Kirk fondly recalled

21:14, Nov 30 2012

Last weekend was an important anniversary.

Not the one year since last year's general election. That election resulted in New Plymouth being represented by two MPs, one National and one Labour.

I don't believe you can rule out the likelihood that the money now being ploughed into fixing the longstanding problems with the Waiwhakaiho River Bridge is because of this.

The intense local campaign forced the promise of action on the bridge from the most senior government MPs, including the prime minister, and the presence in Parliament of a Labour MP from the region has forced them to fulfil the promise.

I only wish the MP with New Plymouth after his title was the more articulate one with better prospects of seniority in the future.

Anyway, the anniversary I want to draw attention to is the 40th since the Norman Kirk Labour government was elected.


In Labour circles, and even outside the party, Kirk is remembered fondly and his government as possibly the last Labour administration of core labour movement values.

Describing it in this way is not to criticise other Labour governments since or at least not the last one, but it is to recognise that history has changed the party, especially its makeup in Parliament.

The Kirk government had its share of academics, such as Bob Tizard and Bill Rowling, but at its head was a man who started his working life getting his hands dirty.

The legend is that Kirk not only built his own house in the Canterbury town of Kaiapoi, but that he made the bricks he built it with.

His government was made up of a mix of former union officials, business people and public servants which has always typified Labour governments. It included union men like Eddie Isbey, of Auckland, and businessmen like Joe Walding, of Palmerston North.

It was a government that is remembered for bringing fresh and modern ideas to a changing society.

We'd had 12 years of a National government that was looking tired and out of ideas. The economy was stalling and the minister of finance in charge at the end of National's reign, Robert Muldoon, didn't have any ideas on how to fix the problems.

Society had changed too. The so-called swinging 60s, more mythologised than real, meant changes in social attitudes, especially to the role of women. Even though there was only one woman in Kirk's Cabinet, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, and another in Parliament, Mary Batchelor, the government introduced the Domestic Purposes Benefit to provide some security to single parents, mainly mothers.

It modernised industrial relations. This followed the growing debacle that was the old general wage order system.

Yes, it's true. There was a thing called the Arbitration Court that would order a minimum level of pay rise for everyone, until 1968, when it made a nil wage order.

On that occasion, after talks between employer organisations and unions, it was agreed the going rate would be a rise of 5 per cent and, suddenly, the court didn't have a job any more, which the new law reflected.

Joe Walding, a trader in business, was an outstanding trade and industry minister, and led the world in opening up relations with China.

That country was totally different from the China of today.

I don't think it's overstating it to say the free-trade agreement the Helen Clark Labour government negotiated with China had its origins in the work of the Kirk Labour government.

That's how far-sighted Kirk's government was.

Kirk fronted two defining aspects of his government. There were actions protesting against the nuclear testing being carried out by the French in the Pacific, which led to a legal challenge in the international court, and there was the reconciliation process with Maori, which was only ever going to be the start of a long process of healing.

The actions of the Kirk government on nuclear testing, which included sending a navy frigate with, would you believe, a Cabinet minister on board, was the start of a genuinely independent foreign policy for New Zealand. It set the basis for the fourth Labour government under David Lange to challenge nuclear weapons generally.

One of the most enlightened policies was Roger Douglas' superannuation savings scheme.

It's surprising, I know, but even Roger Douglas was capable of progressive policies once.

The scheme was canned by the 1975 National government, then led by Muldoon, after just a few weeks of being in operation.

It was copied by the Australians 10 years later. Today, the Aussies have collective savings of more than $1 trillion.

How different it could have been for us as a nation.

I'm not sure whether Kirk is held in such high regard because he died in office.

His departure as prime minister was certainly accompanied by nationwide mourning and sympathy.

Even if that is true, we can still look back on two years of government that changed New Zealand forever.

He deserves the fondness with which he is remembered.

Taranaki Daily News