Memories of the '81 tour - what we remember, forget & honour

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.