The Fresher PM: Bill English’s First Year at the University of Otago

The Fresher PM: Bill English’s First Year at the University of Otago

This feature contains reference to extreme racist and homophobic language and behaviour.


It was a culture of hyper-masculinity, heavy drinking, and hard partying. The Critic Editor at the time called it “the business of bigotry,” and said it was marred by homophobia and casual racism. Those who were there called it the time of their lives and the very peak of the scarfie tradition. The year was 1981 and the hall was Selwyn College, and future Prime Minister Bill English would spend his first year at the University of Otago within its walls.

With the permission of the Selwyn College Students’ Association (S.C.S.A.) and the Selwyn College Warden, we were able to access records and minutes kept at the Hocken Library which gave us a rare insight into the life and culture Bill English would have experienced during his first year at Otago.

Bill English was 19 years old and coming off a gap year working on the family farm in Dipton. He had spent his high school years at St Patrick’s College in Upper Hutt. His years at Selwyn were clearly a formative experience. He met his wife, Mary, while he was there. Dozens of his brothers, sons, nieces and nephews have attended the hall in his wake, including two nephews and a son who are there this year, according to Selwyn President Hugo Fletcher.



1981 was the peak of initiation brutality at Selwyn. While in the dining hall, returners had the right to verbally abuse freshers to their hearts desire, draw on them, or make them wear toilet seats around their necks. According to Warwick Taylor, who was a student there at the time, it was also common practise to chainsaw through the doors of fresher’s rooms. “Second years would come into your room and cover your mouth, acting frightened. They would say there was a madman on the loose, and we had to be quiet. Then someone would scream, and they would chainsaw right through the door.”

The Leith Run, where Selwyn students carry a heavy bath down the Water of Leith, is one of the oldest college traditions, and Bill English would remember it well. He had the unfortunate luck of dropping the bath – a cardinal sin at Selwyn. It landed on his foot, breaking it and leaving him in crutches.

The big social events recorded in the S.C.S.A. minutes were a ‘Beach Bash’ at the Long Beach cave, and the Orientation Ball, which is where Bill first met his wife after their respective dates left with one another.

By all accounts, Bill was a very popular student at the Hall. I spoke to three students who attended the hall at the time, and they all had positive memories. “I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him,” one former student said. “He was a very serious guy, but very stable and I remember him being a good guy.” His faith was a common memory among those that knew him, with everyone I spoke to reiterating some variation of “he was a very devoted Catholic, Christian person”. Another student remembered him as “One hell of a rugby player … he was small, but strong as an ox”.


Beers and Bucket Chunders

“There was a real culture of beers and good times,” one former student reminisced. “It could be tough to keep up with, and it was difficult for some people, but those of us who had been at boarding school adapted.”

Warwick Taylor remembers the “incredibly blokey, masculine culture” reaching a boiling point that year, which was a big part of the reason women were introduced three years later, “It was just taken to the extreme. There was so much tradition to what we did, but by that time the culture was just starting to break down, cracks were emerging.”

The S.C.S.A. would buy pallet loads of crates from the Robbie Burns Pub and sell them to the students. “That was all we drank in those days,” Taylor says. “It was beer in crate bottles, and it was Speight’s and DB, spirits just weren’t a thing.”

According to Taylor, that year had the largest bottle collection in the college’s history. “We had gone through 2000 dozen [24,000] bottles by Easter. That had never been done before. That’s what I mean by the culture breaking down; it was taken to excess.”

That drunken excess was on full display at the annual ANZAC Concert, a kind of talent show where each floor would put on a performance.

The S.C.S.A. Intellectual Affairs Logbook (IA) ‘Intellectual Affairs’ being an ironic misnomer) made note of four standout performances. One group of boys sang ‘I’m Singing in the Rain’ while they stripped and, as a finale, urinated on the crown below them. One student slaughtered four live chickens on stage, which explained the number of chicken-related jokes in the college newsletter that month. And, the Logbook noted, “as usual, there was urine sculling”.

The most notable act was by the students who lived in Top Floor Sargood, and was recounted independently by Taylor and the Logbook. “Half of Top Floor Sargood chundered into a bucket and [name redacted] drank it.” Sargood was the first-year residents building, and, according to one source, who said he “lived two or three doors down from him,” Bill English lived on Top Floor Sargood, although we were unable to confirm whether he was part of the ‘half’ which took part in the bucket chundering. That means there is a 50% chance that someone drank the Prime Minister’s vomit.


