

“It’s always a good thing to have the pressure of understanding that you’ve got choices about how you spend your time and about where you put your effort,” he said.

“In my case, it was important for me that every day I knew I had some choices about whether to put up the phone, getting home for dinner, taking into account what any family might think is important for a politician to be doing.”

He wishes Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, his successor, the best with her newborn daughter. Jacinda is one of the few world leaders to have given birth while in government.

“I think it’s great for any young woman to have the opportunity to become a mother. It’ll be testing in her circumstances but hugely rewarding no matter what happens to her in politics,” Bill said.

“I seriously do hope that there isn’t too much pressure on her, the pressure of the job, the pressure of the media, and of course she’s the only mother of the baby.

“My experience as a father, with less of that pressure, is that it can be very testing of your temperament and your energy.”


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