John Key can explain away his own history, but he needs to pay more respect to New Zealand's by expressing an opinion and backing down on his funeral invitations

I was 11 years old when the Springboks came to New Zealand in 1981; it is my first political memory and had a profound effect on me as it did so many. Just not on John Key. Remarkably, a man who has said he wanted to Prime Minister from age 10 was dislocated from one of the defining moments of modern times. 

It was the opposite for me. Despite my father's concerns I insisted on being taken on an anti-tour march in Palmerston North before the August 1 game against Manawatu (back when we had an awesome team). The worry was that a pro-tour march was taking place that same night on the other side of the square. The potential for violence was very real; my teenage sister was hit with an egg during the march.

I made my own banner beforehand. I'm not sure where my strength of opinion came from, but I read newspapers, watched and listened to news and attended a church with an anti-tour minister. I also remember by cousin Alan Watkins, an All Blacks trialist just years earlier before injury blighted his career, coming to visit. Sitting round the dinner table he asked each of us for our opinions, even the 11 year-old. He was pro-tour, but he gave me a voice and after that I didn't want to lose it.

The debate was everywhere. With Nelson Mandela's death that crucial moment in our nation's history is back in the spotlight and the memories come flooding back. Yet somehow Key missed it all, his reason being that he was too busy wooing wife-to-be Bronagh. I don't like to presume other people's experiences. A 20 year-old could well care more about love than politics and on face value it seems he didn't have a strong view.

He has, in the past, admitted that he was "probably mildly pro-tour", which is unsurprising for a Muldoon-admiring young National supporter. I can accept that. His story is his own. My criticism is two-fold. First, his refusal to engage with this question is clearly politically motivated. He knows he was -- mildly -- on the wrong side of history and can't bring himself to say it. How much better would it be if he, like Jim Bolger, admitted that.

Second and more importantly, no-one seems to have asked him what his view of the tour and those protests is now. That he should -- he must -- have a view on as a leader. Can you imagine a US president refusing to talk about the civil rights movement, or saying he really doesn't have an opinion on it? Perhaps Key's silence is statement enough; he has had a chance in recent days to honour that part of our history and the light those protests shone into Mandea's cell. That he has chosen not to shows a worrying lack of how profound those protests were and their place in our history. Someone needs to call him on it.

Key has kicked for touch regarding his past views, but we have every right to know how he views the tour's and the protestors' place in our national story.

Key's handling of that question has been unusually gauche in a political sense, and it now seems to have spread to his handling of the representative party heading to Nelson Mandela's funeral. To not invite one of the protest leaders is clumsy, disrespectful and shows a poor understanding of history.

Guyon Espiner said to me some years ago that in most other countries John Minto would have been knighted by now. Minto would probably turn it down of course, but he's bang on. The lack of recognition for those leaders is poor form, and Key has only added to the insult this week. He should have had the grace to see his mistake and back down... not out of some political calculation, but because it was the right thing to do. If Minto was deemed too political, then Trevor Richards perhaps?

Key of course must go as our Prime Minister (those saying otherwise disrespect the office), Pita Sharples is a good choice and Sir Don McKinnon makes sense given his work, reputation and relationships in Africa as Commonwealth Secretary-General. To have the leader of the Opposition is good form and constitutionally decent.

The odd-man out, from my point of view, is Jim Bolger. He was Prime Minister when Mandela visited? So what? I'm sure Bolger's conversion is authentic and he certainly has the mana. But how is he a 'necessity' rather than a 'nice to have'? And the history grates too much. McKinnon's subsequent work has earned a place, but to have two members of the 1981 government that so cynically used the country's division to earn another term is distasteful. To have two men who were on the wrong side of the fight and only one (Sharples) from the other is perverse.

We often have trouble remembering in this country. In that sense Key is no different from many. But we should expect more of a Prime Minister; we should see a man who can speak of and to our history, a man who can understand and honour its significance, even if that the time he was too smitten to see it.

Comments (35)

by Graeme Edgeler on December 10, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Guyon Espiner said to me some years ago that in most other countries John Minto would have been knighted by now.

He's wrong. Very few countries that have or had knighthoods hand them out to proud life-long radicals like John Minto. People who temper with age? Sure. But not the permanent radicals.

by Graeme Edgeler on December 10, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

The odd-man out, from my point of view, is Jim Bolger. He was Prime Minister when Mandela visited

I assumed it was because he was Prime Minister when Mandela was President.

