English rebukes visiting academic

A visiting economist has accused Finance Minister Bill English of "bullying" and "menace" after a heated encounter in a TV studio.

London School of Economics Professor Robert Wade said Mr English made a stabbing motion with his finger towards his chest and berated him in between their separate appearances on TVNZ's Q + A programme at the weekend. There was no physical contact.

English disagreed with his remarks on inequality and capital gains tax and warned him "Don't you say that again", Wade said.

"I was surprised by the sort of menace in his voice," the academic said yesterday. "He was like a schoolmaster and he sort of jabbed his finger in the direction of my chest like a school master wagging the finger. I just thanked him for his kind advice and proceeded on out."

He said the politician was "just asserting, in a rather bullying way I thought, his point of view . . . he wasn't in any mood to actually discuss".

English last night dismissed the academic's claims as "nonsense".

Wade is currently on a New Zealand-wide lecture tour to promote Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, a book to which he has contributed.

He was interviewed on the current affairs show ahead of English, and asserted that "over the past two decades or so, economic policy in the US, the UK and New Zealand has increasingly been set by the top 1 per cent or so for the top 1 per cent".

It was this comment to which English took exception - and Wade says he was later told the Clutha-Southland MP "just sort of exploded like a volcano out in the anteroom".

Between interviews, they crossed paths as Wade left the studio. The encounter lasted about 10 seconds, he said.

"I've not been rebuked like a headmaster to an errant pupil before. Of course, people have taken more or less strong disagreement with what I've said, but that was a particularly gross way of expressing a disagreement."

Wade said he "may of spoken sloppily" in comparing New Zealand and the US, but he was "surprised" at the reaction.

"To be fair to him, I think it is important to put that incident in the context of him being one of relatively few what you could call decent conservatives in the Government. Plenty of his colleagues are a lot less concerned about social justice than he is."

A spokesman for English said he rejected claims he was bullying or menacing. "Professor Wade's suggestions are nonsense. Mr English simply pointed out that he was wrong to say the Government was making policy for 1 to 2 per cent of the population and that those comments were offensive.

"Professor Wade thanked him for his advice and Mr English repeated those comments in the TVNZ interview."

Labour's deputy leader Grant Robertson says it is ''disgraceful'' English would make threatening comments and gestures towards an academic.

Robertson said he felt moved to apologise to Wade on behalf of New Zealanders.  

"Using a menacing tone and saying "Don't you say that again" is straight out bullying, and is unacceptable. On behalf of other New Zealanders I would like to apologise to Professor Wade for Bill English's actions," he said.

"What Bill English should be doing is listening to Robert Wade about the vital importance of addressing the growing inequality in New Zealand," he added.

Robertson linked the incident to comments by Prime Minister John Key which appeared to threaten funding for the Human Rights Commission, after the watchdog criticised the Government over new spying laws.

"This kind of bullying is now typical of a Government that is arrogant and out of touch," Robertson said.

Australian-born to Kiwi parents, Wade is in New Zealand until Friday. He is professor of political economy and development and is the author of several books. In 2008 he was a recipient of the Leontief Prize, recognising "outstanding contributions" to economic theory.

The Dominion Post