“There’s a lot of lessons in cleaning toilets, more guys should do it. “
This is part of Prime Minister Bill English’s answer to one of 12 questions posed by Jennifer Dann.
The question was on how do he and his wife Mary juggle their work and family life.
That they do, and do it so well, is a tribute to both of them. Although being public about it doesn’t come naturally to either of them.
Modern politics and media force politicians to reveal more about themselves than was expected in the past, which isn’t easy for someone like the PM who admits to being shy.
I’m quite a shy person. I guess it’s part of that rural, big family, Catholic culture that I’m from which tends to dampen excessive self-awareness. It’s just, “Be humble. Don’t go out there telling everyone how great you are. Someone else is probably doing it better anyway.” But I’m enjoying it more than I expected.
But showing more of the person engages people who aren’t interested in politics.
Answers like this, to the question of what he’s learned from his Samoan and Italian parents-in-law helps us understand what informs his politics.
They’re a remarkable example of the promise of coming to New Zealand being realised. They raised 13 children on one income and own their own home. They had a very strong focus on their kids getting educated and maintaining their health which is a challenge in a large family on a low income.
I have enormous respect for their effort and I’m so pleased I’ve had exposure to different cultures which I wouldn’t have had as a Pakeha farmer from Southland.
His upbringing is also an important part of who he is.
He says growing up in a family of 12 children on a Southland farm was:
A mixture of discipline, hard work and adventure. We were expected to contribute to the farm and the household to the maximum of our ability at whatever age. When I was 10 I was sent out to plough our paddock on the tractor with very little instruction. At age 12 I cooked breakfast for 20 people when the shearers came up for breakfast. It was pretty basic, eggs cooked fast in hot fat. The sibling rivalry was constant. I was part of a mob of five boys at the tail end. As long as you stayed in your place it was trouble-free. I did better at school than some of them but it wasn’t like you were allowed to stay home and read books. It was a household where other skills were highly valued. You might get the best grades but were you the fastest shearer or the best fencer? My father said we were more nuggety than talented.
Family is a big part of who our PM is, so is his faith:
My faith is a significant part of who I am so it can’t help but affect my personal decision-making. It’s part of your conscience. I go to church most Sundays. I like sitting down the back as just another congregation member. You hear ideas around humility, forgiveness and mercy which are not part of the general political round. I find it very balancing.
Humility, forgiveness and mercy aren’t values often attributed to politicians and most Prime Ministers don’t clean the loos at night. But he’s a better man, and PM, for all of that.