On The Nation: Patrick Gower interviews Bill English
Prime Minister Bill English has made his strongest criticisms yet of Donald Trump and says the US Government needs to
bring its focus back from what its President is doing, to economic growth and stability.
English says Trump would be welcome to visit New Zealand. “A lot of New Zealanders, I presume or I hear, don’t
necessarily support Donald Trump, but we don’t let that kind of politics get in the way of these long-standing
The PM says the US would always be welcome back into the TPP. He also says he’s feeling more optimistic about the trade
deal going ahead, but admits any significant changes may mean it needs to go back to Parliament and that wouldn’t be
until after the election.
English won’t rule out supporting a preemptive strike on North Korea, but says diplomatic solutions would be preferable.
Patrick Gower: I want to start with Donald Trump. Do you trust him?
Bill English: Look, there’s a whole lot of politics going on there in the US. We don’t focus on it hour by hour. There’s
a lot of opinions about Donald Trump. You know, he’s got to find his own style and way as president, which is clearly
different from what they’ve ever had before. So we focus on the issues where we can have an influence.
Because, look at the events over there this week — the special counsel being brought in to look at the campaign
connections with Russia; Donald Trump accused of leaking or passing information to Russia; talk there even of an
impeachment. Are you concerned about that?
Look, from our point of view, it makes it hard for the US administration to focus on getting their economic growth going
and providing stability in the region. Now, in the long run, that is a critical part of the US role — to pull along the
world economy; to provide regional stability where we can thrive. So it certainly would be better from our point of view
if they are able to focus on those issues and a bit less of the politics.
So you are concerned from that global stability and economic perspective of what’s happening over there?
Well, it’s just you can see there’s a lot of focus in their media and their political leadership around issues which are
relevant to US domestic politics but not directly relevant to our interests.
But they are directly relevant to our interests if you look at what happened this week with the passing of the
information to Russia and our involvement in the Five Eyes network. Now, there could easily be a scenario where we, in
our role as Five Eyes, give information to the United States, Donald Trump then passes it to some other country; New
Zealand is put in a difficult position. Surely you must be concerned about that — the safety of our information that we
pass to them now.
Well, we haven’t seen anything so far that indicates that there’s some kind of systemic problem there. And the analysis
of this event makes it all look a bit spontaneous. So we are quite happy to continue the kind of relationship that we
Are you going to have a watching brief on it, because he’s only been in power for, you know, just over 100 days. Are you
going to have a watching brief on what happens with intelligence?
Look, we always keep an eye on the relationship with these other countries, what happens with our intelligence. The
point of all that is to contribute to the safety of our citizens all around the world. So that Five Eyes relationship
works for us. There are some questions being raised about—
Everybody knows that Five Eyes works. It is the question of what happens once it got from Five Eyes to Donald Trump.
That’s what we’re talking about here. Does it concern you?
Well, look, I can’t imagine there’s going to be intelligence that is, you know, precisely that relevant that it’s going
to end up on the President’s desk in some way that he can miss use it or whatever. So they’ll sort all that out. We’ll
just focus on maintaining the relationship. I think there’s plenty of people keeping an eye on Donald Trump, I mean,
hour by hour. There’s news about it, so we can easily keep an eye on it.
Yeah, but, I mean, do you trust him? Coming back to that question, do you trust Donald Trump?
Well, we trust him, as the elected president of the US, to work out his own domestic politics. People have all sorts of
views about what judgements he makes, as they do about other political leaders.
Yeah, and I mean there was an open invitation for Barack Obama to come to New Zealand. Does that stand for Donald Trump?
Is there an open invitation for him to come to New Zealand?
Well, we haven’t transmitted any invitation formally. I see he’s just about to go on his first overseas trip. I’d
imagine that in order we would probably go there first — a New Zealand Prime Minister after the next election — and they
might invite him here.
Yeah, he’d be welcome in New Zealand?
Well, we would certainly welcome him here. I mean, a lot of New Zealanders, I presume or I hear, don’t necessarily
support Donald Trump, but we don’t let that kind of politics get in the way of these long-standing relationships.
And is that part of the difficulty here? You can’t say or have an opinion about Donald Trump even though lots of New
Zealanders are concerned about him. In your role as Prime Minister you can’t say anything?
