The Prime Minister and That Tour [New Zealand politics]

So we have news that our new Prime Minister Bill English was a supporter of the 1981 South African rugby tour to New Zealand.

For international readers, a bit of background: the sport of rugby union has been popular in New Zealand for well over a century. New Zealand’s traditional rival for international supremacy in the game was South Africa, where rugby union was the sport of the white Afrikaner minority (the black majority favoured association football). This meant that for many years, New Zealand rather liked playing South Africa.

The fly in the ointment was South Africa’s apartheid system. With the rest of the world increasingly shunning Pretoria, New Zealand’s continued obsession with playing against the (all-white) Springboks eventually led to diplomatic incidents. 25 African countries boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics because New Zealand was there. It also naturally sparked protests within New Zealand itself, with significant political consequences.


Then, in 1981, the situation reached a crisis point. The New Zealand Government of Robert Muldoon refused to stop the apartheid team from playing matches here. The result? The closest New Zealand came to Civil War in the twentieth century: half the country at the throats of the other half. Riots, ground occupations, police brutality. A nation so utterly polarised that anyone of conscious age had an opinion on it.

Except, well, our 2008-2016 Prime Minister, John Key, who claimed he couldn’t remember his stance.

Yeah right.

The problem with Key’s claim isn’t that he was really pro-Tour. Half the country was pro-Tour in 1981 – it was something that split families and communities. The problem is that Key chose to make such a baldface lie to the New Zealand public. If he had simply said “I was pro-Tour in 1981. So was 50% of the population. I was wrong about apartheid. Let’s move on,” no-one would have cared.

My view of the revelations about Bill English? Good on our new Prime Minister for at least having the decency to admit his stance when questioned. He was still (morally) wrong 36 years ago, and I would still never vote for him, but it feels nice to be reassured that we are no longer being led by someone who (in my opinion) is a sociopathic liar.


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