 

by Richard Aston on December 10, 2013
Richard Aston

"very few countries that have or had knighthoods hand them out to proud life-long radicals like John Minto"
Except of course Nelson Mandela , yeah no knighthood but everyother honour including the  Noble Peace Prize

Oh and Martin Luther King Jnr - showed with honours and a Noble Peace Prize

by Graeme Edgeler on December 10, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

Richard - you may have missed my use of the words "like John Minto".

by Richard Aston on December 10, 2013
Richard Aston

Good post Tim, seems a few need reminding that it was large scale protests here and overseas that shifted South Africa away from apartheid, not political leaders.  Oh yes the politicians finally came on board eventually but they did not lead it.

I remember the 81 tour very well, was a bit older than you but its still vivid. The polarisation of our country and an indifferent response from the political leaders of the time, it’s a strong part of our history.

It’s all been nicely sanitised now and Mandela rightly – and courageously - led the charge to forgive but we should not forget.  We can be proud our citizen lead protests had a profound impact on apartheid and we should remember – and honour- those who lead out that work.

by Richard Aston on December 10, 2013
Richard Aston

"Richard - you may have missed my use of the words "like John Minto""

In deed I did Graham, fair enough.

by Tim Watkin on December 10, 2013
Tim Watkin

Graeme, what I've read suggests it's because they dealt with each other officially, but mostly because he was PM when Mandela made his only official visit here -- so kinda the same thing, really.

The point I was making... and Guyon as well... was that we should be able to honour people for their good contributions, even if some of their other offerings aren't in the same category. A bit like not de-knighting Doug Graham.

by Graeme Edgeler on December 10, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

The point I was making... and Guyon as well... was that we should be able to honour people for their good contributions, even if some of their other offerings aren't in the same category.

I think we should be able to honour good contributions too. But I think you're both dreaming if you thinking John Minto would have gotten an honour if he was protesting in the same way he was here on equivalent issues in Britain or Australia. Some types of protesters do, especially former protesters who have then done other things in the same vein, but not John Minto-type protesters.

For the establishment that gives out honours (in the UK, Australia and New Zealand), John Minto is more Titewhai Harawira than Joe Hawke.

by MJ on December 10, 2013
MJ

I think the point Graeme is that Minto wasn't radical in protesting the 81 tour.

He was just siding with the rest of the world.

Can you name some protestors around the world who have stood up and lead such an important protest on such important issues both domestically and abroad?

Just because the obnoxious right such as Rudey Judy Collins enjoy insulting him doesn't mean that the causes he stands for are wrong.

Especially this extremely important one, for which, if nothing else he is beloved by many people. 

I don't think he's a permanent radical unless you are like Collins or Key and think Muldoon (with his 6 years of not even having the majority of the popular vote) was a permanent leader of the government.

Do you think Sue Bradford is in this category? Much of the obnoxious right would. Yet she got a bill passed supported by a overwhelming majority to signal a change in our social standards, the point of which few are able to seriously dispute.

 

by stuart munro on December 10, 2013
stuart munro

Well it seems that the South African government has resolved this matter for us.

I think you are uncharitable Graeme, in your assessment of Minto - he has matured, and might have done so earlier were New Zealand not suffering the imposition of enthusiastic neo-liberal institutions without a shred of popular assent.

Part of his maturity can be seen in his handling of the question of attending the funeral. He would go if invited was his line. Not merely cynical angling for a free trip, he had numerous offers of the trip. Had he accepted them however, he would have been tarred with the brush that now blackens Key - a petty man walking under Mandela's legs and peeping about to find himself a dishonorable grave.

Many politicians will be looking shoddy under the South African sun.

 
by Kyle Matthews on December 10, 2013
Kyle Matthews

I think Minto would be 'knight-worthy' if he had been an anti-tour radical and then faded back to being less radical. But he's kept on trucking, and there's too much politically hard to stomach stuff - protesting Israeli tennis players etc - for him to be honoured.

by MJ on December 10, 2013
MJ

Ahh, it's good that Kyle has read Judith Collins' tweet. Good to know what the lines are.

Minto still works in the areas where he believes. He works for a union and campaigns to help those without and for better housing. This alone is worthy of an honour and people have been honoured for it. Let alone being the leader of a protest of such importance.

