“LET THE WORD go forth from this time and place,” declaimed President John F. Kennedy on a freezing January day in 1961, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation.” Those words kept running through my mind as I listened to Grant Robertson deliver his Budget Speech to Parliament on Thursday. (20/5/21) Except, I thought, that torch is not being passed from my generation to his. The legacy Robertson and his colleagues have accepted from the past is not the legacy of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen but of Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling. The torch which the Baby Boom Generation refused to accept, has been grasped by their children.
To hear Robertson invoke the memory of Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets”: delivered 30 years ago as the final crushing blow against Mickey Savage’s welfare state; before announcing significant rises in social welfare benefits across-the-board; was to witness this generation of Labour politicians do what Clark and her colleagues either could not, or would not, do.
Not only was Robertson honouring what he frankly acknowledged to be a moral obligation to the poorest and most marginalised New Zealanders, but he was also delivering a stimulatory spending boost to the entire domestic economy. This was democratic-socialism with Keynesian characteristics. The political love which, for more than 30 years, has dared not speak its name.
The love which David Lange, when it mattered, turned his face from. The love which Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Michael Bassett did everything within their power to convince New Zealanders was actually evil in disguise. The love which Clark and Cullen, overawed by the seemingly unchallengeable power of neoliberalism, could not look in the eye as they passed by on the other side. The love which Jacinda Ardern’s 30- and 40-somethings have, like dizzy Christian converts, let into their hearts. Determined, now, that by their deeds we shall recognise Labour once again as Labour.
I wish it had been different. I wish that the NewLabour Party, the Alliance and the Greens had been able to redeem the Boomer generation. That what the worst of us had done, the best of us had undone. That comrades like Matt McCarten, Laila Harré, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald had rekindled the torch that the Fourth Labour Government extinguished. How I longed to see it blaze anew in the hands of the most fortunate generation in human history – ready to light the way to a better world for those who came after us.
But, the tragic truth of the matter is that there just wasn’t that much love in us. We Boomers ascended steadily the great ladder our parents had built to help us reach a future better than theirs. And then, having completed our free education and purchased our first house/s, we dismantled the ladder and threw the pieces down upon the heads of our children and grandchildren. Did we experience the pangs of conscience? Yes, of course. But we assuaged them by telling ourselves that the younger generations were a feckless bunch upon whom the freedom and prosperity we enjoyed would have been wasted.
But God and the Spirit of History are not mocked. The Boomers’ greed proved their undoing. With the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, the first cracks in neoliberalism began to appear. By 2017, even an old tusker like Winston Peters could see that free-market capitalism was failing. His last, great, exculpatory gift to New Zealand was “Jacinda”. And then, as if to reinforce Peters’ gift, History gave Jacinda a global pandemic to vanquish.
And so, there they sat: this majority Labour Government, as Robertson rolled out a genuinely left-wing budget. A budget inspired by Labour’s original economic and social principles. Giddy on the champagne of genuine radicalism: finally aware that the only permission their generation needs to govern New Zealand is their own; they lifted high the torch that now was theirs, determined not to rest easy on what their country has given them, but to give something back to their country.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 May 2021.