The University’s Chancellor Neil Paviour-Smith says the honorary degree of Doctor of Commerce acknowledges Sir Bill’s distinguished record of public service as a Member of Parliament for 27 years and, in particular, his role as a long-serving and highly respected Finance Minister.
“In that role, he oversaw New Zealand’s response to the global financial crisis. Under his leadership the country escaped some of the worst effects of that crisis and there followed a period of strong economic performance for New Zealand,” Mr Paviour-Smith says.
Sir Bill studied commerce at the University of Otago and went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English Literature at Victoria University of Wellington. He worked as a Treasury analyst and a farmer before entering Parliament in 1990 as the Member of Parliament for the seat now known as Clutha-Southland.
Sir Bill’s leadership potential and his policy expertise were quickly identified and saw him rise rapidly through the ranks of the National Party Members of Parliament. He became the youngest member of Cabinet at the age of 34 when he was appointed Minister for Crown Health Enterprises, followed by subsequent appointments as Minister of Health and Minister of Finance.
During the Labour Governments of the early- and mid-2000s, Sir Bill served in senior Opposition roles, including Leader of the Opposition and spokesperson for both Education and Finance. When the National Party returned to the government benches in 2008, Sir Bill became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, roles in which he served with great distinction for the next eight years.
Sir Bill oversaw New Zealand’s response to the global financial crisis and his leadership proved crucial in ensuring the country escaped the worst effects of this economic downturn. In addition, he managed the fiscal impact of, and the Government’s response to, the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes. During his tenure New Zealand outperformed most of the world’s leading economies and its major trading partners, to the point where its economy was described by many commentators as ‘a rock star’ on the international stage.
Mr Paviour-Smith says, “His economic stewardship during these tumultuous years will be remembered as one of Sir Bill’s most prominent achievements. No less significant, however, were the structural improvements Sir Bill made in the public sector. He initiated a series of Better Public Service targets, intended to provide clearer direction and more effective service delivery by public servants. He was also a strong proponent of what has become known as the ‘social investment approach’, requiring policy decisions to be informed by detailed data analysis to ensure government spending is carefully targeted at reducing social deprivation.”
Mr Paviour-Smith says Sir Bill was known by his supporters and opponents as a person of high integrity. Both sides of the political divide were united in their praise for his contribution to New Zealand society when he announced his resignation from politics in 2017, a testament to his remarkable achievements over the course of his career. Throughout public life, Sir Bill has been supported by his wife Dr Mary English (Lady English), a general practitioner in Wellington and mother to their six children.
“He has often referred to the intellectual enrichment his Honours degree offered him, and we are proud to count him as one of our alumni,” Mr Paviour-Smith says.
“His intellect, humility, leadership, and desire to serve others has been an inspiration to many across the political spectrum, and his enormous contribution to our political economy and distinguished public service make him a fitting recipient of this honorary doctorate.”
The Victoria University of Wellington Council will confer an honorary doctorate on Sir Bill English at a graduation ceremony at the Michael Fowler Centre, 1.30 pm, Thursday 13 December.