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May 19, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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An Interview With Bill English

You have been a main proponent of the anti Electoral Finance Act. How would you change the Electoral Finance Act?
The most important change would be to shrink the regulated period, to about 3 months before the election. That has worked for the last 50 or 60 years. The public don’t really engage with politics till about 3 months before the election, and a lot of the problems we have now are because you have been applying a black letter law framework, to the normal activities of MPs, which are intrinsically political.

Although National has claimed they won’t sell State assets in their first term, does that mean they will spend the first term softening the path to sell State assets?
What we have said is if there was going to be any change that, we would go to the public for a mandate.

What is the most important issue currently facing tertiary students, and how would you solve it? I think their most important issues are their job and income prospects in New Zealand, over the next 10 years or so. Our job, if we were in Government – in fact the job of any New Zealand government – is to lift the economic performance, and the likely incomes. That helps people with loans deal with debt; it helps them have a stronger sense of fulfilment about the work that they can get here.

On the topic of debt, do you think that government should play a role in solving the issue of student debt?
Well in the end, it’s not the government – its other tax payers, and other tax payers have played a very significant role. The changes in the last election are worth half a Billion – just short of half a Billion – for everyone who has debt, and my sense is that the non-student tax payers from now, feel that they are contributing enough, they believe the costs should be shared, and they now think they are probably shared equally.

If you could change one thing about New Zealand, what would it be, and why?
It would be the lack of aspiration. Often people don’t get the opportunities that they could, because they don’t set their sights high enough. I think it’s slowly changing, for the better, and I am actually quite optimistic that over the next 10 years New Zealand will throw off some of its traditional insecurities, and we will become a more aspirational country.

What is your response to some media reports that National is flip-flopping on policies, or that policies lack substance?
We’re not at all concerned about it, for two reasons. One is that voters… when you are in opposition, you have to accept that you have lost some arguments, cause you weren’t in government, or because you lost elections. That’s democracy. That’s not flip-flopping. Ah, and the second thing is that some voters find that reassuring, because our opponents, and the media, try to paint National as some bunch of extremists. Ah, they want to see that the leadership of the party is attuned to sort of a moderate, practical approach to governing.

Global warming seems to be an issue dividing the National party, with some MPs not believing in this as a significant issue. What is National’s perspective on the signing of the Kyoto protocol? And where will the focus be regarding sustainability, once National is in government?
Ah, well we are backing the emissions trading system, which we have for some time. What we are now finding is that making that work, without being too hard on people, is going to be quite difficult. It has the potential to push up petrol prices, to cost jobs. So we are through the ‘feel good’ phase, about saving the planet. We are now on to the practicality of a system, that is going to make a difference to carbon emissions, and there is certainly going to be debate about it. I mean once the public understand for instance, that it might push their petrol prices over $2 a litre, they’ll be concerned. In our experience, people do want action on climate change, but they don’t want to pay anything. And they don’t want to make the changes, so it’s a delicate balance, cause if you push too hard, it won’t survive.

What do you think are some of the challenges when working with MMP, e.g. Winston Peters?
Well look, you can discount Winston Peters rhetoric, ‘cause he always attacks National, just before an election. That is part of how he gets his vote. I think our voters, most voters now know, that their party, a big party, has to do a deal with people it doesn’t like and policies it disagrees with. That is MMP. And there is no way around it. It’s the system we have. It can be a bit of a challenge, trying to keep enough people happy, but I think we are up to it.

What do you predict will be the defining issues of the election, and why?
I think there is going to be two things really. One is going to be the economy, because it’s certainly starting to bite. I think the second thing is going to be about time for a change, a generational change.

What is National’s policy on tax breaks for charitable giving?
Well, we initiated a policy of making all donations tax deductible, because we want to encourage a culture of philanthropy. New Zealander’s are actually generous people, but we are not that good at giving to charities. And I think there is a growing understanding that charities can do a better job of things, than the government – but they need help. “What about donations from charities, e.g. Churches donating to someone else for example? “If they have got a charitable purpose, the entity is not taxable anyway, so it doesn’t affect them.

As a leader, what do you see as some essential characteristics of someone, you know, wanting to get into politics, or leaders – what do they need to possess, in order to be successful?
I think a number of things. A bit of clarity about what they want to achieve, because there are plenty of distractions and dead ends in politics. It can take a while to understand, to get that clear in your head. They certainly need to have some energy and drive. It’s a complex and sometimes tiring job, and people, if they have got a bit of energy, it goes a long way. I think the third thing is, particularly important for people who want to lead, and that is the ability to project a better future – because that’s what lifts people along. You don’t have to be charismatic, you don’t have to be brilliant, but if a leader can project a positive future, I think that gets a… that brings people along. And we need more New Zealanders like that.

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