Deborah Hill Cone's attack on my change analysis in today's Herald misses the point entirely, and seems to pine for a little bit of good ol' fashioned sexism and racism

One of the toughest aspects of being a columnist-for-hire is having to be ready by deadline with an instant opinion rather than a well-considered one, and I suspect it's that sort of pressure lies behind Deborah Hill Cone's piece in today's Business Herald.

In it, she has a go at me, specifically this piece I wrote when Labour MPs elected Phil Goff as their new leader ten days ago. Now it's fair game that Deb takes a swing. We act as each other's Newstalk nemeses each Friday at around 5.30pm on Larry Williams' drive show. But the substance of her argument is mis-aimed and, well, a little dopey.

I can't link to her piece because it's not online, but essentially she says it's becoming trendy to be ageist and to dismiss baby boomers as past it. She condemns such thinking as "bogus" and is "heartily sick of the youthquake". Her example is that I dismissed Goff and King as "a dusty choice not because they are ancient, but because they have too much of something called 'baggage'."

"Watkin is one of the many who spout the terribly boring rallying cry of 'change, change, change, oi, oi, oi': such a magnetic, meaningless mantra for signifying, well, nothing really."

Bless her black glasses, but apart from the fine alliteration that's nonsense.

My criticism of the new Labour leadership choices did not stem from ageism or youthquakes, but from political realities. Labour just lost an election to an inexperienced Opposition leader not because they were governing badly or mishandling the economy, but because voters were bored of the same old faces, the same old arguments and scoldings from former university lecturers. Hello? Given the political reality, does Goff – who fits that same, old bill exactly – give Labour the best chance of reclaiming the Treasury benches in three years? Perhaps he does, because Labour lacks an MP who can take them beyond the late-20th Century Labour party that they've been under Helen Clark and redesign them for the 21st Century. Which was the point of the piece really – Clark's poor succession planning.

I said nothing about the baby boomers inability to adapt, or about people over 40 being unable to change. Hill Cone may be surprised to know that I agree with her argument that the middle-aged and older can be better at change than the up-and-comers. She shouldn't be, however. All she has to do is look at the pundits Eleanor and I have brought together on this site to see how we value experience. David Beatson, Jane Young, David Lewis, Keith Ovenden... we wanted people writing here who had seen it and done it and done it again, exactly because financial pressures in the countries newsrooms mean the voices in our media are increasingly of those who are still in their journalistic short pants.

But political reality is something else again, and it's here that Deb seems to have missed the point. Politicians trade in mass perception and the public mood. In these things age and timing and baggage matter a great deal. Goff is associated in the public mind with both the fourth and fifth Labour governments, not the sixth.

My thinking of this has been influenced in part by the thoughtful pieces on this site written by Jon Johansson (here and here), in which he talked through ideas of political generations and transformation. Check 'em out, Deb, they've got nothing to do with a "puppyish infatuation with the newest thing". For example, Johansson says:

While epoch-defining events differ between Clark’s political cohort and my own–Vietnam, the pill, and counter culture (such as it was here) versus the Springbok Tour, Abba, and not much else–we are linked by something even stronger, something which Generation X assuredly cannot share with us. We traversed both sides of the 1984 transition.

Generation X has only known the post-Douglas freedoms, globalization, and the benefits of the information revolution. That is qualitatively different from those of us who straddled the Muldoon decline, the excitement and promise of change, and then settled in to the grim realities of Lange and Douglas’ new frontier. Freedom imposed costs alongside liberation.

Observing the change from a command economy to a deregulated one; from a pre-to-post treaty phase of (moral) restoration; and from pre-to-post ANZUS foreign policy, we baby boomers straddled two distinct eras of New Zealand.

But before Jon wrote his pieces the issues had been forefront in my mind after two years in the US. There, the politics of change has a very different meaning than it does here. From a New Zealand viewpoint, it might be reasonable to argue that the cry for change means "nothing really". John Key has not presented himself as a transformational figure; even if he's hiding a revolution in the back of his mind, he doesn't have a transformational mandate. National's "change" slogan was not substantial and did sell "change for change's sake", something Hill Cone is critical of.

But in America, Barack Obama is a transformational politician with a mandate to match. I realised quite how meaningful is cry for change is only after many, many conversations with Americans, many hours of news and talk shows, and piercing analysis such as this Atlantic cover story by the brilliant Andrew Sullivan back at the end of last year. Sullivan writes:

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

It's a far-sighted piece that goes on to point out that the arguments of the baby boomer generation are still endlessly picked over despite having been worn thin over several decades. In the US it's Vietnam, Roe v Wade, and Reagonomics. Here, it's state asset sales, race relations, and Rogernomics. Maybe Deb is just sad to see the era of her fellow free-marketers coming to and end, but given the crisis the world economy is facing we need to change the conversation, explore new ideas. In politics, that usually means a new generation.

It's hard to understand from New Zealand how much that culture war divides and defines America. Obama can move beyond it – for now at least – because he doesn't have decades of political baggage. He doesn't have to take sides in that debate, he can start talking about some new topics. Key has the same opportunity, and has grasped it in part with his deal with the Maori Party. The problem is that the shadows of bulk-funding, privatisation and Sir Roger Douglas hover over his coalition agreements.

