- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

AUCKLAND, Zealand Once upon a time, New Zealand opposition leader Bill English would have been a dream candidate for prime minister, a model of the "good, keen man" that used to be a Kiwi icon.

The handsome father-of-six married to a striking Samoan-Italian doctor, university educated, farmer and a sometimes boxer heads the troubled National Party heading into the July 27 general election.

But in the matriarchal society that New Zealand has become, Mr. English, 40, looks like a fresh-face altar boy being brought to account by the mother prime minister, Helen Clark, 52.

Until this week, her Labor Party has regarded the election as little more than a formality with the only point of interest being whether it can take absolute control of Parliament.

While National will remain the dominant opposition party, opinion polls put it 25 percent to 30 percent behind Labor.

Dispute over how to handle genetically engineered organisms is the main issue in the elections, but since National and Labor agree only the influential Greens have a different policy the campaign is presidential: Clark vs English.

Mr. English is a classic South Island man celebrated in beer advertisements, slow talking with gently rolled r's.

Born in the rural township of Lumsden, one of 12 children, he won a scholarship at the nation's top Catholic high school before getting an honors degree in English literature, and later a commerce degree.

Mrs. Clark and Mr. English ran parallel lives for a time born on farms, educated at elite boarding schools and discovering politics at the university.

Mr. English became a mixed-crop and sheep farmer in Dipton, a township pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

For a time, he also worked for Treasury as an economic analyst before becoming a member of Parliament in 1990, which his party won under prime minister Jim Bolger.

Mr. English became health minister in 1996, and in 1999, as Prime Minister Jenny Shipley's government crashed, he was finance minister.

Eight months ago, he became leader of the opposition.

Commentators have noted his Mr. Nice Guy image and wondered if he could cope with toughness of an election campaign and the humorless Mrs. Clark.

National Party strategy has him as the family man with his wife, social worker Mary English, 39, beside him, and often seen on the farm with his six children.

He publicly bemoaned that the campaign meant he would miss the start of his 5-year-old son's first rugby season.

"Every time I walk out that door, it has to count," he said, rationalizing the absence.

It is a none-too-subtle dig at Mrs. Clark, childless and married to academic Peter Davis, a man most New Zealanders would not recognize if he sat next to them on a bus, which he often does.

In one of the boldest campaign stunts, Mr. English took part in a charity boxing match carried live on television. It could have been a knockout for his election chances, but while he lost on points, he won public support.

As the Dominion-Post newspaper noted: "The dogged display meant fewer people are inclined to disagree with the suggestion that Mr. English has a lot of personality."

His nickname, "the Dipton Slugger," has a decent political cachet about it.


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