Finance minister presumptive New Zealand PM as challenges fade

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (UPDATED) – New Zealand Finance Minister Bill English became the presumptive prime minister Thursday, December 8, as his two challengers pulled out of the race to succeed John Key.  

His confirmation as leader-in-waiting came as he highlighted infrastructure spending as a priority and downplayed the possibility of tax cuts which Key had only two weeks ago hinted were possible ahead of next year's general election. 

As the numbers mounted in favor of English, who Key named his preferred successor when he resigned suddenly earlier this week, Police Minister Judith Collins and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman withdrew their nominations. 

Local media organizations had earlier reported 54-year-old English had majority support within the ruling National Party caucus.

"At least 30 MPs have committed to backing English, meaning he has half of the votes of National's 59-vote caucus," the New Zealand Herald said, listing the names of the pro-English camp. 

"It is clear to me that 50% of the caucus support Bill English as the leader and therefore as far as I'm concerned he has won," Collins said. 

A caucus vote on the leadership is still scheduled for Monday, December 12. 

Should he become prime minister, English has named Steven Joyce, currently economic development minister, the new finance minister and handed him a positive set of surplus forecasts. 

In one of his last duties in the finance role, English opened the government books for the half-yearly economic update, showing forecast strong growth of around 3.0% over the next 5 years with falling unemployment and rising incomes. 

It said a forecast budget surplus of NZ$473 million for the current financial year was expected to rise to NZ$8.5 billion in 2020/21. 

"The more positive outlook for the economy is driven by high levels of construction activity, exports – particularly tourism – a growing population and low interest rates," he said. 

English said the update "does not make an explicit provision for tax reductions", adding that a recent devastating earthquake highlighted the importance of paying off debt when the going was good so the government could support communities in challenging times.

Government estimates have put the cost of the quake, and its thousands of aftershocks, at NZ2.0 billion-NZ$3 billion (US$0.72 billion-$1.44 billion). 

English, a farmer with degrees in commerce and literature, has been in parliament since 1990 and was previously leader of the National Party in 2002 when it suffered its worst election defeat. 

The popular Key resigned for family reasons, having recently marked his eighth anniversary as prime minister and 10th year as leader of the centre-right National Party. –