So the political discussion of change isn't ageist. It's much more than that. Heck, look at Sarah Palin, who Deb defended as a great feminist role model. She's young, but full of the same old arguments and hopeless to boot.

But political issues aside, as I've said. I actually agree with Deb's point about the value and flexibility of experience. But her dismissal of "so-called yoof", or more particularly why she dismisses them, is just dopey. Hill Cone says that the 20-somethings today are conformists because they "were reared on a core syllabus of anti-racism and anti-sexism..." Oh the horror, people fewer prejudices! How dull! How timid they must be!

It's a ridiculous claim, that much more so from a woman whose career has benefited from all those who have worked so hard to shrink sexism to what it is today. Lacking prejudice is not the same as lacking spunk and creativity.

You might as well say that those enlightenment folk who wrestled radical ideas of respect and freedom into social norms were tedious dullards. They would be great people to explain to Deb just how meaningful change can be, regardless of age.

Comments (9)

by Deborah Hill Cone on November 21, 2008
Deborah Hill Cone

I notice you don't have much deadline pressure if you can bother writing a piece that is twice as long as my original column to respond to it.

A couple of points.

I was not trying to do a piece of piercing analysis in my 500 word column, just to make  simple point:  we should question whether we choose youth simply for change's sake.

But unlike you I do think this government got voted out because they governed badly and had no principles (Taito Philip Field, David Benson Pope, Winston Peters etc)  not simply because the electorate wanted a change.

ps I wasn't trying to have a "go" at you - I thought you would appreciate me giving your website a plug!





by Tim Watkin on November 21, 2008
Tim Watkin

Call it the luxury of the internet... I can go longer if I want to. As I said, I don't mind you having a crack. It gets some good debate going, and we're big enough and ugly enough etc.

As for your point about youth and change, I largely agree. But your piece goes further than that, and it's those other arguments I disagree with.

I think you're wrong about the election result too. The last government was not exceptional in its political manoeuvres. Clark was tougher with some than others certainly and was less consistent than I might have liked. But all PMs move the goalposts to suit themselves, and to say her government had no principles over-states it. As for the voters, South Auckland didn't stay home and the working class didn't veer right because of political scandals. It was about issues closer to home, I reckon.

All good grist though, Deb. At least I got you to join up!

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 22, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

Good God man, is this your standard of literacy?  You should have your keyboard licence revoked.

"but because voters were bored of the same old faces,"

Next you'll be inflicting upon your readers gems like 'different than' and 'similar with' or the ultimate sin, 'had of.'

Apart from that, I think you are away with the fairies and she is right on the button.  This election, more than anything, was a judgement on the relative character of the two teams.  During the last twelve months I have heard parishioners who were life long Labour supporters, sadly and discreetly using the word 'totalitarian' to describe the Clark, Cullen, Peters shambles.

My only surpise is that the Greens didn't do better and Labour didn't do a lot worse.







by Peter Salmon on November 22, 2008
Peter Salmon


I enjoyed your piece, but when my wife's cleaning lady who has only ever voted Labour aks if she should vote ACT, then there is something else at work.

Further there was a reek of depeseration about some of Labour's campaigning, though as I wrote on another thread I was far from sanguine about the probablity of National succeeding.

by Marian Hobbs on November 22, 2008
Marian Hobbs

Tim, succession planning has very much been in our minds, and in some way we(Labour) have achieved it. Before the election we had 13 people retire or announce retirement. That was a quarter of our caucus. And when you look at who was placed ahead of whom on the list, you can also see succession planning ( and it was very deliberate) at work.

What is very very difficult to achieve is succession planning of the leadership. Look at all the "fun" that will be had around John Key and Bill English. Remember all the comments around who went to Phil Goff's barbecue. One of Helen's successes was balancing the factions and killing that speculation. 

And this  has a price. While you can plan succession within the caucus and achieve it, when you invest in a strong leader and base your campaign on leadership, then you cannot plan on whom should succeed. Any answers to that would be appreciated. The US fixed term methods does allow for clever succession planning.

by Mr Magoo on November 24, 2008
Mr Magoo

I tend to agree with Tim on this one. With political leadership, the reality IS the perception. Many great leaders have gone down in a hail of corrupted public perception.

Helen Clark is a good example because her public image was undermined severly prior to the election, then she was subsequently hailed as one of NZ's greatest prime ministers post election - something I don't see the media reflecting on too much to be honest. (i.e. the public assasination of one of our greatest leaders)

Helen's leadership and profile eclipsed anyone else apart from perhaps Phil Goff himself and even then he is not perceived as a great alternative. (judging from what I have read - polls will have to be run here of course but these things have a habit of being self fulfilling) My own perception of Phil was not so much a leader as "Mr Capable" - something of a political insult I would imagine.

Whether this is a mistake/oversight or intentional on the party's part is now irrelevant. It is a dilemma, but and one which I am 100% confident the labour party is attempting to address as we speak. I imagine that Phil is about to reinvent his public profile and indeed has the stage cleared for him to do exactly this.