I guess though the right is fine with making treaty settlements then your lack of oversight (which you are incidently paid for) leads to the loss of someone's life savings. One type of behaviour is ok for a knight, another is not.

by MJ on December 10, 2013
MJ

Dame Whina Cooper? Both protests have significantly altered our nation

 

by MJ on December 10, 2013
MJ

I think you can't question his maturity (unlike some of our leaders) when you read this:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11169600

in conjunction with this:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/02/district-9-soweto-residents-exploitation

Those weren't prawn shacks- that was someone's house and something was due to be done...soon.

by Alan Johnstone on December 10, 2013
Alan Johnstone

John Minto is the worst type of protester, always happy to go and protest, never struck me as being interested in building a consensus and fixing problems. You know the type those who will not sully their hands in the real world. 

His treatment of the Israeli tennis player here a couple of years ago struck me as being shameful.

by Thomas Beagle on December 10, 2013
Thomas Beagle

"The potential for violence was very real; my teenage sister was hit with an egg during the march."

I mean. Really.

by Alan Johnstone on December 10, 2013
Alan Johnstone

On the politics of Key and the tour, he's probably correct to take the line he has, it's a long time ago. In 2008 by refusing to address the issue, he painted Clark and those who asked him about it as relics of the past, it was very cute politics. 

He refused to be defined by their terms of reference. It's impossible to back away from that now. It's lost is potency, anyone that cases about it, isn't voting national anyway. 

by MJ on December 10, 2013
MJ

What was shameful about it Alan? Apart from Judith Collins not liking it.

And what do you mean by the real world? He is attempting to get elected to parliament in order to sully his hands as much as he can. 

I love how under the link to the situation of the shantytowns of Soweto you can have the nerve to make this debate about how Minto stood up for New Zealand when our Government chose to break it's commitment to the Gleneagles agreement about a tennis player. Where NZers bashed other NZers about rugby and racism and the right wants to talk about tennis players from the 2000s. I bet you do.

Where one New Zealander threatened to kamikaze a plane into a stand full of other New Zealanders such was the heat of the issue. 

This isn't about tennis of the 2000s, it is about New Zealand and South Africa of the 1980s. 

 

 

by Alan Johnstone on December 10, 2013
Alan Johnstone

You can have two protests on either side of the bleak Stalinist expanse of the square in , PN without much danger of bumping into each other :-)

by Alan Johnstone on December 10, 2013
Alan Johnstone

It was shameful because he held the poor girl personally accountable for the actions of her state. 

What do you mean "the right"? Am I the right? You'd be surprised.

by MJ on December 10, 2013
MJ

Judith Collins is who I mean.

If I travelled overseas in 1976 I'd expect to be held accountable as a Kiwi for 20 African nations boycotting the Olympics because we wanted to play some rugby so badly we neglected our role in international pressure on the apartheid state. Even if this was on the nose, which some believe, it is out of proportion to consider this as the definer of Minto's 1981 legacy. It is a recent controversy, but not the most significant.

The morality of that case aside, I think the problem of the 'cute' politics is that it is too cute. Too many of us remember. Too many of the ones who don't grew up listening to aunts and uncles. It is a very real, important and present event in our history, and one that hasn't been fully dealt with yet.

I'd have to concur with TIm- it's Key's politics, but it has a suspicion of not owning who he is. In a similar way he tried on the underclass, but that was a fiddle he hasn't played much of late.

by MJ on December 10, 2013
MJ

Democracy (and I'm talking to you couchland USA) means you have to own the actions of your state or actively try to change them. In my opinion.

by Tim Watkin on December 10, 2013
Tim Watkin

Thomas, I'm not quite sure what you've got your pip about. Perhaps you think I was somehow using an egg thrown as an example of serious violence? If so you misunderstand the point of my semi-colon! The fear was real – my memory is a heavy police presence, much agitation in the days leading up to the protests (despite your joke Alan. And the square's changed now) and my Dad fearing for an 11 year-old boy getting caught while grown men took a swing at each other. That didn't happen, thankfully, and I gave an example of what did, showing it didn't go crazy but feelings ran high... Anyway, why am I banging on explaining one sentence? If you don't get it, you don't get it.

