Bill the Conservative?
The transition in the Prime Minister’s office which saw Bill English replace John Key as National party leader was seen as a return to the governing party’s roots of social conservatism. Former Prime Minister Key was seen as a social liberal, free-marketeer who vocally backed gay marriage and abortion law reform. Meanwhile, Former Finance minister Bill English is a practicing Catholic, whose views on euthanasia and abortion are outside the contemporary National Party mainstream and also famously voted against Louisa Wall’s gay marriage bill in 2013.
Left-wing fearmongers were harping on about how English was going to be the country’s most conservative leader in recent memory, allaying fears about his gay marriage vote and how he could restrict certain personal liberties among women or the LGBT. For conservative-minded voters, his ascent to the Prime Ministership was one to be excited about – finally, a leader who was a complete-180 from John Key on social issues. Many political analysts saw this move as an attempt by the National Party hierarchy to stem the outflow of conservative party members who found themselves flocking to New Zealand First and to restore their image as a party for “small-town, conservative New Zealand”.
It is clear we can put those expectations to rest with Bill’s recent appearance at the annual Big Gay Out festival.
The BGO happens every year during the month of February to celebrate the LGBT lifestyle. The event is attended by different groups from charities, to corporations paying lip-service to the LGBT such as ANZ but also of politicians and of political parties. The most common attendees include the Labour and Green parties who traditionally pander to social liberal groups, whereas the ACT Party makes an appearance to enforce their “personal liberty” image.
The National Party’s attendance is a bit of a grey area. During his term in office John Key was a frequent attendee, although his appearances were not always met with hospitality. However, it made sense for Key to be there since he was not shy about his liberal values. What was a surprise was the current Prime Minister Bill English’s decision to make a ceremonial visit to the festival this year – despite the conservative image he is being hyped up for.
The plan was met with intrigue, if a vocal pro-gay marriage politician such as John Key could still be met with antagonism by the festival-goers – how much more Bill English, whom the left see as an ultra-conservative? The day before the event, left-wing blogger Martin Bradbury was already penning attack articles on the PM’s planned visit by reminding his LGBT readers how English voted on gay marriage, civil unions and prostitution law reform. Yet surprisingly, English was met rather warmly and did not encounter into any problems – especially nothing involving sex toys.
It could be because it had been several years since any of those incidents took place, or it could also have been because no one there really gave a damn about the National Party anymore. What is more interesting to ask is what effect this will have among the conservative wing of National Party voters, the ones that English’s image as a conservative were supposed to appeal to.
Will they still take Bill English as a conservative figurehead that gives them hope that the party would revert to their Muldoon-era conservatism? If the National leadership were concerned about the hordes of voters leaving their ranks and into Winston Peters’ more proven conservative party, then allowing Bill to show up at an event to disingenuously pander to a voting block that does not consider the National Party anyway is extremely risky.
The National Party church is already broad with white collar professionals, rural farmers and the lion’s share of middle-of-the-road voters being party stalwarts. Clinching the faith of the conservative voters would secure 2017 for National, but their lust for another demographic – one already dominated by its rivals – might derail that attempt.