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Photo illustration: Tina Tiller
Photo illustration: Tina Tiller

PoliticsFebruary 13, 2018

Bill English and the end of an overlong era

Photo illustration: Tina Tiller
Photo illustration: Tina Tiller

In just 15 months New Zealand has witnessed a generational sea change in its politics and media, writes Duncan Greive.

John Key. Mike Hosking. Bill English. In late 2016, little more than a year ago, this was New Zealand’s power structure: the two most powerful politicians, and the broadcaster who backed them to the hilt.

Today all have resigned from their most prominent and influential roles, and the sense of a generational change becomes inexorable. Millennials and Gen Xers – who have for so long watched older New Zealanders own power and culture in a reign which felt endless – have enacted a frighteningly swift coup.

In many ways English is unfairly lumped in with that lot. He once described himself to me as being in his “post-party political era”, and his resignation will rightly fail to arouse anything like the joy on the left that Key’s did. Yet he was a Pākehā male of a certain age, with the lived experience of someone who grew up during the rampant inflation of the 70s, and left university into the global market-oriented shift of the 80s.

We talk about the mental scars of those who grew up during the great depression, yet for 60s babies the radical swings of the decades which followed were no less profoundly influential. Key and English were men born within a few months of one another; Hosking four years later. Their touchstones are all largely similar.

New Zealand is a young and diverse country. Its average age at the 2013 census was 38, and its largest city ranked the fourth most cosmopolitan in the world last year. Yet for the past nine years many of its key institutions had a very particular look and worldview. Aside from Key, English and Hosking, the government opposition and most major media institutions were led by members of the same small demographic.

This dominance was not without its flow on effects. House prices kept hiking under successive governments, benefitting the same generation at the expense of those younger. The fear of inflation and of national debt meant that major political issues were fenced off, considered closed discussions because of truths known very deeply to those who lived through certain economic events. This held for both the left and the right – the reforms of the 80s a signal event forever to be re-litigated by those of a particular age, even though over half the country had no memory of them.

It felt like it would last forever, as eras often do. That younger people would always be told what to do by our parents, because they knew better. Until, with Key’s resignation, cracks started to show. Now there is no one over 50 on either of our 7pm current affairs shows. The ancient mariner Winston Peters aside, every other current leader of a party in parliament is under 50, with two under 40. Perhaps most shockingly of all, even in English’s National party – the embodiment of Middle New Zealand conservativism – most of the key contenders to replace him are young(ish), Māori, women, or some combination of the three.

When you care to look, the signs of a shift are everywhere. Bob Jones just lost his gig at the NBR for an appalling column – yet one he had been writing variations on in mainstream media for decades. Leighton Smith is following his more prominent colleagues into retirement. The younger – though beloved of and defended by the ZB crowd – Tony Veitch has also moved on.

It’s not just personalities. RNZ has vastly increased its use of te reo over the past year, while the Herald, which just four years ago ran a Waitangi Day front page with a raised fist – and declared a ‘protest free zone’ within its pages – this year ran a te reo editorial on the cover.

That same cover featured the headline ‘something has changed’. For many, that’s true only in the sense of window dressing – the pernicious social issues and inequalities which have built up and been largely shrugged at over many years remain. And yet it is difficult to argue that with Ardern’s election came a new mood – a sense that one generation had seized power from another, quite unexpectedly. And that while solving the issues emphasised by the younger, more diverse New Zealand will not be easy – and nor is age anything like the only relevant divider – at least that generation is now much more in charge of its own destiny.

With Bill English, then, goes the last surviving relic of his era to remain in such a prominent position. He governed with a firm but mostly fair hand, and has left with grace, at the right time. As he announced his resignation, he was largely the stolid, dependable leader we knew. His voice only cracked when he spoke of his family, and the sacrifices they had made. He was flanked most closely by his kids, and the symbolism was hard to miss: the post-war generation’s time is coming to and end; their children will be taking it from here.

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