Alan, "a long time ago"? It's barely a generation! What's your cut off point for when things matter or remembering history? Or is there a threshold of importance, assuming that you think, for example, the world wars still matter even though they were longer ago? Of course it still matters, it's one of the biggest events in NZ's post-WWII history. As I said, few leaders would get away with taking that line about major historical events in their country.

by Alan Johnstone on December 11, 2013
Alan Johnstone

It's 33 years, it's two generations, minimum.

I doubt it has much relevance for those under 50 (I'm 42 for the purposes of disclousre). John Key understood this and was smart to downplay the event. I don't dispute it as an important historical event, but thats' what it is, history, not current affairs.

Apartheid, like communisim is thankfully gone to dustbin of history. I'd suggest that the majority of people in NZ today, have no real understanding or recollection of the events of '81, being either too young or not in the country at the time. Nor do they really care, it's yesterdays battle. It's closer in time to the Korean war than today.

 

 

by Andrew P Nichols on December 11, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

His treatment of the Israeli tennis player here a couple of years ago struck me as being shameful.

The woman in question was a poster girl for the Israeli apartheid army recruitment as well as atennios player sowas a legitimate target of protest. I guess in reality, you'd have been disapproving of anti aparthied protestors in the past too,

by Andrew P Nichols on December 11, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

His treatment of the Israeli tennis player here a couple of years ago struck me as being shameful.

The woman in question was a poster girl for the Israeli apartheid army recruitment as well as atennios player sowas a legitimate target of protest. I guess in reality, you'd have been disapproving of anti aparthied protestors in the past too,

by Andrew P Nichols on December 11, 2013
Andrew P Nichols

His treatment of the Israeli tennis player here a couple of years ago struck me as being shameful.

The woman in question was a poster girl for the Israeli apartheid army recruitment as well as atennios player sowas a legitimate target of protest. I guess in reality, you'd have been disapproving of anti aparthied protestors in the past too,

by Alan Johnstone on December 11, 2013
Alan Johnstone

I'm not going to debate the equivelence or otherwise of the Israeli state with South Africa in the 1980s. It's not the time or place.

by Andrew Osborn on December 11, 2013
Andrew Osborn

Apartheid was the worse possible regime...apart from all the other regimes in Africa at the time (a long list of tyrants available if you want details).

So why all the fuss about Apartheid when nobody could be bothered to protest about far worse abuses further up that benighted continent?

 

by stuart munro on December 11, 2013
stuart munro

@ Andrew O.,

Because they are part of our political culture and protest is effective against them. Despotic regimes are not much affected by external protests, but ones with Westminster descended governance find it a long and gruelling humiliation.

In Europe the move to individual rights often emerged in the context of religious self-determination, the hundred years war and all that. In southern Africa it was race and colour that continually threw up injustices.

Africa is really overdue for its revolution of 1848, but the external influences, especially large corporate interests like Monsanto and the oil and diamond cartels support unenlightened governance to maintain commercial advantages.

by Alan Johnstone on December 11, 2013
Alan Johnstone

Stuart's 1848 point is well made, I said the same thing last week at the pub couldn't get but in at all

by Katharine Moody on December 12, 2013
Katharine Moody

Key should have consulted with Parliament, not MFAT. It would have been far more in the spirit of unity that Mandela stood for to have a delegation thoughtfully considered and chosen by cross-party consensus. I would have hoped the conversation amongst those members deciding would have been about who Mandela would have thought worthy/appropriate.

by Tim Watkin on December 12, 2013
Tim Watkin

Alan, given the difference between the average age of a parent and their children a generation is around 25 years; by no means is it two. And I'm surprised you see the 81 tour protests as being purely about apartheid. They were huge events in this country in their own right and my view is that history ripples down the years. Can you watch the world this week and say Mandela's prison sentence is just 'history'? Can you look at the tour and not wonder 'what if' Muldoon hadn't been able to use it to win the '81 election? Imagine if Muldoon didn't have that final term, if NZ didn't get close to economic disaster, if that hadn't provided fertile ground for Rogernomics etc. Just history?

As I wrote, Key's story is his own and if the tour had little impact on him, that's his experience. And I'm not asking him to battle anything or anyone. But I'd like to know our PM was steeped in what defines us as New Zealanders -- including those over 40 who lived it.

by Richard Aston on December 12, 2013
Richard Aston

Well said Tim !

by Andrew Osborn on December 12, 2013
Andrew Osborn

Stuart: Because they are part of our political culture 

Yes, we expected better from white folk.

 

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