“Insult a Poof Week”

June 22-28 on the S.C.S.A. events calendar is pencilled in as “Insult a Poof Week”. It was wedged between a golf game against Knox and the Studholme ball. This was still five years before the Homosexual Law Reform Bill legalised gay sex.

No further information was provided on what exactly “Insult a Poof Week” could have involved. None of the Selwyn students I contacted had any recollection of any such event happening. One said that he could imagine it happening but “Surely only in jest. Inappropriate jest probably, but jest. We had one week where we’d insult the Catholics, one week another thing.”

Warwick Taylor, however, remembers it differently. He said that the culture of homophobia was a real and present issue. He had a gay brother and was accepting of the gay community at the time, but he said his views were “Not at all common [within the hall]. There was a real animosity towards [A homosexual former resident who he was close friends with], with everyone being such kiwi blokes. I had to fend off flack and stub it in the nose or I would get labelled [as gay]. Today I wouldn’t care, but back then I was not willing to be wearing that label. It was an attempt at me personally, and I was surprised by the breadth of people being nasty to me, pushing my levers to see if I’d bite. It was not just the rugby crowd [of which Bill English was a part], it was everyone. There are a couple I thought may have even been in the closet themselves. Particularly bad were the 2nd years, because they had really bought into the community by that point.”

He remembered rumours spreading about two people in particular being gay, and he speculated that the committee may have written in “Insult a Poof Week” as a dig at one of them.

Paul Gourlie, who was OUSA President from 1979-80 and a former Selwyn College resident, said he heard a lot of homophobic slurs and insults, but “A lot of the time the people making those comments could well have been closeted themselves. In many ways I think it might have been a way for people to deal with it. It normalised it. It was a way for people to deal with it if they weren’t comfortable with it. I think they were comfortable if they could just say ‘oh, so-and-so’s a homo, a poof’.”

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to queries about Bill English’s recollection of homophobia at Selwyn or his position on the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. Dunedin City Councillor and former National MP Michael Laws knew Bill English at the time through their involvement in Young National. He said that opinion toward Homosexual Law Reform was split within the organization, but they were “Generally in favour,” though Bill English apparently didn’t share that view. “He was deeply conservative and deeply Catholic,” Laws said. “His Catholic conservatism is rooted in his upbringing … He fiercely opposed my 1995 private member’s bill to legalise voluntary euthanasia and is conservative on almost every social issue, courtesy of his upbringing.”

Bill English voted against both Civil Unions and Gay Marriage, and voted for a 2005 bill that sought to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. Upon being promoted to Prime Minister late last year, he did say in an interview that he had changed his mind on gay marriage and was no longer opposed.


The Springbok Tour

The tumultuous Springbok Tour was by far the biggest news story of 1981, turning friends and families against one another, tearing the nation in two. The New Zealand government was allowing the South African rugby team, the Springboks, to come to New Zealand to play against the All Blacks despite many countries cutting sporting ties to South Africa due to the country’s practise of apartheid, a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa between 1948 and 1991. In 1981 Critic featured the Springbok Tour on the cover seven times in eight weeks.

According to an entry in the I.A. Logbook, Selwyn did not share the anti-tour sentiment of Critic. “Selwyn stands about 90% in favour of the Springbok tour,” it read, “With those opposing it keeping a very low profile and saying little”.

A separate entry read, “Nowadays the tyranny of the majority over the minority is a fact of life. Either you adapt or you become an extraneous piece of merchandise.”

Bill English admitted in an interview earlier this year that he was “probably for it … I was keen to see the tour happen, I thought sport shouldn’t be mixed with politics”. Looking back on his stance he said, “I don’t regret it, but I’m pleased I learnt from it. It helped persuade me particularly as a politician to be committed and spend time on the Māori related issues in New Zealand, and I'm pretty satisfied about where that's got to."

Michael Laws was President of the pro-tour organisation S.C.R.U.M. He said that while Bill English did support his cause, he was not actively involved in the movement.

Whether you were leading the charge in the counter-protest or simply a sideline supporter, the tour dominated dinner-table conversation at Selwyn – and everywhere else in the country. A “Large body of Selwyn students,” went along to the Student Representative Council election which would decide OUSA’s official stance on the tour. Selwyn made up the core of the 200-strong crowd of pro-tour advocates organised by S.C.R.U.M.