Well, look, my role is to look after New Zealand’s best interests in the wider world. And we have so much to do there
which is constructive, like this visit that I’m on at the moment around TPP. We can get on with that. The impact of the
goings-on in the US, I think, could get concerning if it looks as if the US economy is going to lose confidence or if it
looks like the US is distracted from the regional stability that we enjoy.
Sure. And looking at your visit here and your meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and that commitment — a firm
commitment, actually — to get the TPP going on time, do you count that as a personal win? Is that a personal win for you
on the foreign policy front?
Look, I think it’s just another win for New Zealand on the way to TPP, because there’s a lot of work gone on in the last
three or four years. Todd McClay, our minister of trade, has done a great job over the last three or four months getting
around all the countries, just getting appointed in the right direction. And it’s, I think, coming along and personally
discussing the matter with Prime Minister Abe has certainly helped firm up our views and his views, and New Zealand and
Japan find themselves essentially leading this push to the TPP.
So if Donald Trump goes as President of the United States, whenever, for whatever reason, is there effectively an open
invitation for the United States to come back to the table on TPP, come back into it almost?
Look, I think it’s one of the incentives for the other 11 countries to keep going is that the US could come back to TPP
if there’s a TPP operating and if it remains basically unchanged from the one that the US negotiated.
Yeah, so if Donald Trump’s gone, TPP with the US in it is back on straight away almost?
Well, whether Donald Trump’s there or not, they would always be welcome back because that’s the big prize.
Sure. And on that, trade ministers will meet about the finer details in the coming days, but it has substantially
changed to what you passed in the parliament without the United States in it. What’s the government’s legal advice? Do
you need to go back to the parliament for the enabling legislation? What’s the legal advice on that?
Well, we haven’t had legal advice yet on exactly—
Will you get some?
Well, we’ll get some, but they’ll have to be clear about what has actually changed, because either the content could
change… We think that’s unlikely, because it means everyone renegotiating and so the TPP would be unlikely to get there.
But if it’s just technical changes, they may not have to go to be legislated, but certainly they would have to be tabled
in front of Parliament. Look, that’s, in a way, a bit of legal proceduralism. I think the only political issue there is
whether the Labour Party support moving ahead with the TPP—
And we’ll come to that, but it could go back to the parliament? It could have to go back to the parliament if there’s
technical changes, even?
Well, we’ll get the advice about what’s required, but we don’t imagine that a successful TPP will require significant
change in legislation.
Yeah, but it could require a change in legislation. You can’t—? You obviously can’t—?
We can’t rule it out.
And if that happened, when would you do it? Because you’ve only got so much time if you want to get this thing up and
running by February next year. Is that something that would happen before the election?
I don’t think it would. I think it would be after the election.
You’d have to do it with a new government, because that could materially change things for the TPP, couldn’t it, if you
had, for instance, a party in coalition, like New Zealand first, who didn’t support it.
Look, I think it would be very difficult for a government after this election to pull back from what is such a clearly
beneficial agreement which our businesses are looking for, which—
Winston Peters is dead against it.
Well, he may well be, but I think it would be pretty hard for a government to pull back from it.
And on the Labour Party, you’d expect them to support that? You think it’s even maybe more palatable a TPP without the
United States in it right now?
I don’t know. It’s hard to tell from what they say. But it’s pretty important that as a larger party in the parliament
they’ve got a view about it.
So you’d expect them to want to vote for this?
Well, they should. Whether they will or not, ‘course, is another matter, because just because something is a good idea
often means the Labour Party don’t vote for it.
Now, you discussed North Korea extensively with President Abe. How concerned was he about the way that Kim Jong-un is
boosting its nuclear capabilities? How concerned was President— Prime Minister Abe?
Well, look, I think he transmitted the kind of public concern that Japan has had for some time. And, remember, Japan is
very close to North Korea. There’s a real concern about North Korea’s growing technical capabilities to reach not just
Japan, but reach further with their missiles. They have quite a challenge getting the various countries to put pressure
on North Korea to actually take the steps to do it — the US, China, South Korea and Japan, who all have different
relationships among themselves. So I’d say there’s a fair bit of concern in Japan about it.
