Getting to know Bill English, down on the farm in Dipton

Prime MInister Bill English at his family home in Dipton. Photo: NZ Herald
Prime MInister Bill English at his family home in Dipton. Photo: NZ Herald
Claire Trevett found there was more to Bill English than Budgets, speeches and suits when she spent a day on his old home turf in February last year, just after he replaced John Key as New Zealand's PM.

At the school PM Bill English went to, there is a 15-year-old cat called Lucky, which likes to run off with the rosary beads.

Teresa Jarvis, the principal of St Thomas' Aquinas in Winton, describes it as "an eccentric Catholic".

The Prime Minister is at the school for the first time since he was upgraded from Deputy Prime Minister.

There is a photo of English as a schoolboy in the school's fundraising recipe book alongside English's contributed recipe: a chocolate self-saucing pud.

The pupils don't care about Auckland house prices, the ramifications of Brexit or debt-to-income ratios.

They care about transport. In particular, they care about English's transport. They ask if English rides in a limo, if he has a private jet, if he travels much, if he stays in motels.

They ask what someone has to do to become Prime Minister and he replies, drily, "just wait long enough".

In a moment of honesty, he tells them he had tried to get there before in 2002.

"Then they decided, probably correctly, that I wasn't good enough so they gave the job to someone else."

English was at the school from 1967 to 1974, when he went to Wellington for secondary school. There was no playground and they played bullrush. The kids these days, he says, have got it too easy.

His weekly treat was a 5 cent cream bun while he did the family banking. This, he says, was "complete freedom".

The nuns are no longer in charge but in English's time, the principal was Sister Gregory: "a short old nun." English was terrified of her.

He never played pranks on the nuns. "Oh no. Nuns were scary. And holy."

He remembers it as "a Catholic island in a sea of Protestantism".

"Those sort of differences were quite significant then."

That was the 1960s and 70s. "Things impacted here. In the Catholic church I can remember my parents and their friends having robust arguments about what was changing, what was too liberal and what was not. Their kids were starting to do things - my older brothers and sisters - so there was discussion about what the children should be doing and not doing."

Prime Minister Bill English beat shearing legend Sir David Fagan in a one-sheep-match. Photo:...
Prime Minister Bill English beat shearing legend Sir David Fagan in a one-sheep-match. Photo: Supplied
He did get into some fights. The workers on the Manapouri dam project were in town at that time.

"The kids from the hydro village were hard kids. They liked fighting. [We fought] over who tackled who, who was in front of who." The nuns turned a blind eye - to a point. "They were watchful, but they didn't get concerned about it the way people would now."

The winner, he says, was "whoever had the numbers".

There were three or four of the English boys there then. "We had to stick together - the brothers."

They give things plain names down in Southland. Winton has a Middle Pub and a Top Pub. Bottom Pub closed a while ago. The store in Centre Bush between Winton and Dipton is called "The Store".

Understatement is also something of a regional affliction. But the true extent of it comes clear when it comes to White Hill.

Two journalists have been invited to Dipton as part of a "getting to know Bill" exercise.

There's a whole other "getting to know Andrew" thing going on over the other side of town so competition is hot.

English is treating it as an extreme sport.

Item one on Saturday is a walk at 7am up to the White Hill Wind Farm. The "hill" is no hill. It is of Himalayan proportions. English is fit as a buck rat. He shoots off into the distance.

Two of his protection squad members are there on alert for rogue sheep and making jokes about running boot camps for journalists so they can keep up with English in the campaign.

By the time we're halfway up I'd much rather get to know Andrew Little.

By the time we reach the top I recall the editor's demand for "fear and loathing in Dipton" and reflect the loathing part is building a great head of steam.

English is gracious enough not to rub it in too much and at the top, we watch him stride manfully through the tussock for his own promotional video.

We admire the view of all the flat land below on which we could just as easily have gone for a morning walk.

This sort of thing is probably not gratifying for English either.

The indignities of what is expected of a PM are becoming apparent. He's even had wife Mary discussing his teenage acne in the NZ Women's Weekly.

English has long kept his life private but says he knows people want to know more about the Prime Minister they haven't yet had a chance to vote for.

"In the long run people will vote on whether the National Government is doing a good job and whether they trust the Prime Minister or not.

"But they have a new Prime Minister, I have a different background and I've found they're interested in it."

So here we are being taken to school and talked through the family history - the limestone cliff that Mary mounted a crusade to save from the fertiliser works, the field English's great-grandfather Richard pitched his tent, the place English almost got shot by someone who took exception to the English brothers moving stock.

It was once hard to move around Dipton without tripping over an English. Five generations have farmed there in the 126 years since great-grandfather Richard stopped running supplies from the West Coast to the Otago gold mines and bought the farm land.

Now only one branch of the family still lives there full time - English's nephew Louis, who runs the farm with his wife and three preschool children.

The farm is English's refuge but even there he can't escape voters moaning about government policy.

Like many others in Southland, Louis has Filipino workers and the Government has made it harder to get and renew visas for them.

"Kiwis first," Louis says. "It's just there are no Kiwis down here."

In Bill English's day, the workers were the family but Louis' family is too small (by English standards at least) and too young. Louis points out Government changes to health and safety rules also rule out the things Bill English has described as "too easy" these days.

So Louis wrote to a local MP - Bill English. All he got back was a form letter acknowledging the email. English, standing beside Louis as he tells this tale, just grins.

Dipton's main drag consists of a garage, mechanic, a dairy and a hat shop. Bags of horse poo cost $2.

The house where Bill lives is the old family homestead on English Rd just up from Dipton itself. The driveway needs tending; it is serving double duty as an exhibition strip for Scotch thistles.

Two large plane trees flank the front gate. A brass bell hangs by the front door. English's late mother Norah was a fan of bells. The locals at the pub the night before had told us she also always wore a hat, which might explain the hat shop in Dipton.

It is on the farm that the startling truth comes out: if English were to return to Dipton he'd be ill-equipped to farm it.

English points to the derelict wool shed and the grain shed. He was in sheep farming and cropping. Then he points over at a flash modern building, bigger than a football field. It is the wintering shed for the cows. The English farm was converted into a dairy farm by 2000.

"So my skills in sheep and crop are obsolescent. They are no use at all. I can drive a tractor but even the tractors are much bigger and more technological."

A stunned silence greets this announcement. Was he saying the whole "Dipton farmer" thing was a mirage, a happy back story with no front?

"Are you saying you are as useful as tits on a bull?" I ask.

"I would have to start all over again," he replies.

The Dipton Farmer thing has been an important and enduring part of English's image but in reality, English left the farm in his 20s to move to Wellington to join his wife Mary.

English redeems himself later that day when he fronts up to the World Shearing Championships and shows he can still find his way round a sheep in a creditable fashion.

Even when English is in Dipton, he is of little use. Louis is asked if he puts Bill to work on his holidays.

"I haven't got him to put the [milking] cups on yet, and I don't know if I'm likely to now. His roster might be even fuller than mine."

The farm, along with the Catholic Church, are the backbones of English's character.

English says the decision to leave the farm was not easy, even with Mary as the reward.

"It was hard to leave at the start. But these are life decisions you need to make. Mary was in Wellington and I was in Southland, as we had been for two years. So it was difficult but I always knew I had interests that weren't limited to farming and that I'd want to pursue them at some stage. Mary and politics. So it just happened a bit quicker than it might have."

He still considers the farm home.

"It means a lot to me. I like to get there, I'm pretty anchored there."

He might even return one day on a more permanent basis. If so, there's good news - Louis needs Kiwi farm hands.

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