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Karl du Fresne

The Changing of the Guard

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In the first party leaders’ debate on TV One during the election campaign, Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper tackled National leader John Key on the subject of the 1981 Springbok tour. He wanted to know what Key’s position had been.

You could almost hear the groans from thousands of living rooms, including my own. The tour was 27 years ago, for heaven’s sake; couldn’t we leave it alone? What possible relevance could it have in 2008?

Viewers aged under 40 would have been puzzled rather than exasperated. After all, who cared whether a young John Key (he would have been only 20) took part in protests against an ancient rugby tour?

I still think Soper’s question was silly, but in one sense it pinpointed a factor in the elections that seems largely to have escaped comment.

The 1981 Springbok tour was the high-water mark of the protest era. For those who opposed the tour, it was as much the defining event of their generation as Gallipoli and the Great Depression had been for their parents and grandparents. If you wanted to be cruel, you could say that for many of the protesters it was the only time in their life that they did something exciting and vaguely dangerous.

But more than that, 1981 was the ultimate expression of much that the rebellious, university-educated, baby-boomer generation stood for. It was a significant factor in the momentous political changing of the guard that occurred three years later. With the defeat of Robert Muldoon in 1984, the baby-boomer liberals moved from the streets, where they had so recently been bloodied by police batons, into the halls of power.

Soper, like me, is a member of that baby-boomer protest generation. I wouldn’t have a clue what his position was on the tour, and in any case it’s not relevant. But clearly the tour still resonated with him as a sort of political litmus test.

Moreover, he obviously didn’t think he was alone in wanting to know what Key’s attitude had been, and he may well have been right. To the thousands of liberal baby-boomers who still thrill to the memory of marching through the streets chanting “amandla awethu” (“power to the people”), what Key thought about rugby and apartheid may well have been a matter of some significance.

Key’s answer to Soper’s question – that he couldn’t really recall what he thought about the tour, because he was preoccupied pursuing the young woman who is now his wife – would have brought cries of disbelief and denunciation from veterans of the protest movement. How could anyone presuming to run for the highest office in the land not have had a firm view about the 1981 tour? And even worse, how could Key have considered it so unimportant that he couldn’t even remember what his view was? In the theology of the earnest, middle-class liberals who led the opposition to apartheid, this was tantamount to heresy.

But the brutal truth is that Key represents a generation for whom the tour didn’t matter, and matters even less in 2008. Now he’s prime minister, and the post-war liberals who have called many of the shots politically for the past 24 years are going to have to get used to it.

The left-leaning baby-boomers who helped keep Labour in power for nine years, and who watched with mounting despair in their artfully restored inner-suburban villas as the results came in on election night, are having to come to terms with the unpleasant fact that “their” people – of whom Helen Clark is the embodiment – are no longer in control. The baton has been passed to a new generation with quite different values and attitudes.

In that respect, Soper’s question identified a symbolic turning point, even if that wasn’t its purpose. The baby-boomers have had their shot at power and now it’s someone else’s turn.

I’m not a political scientist and I don’t “do” demographics, but the population statistics must surely show that the balance of electoral power has shifted, as it had to do, from my generation to generations X and Y – those born from the mid-60s on.

Admittedly these terms need to be treated with caution. “Baby-boomer” is the sociological term of convenience for people of my generation but in many ways it is unsatisfactory. I prefer to call it the sixties generation, which is a broader and looser description yet in many ways more accurate. My reasoning is that the 1960s – the era of the protest movement and student radicalism, hippiedom, drugs, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, sexual liberation (the pill) and Carnaby Street fashion – was the decade that encapsulated the profound political, cultural and ideological shifts of the time.

Technically the baby-boomer generation consists of those born between 1946 and 1964, but there were people born outside that era who exemplified baby-boomer values and people born within that era who do not. I know many people now aged in their late 60s and early 70s – too old, strictly speaking, to be baby-boomers – whose political views were shaped not in the dreary, prosperous and conformist 1950s but in the turbulent and exhilarating 1960s.

David Lange, for example, was born in 1942 but was unarguably a baby-boomer in terms of his politics. He was an idealist and a modern social democrat. Unlike the political leaders of the preceding generation, such as Holyoake, Kirk and Muldoon, he had the benefit of a free university education that was crucial in shaping his liberal attitudes.

Key was born in 1961, technically still well within baby-boomer parameters, and like Lange he went to university. But his formative experiences occurred during the 1980s, an era when many of the 1960s-era values so cherished by the liberal baby-boomers were being upended by Rogernomics.

That’s another thing the discombobulated baby-boomers will have to get used to. If it’s an article of faith among the liberal left that the 1981 protest movement was an heroic rejection of racism and authoritarianism, then it’s equally an article of faith that the economic reforms that came later in the 1980s were a betrayal of the egalitarian, social-democratic values that defined “their” New Zealand. But to all intents and purposes, people of Key’s generation have experienced only the post-Rogernomics New Zealand.

To them, the programme of deregulation, liberalisation and asset sales that horrified the liberal left (and rescued a moribund economy in the nick of time) would seem unremarkable. It’s all they have known. Grim reminders of the supposed treachery of the Douglas-Prebble-Bassett cabal – such a potent element of liberal-left folklore – are largely lost on Generation X-ers.

The extent of this generational shift is illustrated by the fact that Helen Clark in her 20s was immersed in politics (she was active in Labour’s famous Princes St branch) and taking part in protests against the Vietnam War while Key, at an equivalent age, was well on his way to making his first millions with Elders Merchant Finance. Only 11 years separate them in age but in reality the gap is infinitely wider.

So now the ageing liberal left faces the dismaying prospect of a future in which “their” leaders, the spokespeople for the sixties generation, are doomed to become yesterday’s men and women, since it seems unlikely that the reliable but unexciting Phil Goff (another baby-boomer) will be anything more than an interim Labour leader, elected to tide things over while the talented and ambitious young thrusters, such as David Cunliffe and Darren Hughes, jockey to become the next Clark.

All this has caused much wringing of hands since the election, but it’s no bad thing. The veterans of the Vietnam and apartheid protests may have convinced themselves they have a monopoly on idealism and political morality, but an honest stocktake of the baby-boomer era would show that in many ways we’ve stuffed things up spectacularly.

The sixties generation were a cosseted lot, arguably the most affluent and indulged generation in history. They responded to their good fortune by rejecting the values of their parents and rebelling against authority and conformity.

All this was very liberating, but it came at an enormous cost. A lot of babies were thrown out with the bathwater. My generation may have achieved unprecedented personal freedom, but it also created a legacy of social and family breakdown, crime, drug abuse and unhappiness on a tragic scale. John Key’s mob can’t do much worse.