Yeah, and as for that fair bit of concern, at what point would New Zealand support a pre-emptive strike against North
Korea? At what point would we support a pre-emptive strike?
Well, look, we wouldn’t want to speculate about that, because there’s clearly now sufficient concern that you’re seeing
the US and China, in particular, lining up to try and bring some resolution to these issues without conflict. Because I
think they all share the concern of a rogue state with nuclear weapons.
Yeah, and so does the entire world. So New Zealand would potentially support a pre-emptive strike?
Well, look, I certainly would not want to speculate on that, because by far the preferred option is a diplomatic
Yeah, of course, but you won’t rule out supporting a pre-emptive strike against North Korea?
Well, as I’ve said, I just would not want to speculate on it, and I think everyone’s trying very hard not to create a
problem by imagining what it might look like. Diplomatic pressure, sanctions pressure by far preferable.
Sure. You spoke this week that you assumed that North Korea had committed some kind of cyber-attack against New Zealand.
What would they do, and why would they target us?
Look, the cyber world is full of dark corners, and there’s all sorts of people who are out there attacking our systems
all the time, which is why we, like every other country, have to be so vigilant, and New Zealand has geared up for that
over the last three or four years. So we are reasonably well protected, but we just assume that, along with the other
activities that North Korea gets into, cyber-attacks is probably among them.
Just deliberately causing cyber harm, I suppose, to New Zealand for the sake that we we’re a Western country. Is that
what you’re talking about? Like, literally, sort of, cyber mischief?
Well, look, I think these things work a bit like the recent high-profile cyber-attack. They may not necessarily be
picking on a country, and they may not necessarily be aiming at New Zealand. They’re just spraying themselves through
the Internet, trying to cause problems like any other one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of pretty clever people.
Now, turning now to domestic issues and the policy announced this week to build 34,000 homes in Auckland, for the
government to build 34,000 homes in Auckland. Prime Minister, how many of those will be affordable? How many of those
will be affordable homes that first-home buyers could get into?
Well, that’s yet to be determined. I mean, the Minister’s mentioned a few figures around about a third. The top priority
there is to get enough of our new social houses that we need for the lowest income—
The number of affordable homes under 650,000 is actually 7234, Prime Minister. It’s only 7000 homes over 10 years for
first-time buyers. Is that good enough?
Well, we’ve got to meet the need of those with the most housing need, so that’s the top priority. Then we’ve got the
opportunity to flex just how many are market houses, how many are built at lower prices and therefore more readily
available at lower incomes. So that’s a benchmark that’s been set there. And as we work our way through this, we’ll see
how the market goes, where the prices are, because as you can see in Auckland, the house prices are flattening, some
cases falling. In another two or three years when we have met our social housing needs, which are pretty important
first, we’ll see what the situation is then.
And this building of these affordable homes, you know, however many it is, it’s KiwiBuild lite, isn’t it? And, I mean,
this is what some of your MPs have called this concept of the government building houses — fantasyland, a dog of a
policy, a joke. I mean, what made you rip off this dog of a concept, of the government building houses?
Well, it’s not a rip-off. The Labour Party promised to build 100,000 houses somewhere, somehow, no one quite knows
where. Our task has been to, as we set out three or four years ago, to rebuild the state housing stock. And that’s what
we are setting out to do.
Sorry to interrupt, but it looks like— it’s four months out from an election, it looks like a policy rip-off. It smells
like a policy rip-off.
Well, it isn’t, because we started three or four years ago, and the critical phase in this project was the new Auckland
Plan that allowed the city to grow and then allows the government to build—
So it’s not a rip-off?
No, because it’s part of our longer-term stewardship of our state housing, which we’ve talked about now for four or five
years. So, look, we’re very happy to be building houses in Auckland, because we’ve got a lot of old stock. It’s the
wrong size, the land is poorly used. We talked for years about—
You’re happy to be building houses. Now, I’ll just move along, Prime Minister, to some more personal issues. A question
that was actually pretty essential for the last Prime Minister was — if you win this election, do you pledge to the New
Zealand public to stay on and fight the 2020 election?
You do? You will stay on?
That will mean that you’ve been in Parliament for 30 years at that point, Prime Minister.
I’m just getting good at it, Paddy.
All right, thank you very much.
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