One of the many great shames of politics is that whether or not Phil is a "great leader" or not is almost a complete irrelevancy. It is how he is perceived that truly counts. (For examples, see G.W. Bush)

John Key won the election on it. (code word for this: "presidential") The reality will be washed out in the coming years one way or another - to be honest I am reserving judgement on this question myself.

Disclaimer: Although this post is very labour friendly, I am not a labour supporter - sorry Marian. I could write pages on why I do not support the Labour party, but that is not for this discussion.

by Jane Young on November 24, 2008
Jane Young
Hey guys I think there's more than just a little Obama envy going on here...finally American politics has something the world actually wants and if it is causing more than a little soul searching on issues such as succession planning then all power to it. Phil Goff for all his qualities is no Obama, but neither is John Key, nor Kevin Rudd, David Cameron nor any other host of youngish leaders (and leaders in waiting) in Western democracies. They will all do well to watch very closely how Obama practices his new politics. The fact that he looks to be stacking his Cabinet with Clintonistas is as clear an indication as any that while he is young and energised he is not stupid. Strong governments exist only when there are strong people in them and political strength is not only found in older politicians as the casualty list of Clark's Cabinet attests. As for succession, Goff should have taken the top job about 18 months ago, just as Blair should have stepped aside before he finally did (if we're talking succession for the good of the party). You would however have a very big job searching for a President or a Prime Minister who actually groomed their own successor. From my years of observation those at the top of the pole are usually more occupied with staying there which is why Caucus coups are so vicious. While Russia stretches the definition of democracy, Putin most easily comes to mind as a leader who has groomed his young successor to the point of having him successfully 'elected' . We can only watch as perhaps Medvedev quickly grooms a seasoned older guy called Putin to take over from him. Obama's appeal grows by the second!
by Tim Watkin on December 01, 2008
Tim Watkin


I take your point about the new talent brought in this election, but don't you think it came three years too late? Labour let National own the change message. Voters talked about the nanny state, but given the economic success of the past nine years, I suspect most would have put up with the social policy if they had been given some new faces; faces that didn't constantly remind them old policies-gone-by.

Yes, leaders are hard to find and groom without undermining the existing boss. But given Helen's unquestioned position and the lessons of NZ history showing that a single leader winning four elections is almost impossible, surely this was the time to try it. I'm curious, did anyone in Labour dare point out that history  to the Labour leadership – that a fourth election win under Helen was highly unlikely – and suggest a mid-term handover as Jane suggests?

Having said all that, I'm struggling to think of examples from say business or sport where leaders did this well. Good succession is incredibly tough. And the US offers no useful comparisons that I can bring to mind, even with its time limits. As Jane says, we may be suffering Obama-envy, but he was hardly an heir-apparent in the Democratic party, not for 2008 anyway. He forced his way past the woman-who-was-meant-to-lead.

by Rebecca on December 01, 2008


Tim, I solely signed up to pundit just to respond to this article. I have just heard you on the panel with Jim. I have not read Deborah Hill Cone’s critique on you but I heard her rant last week on the panel about ageism (and her ridiculous applaud for Palin a while back). I hope for her sake the piece she actually wrote was more thought out than her panel deliberations, because she sounded like a fool.


Thank you for responding because someone needed to say something about her un-insightful and ignorant comments last week: The problem with Hill Cone is that, on the panel atleast, she flounders so much for any decent idea when something finally comes forth its uniformed dribble. Although I don't know how to account for her presumbaly thought through written peices ?

And clearly, she completely missed the point of your article. But surely she would know that you would  never suggest something so ignorant? or am I being naive ?

But as for your article, I completely agree. Goff and King are the same old thing (esp, with Goff being academic) and even though I don’t want it, national will get in 2011 if Goff is Key’s competitor. But, then who else is there, do you think? To offer a completely amateur opinion, I like Chris Carter


As for Hill Cone’s criticism of your lengthy response, well I am warmed to see such dedication for getting your voice heard when people are in a position to try and misrepresent you. And her comment is obviously a knee jerk reaction by her to desperately try to cover her folly.


So in that spirit, as a response to Hill Cone’s response to Tim’s article :


Hill Cone, I am 26 years old and no conservative and I don’t meet many young people who are, believe me, and I think I would have greater access to this group don’t you ?


And besides, even though I appreciate age as wisdom (All the people I work with range from about 40-60 + and are ever so helpful) I also as a young person am constantly judged and criticised by other older people who have settled in their views and are never going to change. And I get really sick of middle aged people in the media deciding what young people are and are not. It is you Hill Cone who is the ageist here I’m afraid.


The young people you mix with must be fundamentalist Christians who wear chastity rings…..oh….is that your connection to Palin ? who you think is “cool”? You do realise she thinks Africa is a country and that dinosaurs were created 4,000 years ago? The only reason she can handle raising children and work is because SHE DOESN’T READ. If we could all have her fundamentalist beliefs, we’d all have much more time to raise children, work and shoot moose for dinner because we could discard all that rubbish called learning that takes up so much time of informed people’s lives




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