Chris Trotter, who was the Critic Editor in 1981, remembers the Selwyn College crowd well. “They were in the business of bigotry,” he said. “And right wing as all hell. Those private colleges – Selwyn and Knox – were really the base of the campus right.”

The final vote was close, and the motion to reaffirm OUSA’s opposition to the Tour and lend its support to legal and non-violent protest action squeaked through with a count of 219-213 with 23 abstentions.

Chris Trotter reported the reaction in that week’s issue of Critic, “Roars of triumph from the Anti’s, stunned silence from the Pro’s. At the beginning of the meeting it seemed certain that the Pro-Tour element would triumph. Whether it was the blatant displays of sexism and racism exhibited by the followers of [S.C.R.U.M.], or the McCarthyite tactics of waving around damning documents or simply a matter of common sense on the part of ordinary students who wandered in during the meeting to see what all the fuss was about – it is hard to say. However it happened, OUSA remains officially opposed to the Springbok Tour.”

S.C.R.U.M. remained to vote on the remaining issues and generally stir shit within OUSA. They ran a male candidate, Nigel Poole, for the office of Women’s Rights officer, which VP Mike Greenslade noted, “Only lost by 10 votes. Hardly a mandate to the feminists!!”

Former OUSA President Paul Gourlie, who was actively anti-tour, saw many of his peers become more and more extreme as tensions over the tour boiled over “It really drew out a lot of racist abuse, and drew a lot of ugly characters out of the woodwork,” he said. This was typified by the abnormally vicious response to the election of the Overseas Students Officer. As Critic reported:

“When it came to the election of an Overseas Students Officer the comments from the back of the room took on a thoroughly shameful tone. Alex Lee was subject to blatantly racist abuse … comments such as ‘Wogs go home!’ and ‘Send them back where they came from!’ were heard by many at the meeting.”

The article was cut out and pasted into the S.C.S.A. logbook, with a commentary on the adjacent page saying it was evidence of a “Lack of independent reporting, written by anti-tour publisher of Critic and reflects their bias against the tour and for the Labour party.”


The Department of Coon and Wog Affairs

The culture of Selwyn in 1981, at least according to the logbook, was steeped in unmistakable racism.

After an out of control party that the S.C.S.A. disapproved of, the committee’s minutes read, “Some of [the College House] islander [sic] members were not familiar with the operation of flushing toilets. No more peeing out the window and laying turds on the toilet floor – as some charming individuals have done.” This horrific statement is an example of the bigotry of the S.C.S.A. and, presumably, the college.  One empty page of the minutes just had a large scrawl reading, “College House are Queer Cunts”.

The primary means of discipline within the college was ‘bathing’. If a student did something which got on the wrong side of the S.C.S.A., they would be forcefully dumped in a bath of ice-cold water kept on the central quad.

One document on file listed the “Precedents for Bathing”. The list of offences which would get someone bathed included, among others: throwing food, not wearing a jacket at dinner, obscene behaviour liable to annoy staff, failure to stand for grace, or any so called “Prick Acts” which it noted “could essentially be anything”.

It was also apparently customary to bathe a resident on the morning of their 21st birthday. Included in a folder marked ‘1980/81’ was a notice to a student with a Fijian name, warning them of their upcoming bathing.

The notice was headlined “The Department of Coon and Wog Affairs” and charged the student with “reaching with age of 21 without reasonable excuse”.

“Under the Criminal Injustice Act 1976 we are hereby authorised by Lion Breweries in conjunction with popular sentiment to enact a ritual bathing, in accordance with the requirements of the Ku Klux Klan. Such violence as is deemed necessary by the after-mentioned officers in the execution of their duty shall be done to your offending body regardless of colour, race, creed, or being a black.”

This was typical of the private, all male halls of Selwyn and Knox at the time. Their actions are not be something that we find acceptable today, but they’re not too far from the imagination. In many ways, it was the result of putting a bunch of young men in a culture of homophobia, racism, and competitive one-up-man-ship with access to money and alcohol, and little to no adult supervision.

Bill English left Selwyn in his second year, graduated with First Class Honours, and was recruited direct from campus by the Treasury. At 28, he was elected MP for Wallace, and that career eventually landed him where he is now, Prime Minister of New Zealand, the first graduate of the University of Otago to hold the position.

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2017.
Posted 11:40am Sunday 20th August 2017 by Joel MacManus.