Norman Kirk - The Mighty Totara

22:18, Mar 09 2014
NORMAN KIRK: Photographed at a Labour Party conference in Wellington in 1974.

A new biography of Norman Kirk expands on his short life from leaving school at 12 to becoming one of NZ's most loved PMs, before dying at just 51.

Historian David Grant remembers that he was 24 or 25 when the New Zealand public heard the news that Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk had died in office.

It was the first day of spring, 1974. Kirk had died at the Home of Compassion in Island Bay the night before. He was just 51, younger than John Key is now.

Grant was eating breakfast in a cafe in Taupo with a couple of friends when he heard. It felt like time stood still. Hugo Manson was on air on Radio NZ. He told Grant that producers took off inappropriate music and fielded call after call from grieving and disbelieving listeners.

Nearly 40 years later, Grant's biography The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk includes nearly 20 pages on Kirk's death and the outpouring of grief that followed.

"I wrote about his death and funeral in such detail because a lot of people remember that," Grant says.


When asked why he wanted to write a biography of Kirk now, Grant answers with two words. Emotion and Mururoa.

He has explained the emotion part, and Kirk's dispatching of a protest frigate to Mururoa was an obvious highlight of his 21 months as Prime Minister.

"I had never felt so proud as a young New Zealander," Grant says.

"He was a leader moving out from under the Western umbrella to make a moral protest against an inhuman act. He largely took the country with him. I believe it was the genesis of our future anti-nuclear movement."

Kirk can be seen as a transitional figure now, on the borders of history. He was New Zealand's last working-class prime minister, shaped by the now unthinkable deprivations of the Depression.

As a boy, Kirk caught ducks on the banks of the Avon River to help feed the family. He left Linwood Avenue School at the age of 12 and worked for a paint company in Lichfield St, Christchurch, climbing ladders and cleaning gutters.

He was a social conservative, flummoxed by the 1960s counter-culture and the push for abortion law reform and gay rights.

On the other hand, he helped to usher in the future. Mururoa was just one example of an independent foreign policy. He steered New Zealand towards Asia and the Pacific, made inspirational speeches at the United Nations and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and was even welcomed by US President Richard Nixon and treated to a state dinner in the White House.

That invitation might seem surprising. Kirk was wary of Nixon, as was Labour generally, not least because of the US role in deposing the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Kirk knew Allende and regarded him as a friend, and "expressed disgust" at his overthrow, Grant writes.

Kirk even criticised US foreign policy at the National Press Club in Washington DC, but Nixon either didn't mind or didn't notice. Grant suspects the US was more concerned with Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, whose administration was more overtly anti-American.

Kirk also made a principled U-turn on the 1973 Springbok Tour. He cancelled the Springboks despite earlier reassuring rugby fans that only the New Zealand Rugby Football Union had that power. He was influenced in part by a report from Police Commissioner Angus Sharp predicting widespread social disorder and violence if the tour went ahead.

Looking back at history through the lens of 1981, Grant sees the U-turn as brave rather than a broken promise.

In terms of research, Diary of the Kirk Years by Kirk's former private secretary Margaret Hayward was invaluable, along with newspaper records, Kirk's papers in Archives New Zealand and the recollections of Kirk's son, Bob Kirk, an emeritus professor of Geography at the University of Canterbury.

Of the three living members of Kirk's Cabinet, Grant talked to Colin Moyle and Bob Tizard but avoided Roger Douglas.

He also unearthed a small excerpt from Kirk's unfinished autobiography. Political commentator Chris Trotter has compared it with Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, which might be pushing it, but it is evocative. Kirk wrote about Linwood in the 1930s, the "smothering, dulling and joyless circumstances [in which] the working men and their families lived". He can seem like an energetic and formidable figure. When he was elected Mayor of Kaiapoi in 1953, aged just 30, he kept his day job at the Firestone Tyre Company in Papanui. He had already built his own home at 12 Carew St, Kaiapoi, while working fulltime and having young children.

"He was an enormously hard worker," Grant says. "People in Kaiapoi remember Kirk very affectionately."

The modest house is now registered with the Historic Places Trust, which sees it as reflecting the "solid, plain, honest and kindly character of the man himself"'.

The worker, the builder, the statesman, the self-educated man who read everything he could - it can be hard to find bad things to say about Kirk. Even his chief antagonist, Robert Muldoon, eventually said he was one of the two politicians he most respected (the other was Keith Holyoake).

"I had to try not to be too sentimental," Grant says. "It's not a hagiography. I wanted to show that he had been poorly for a long time, and the worse he became, the harder he tried to work. He would work 16 hours a day and suffered accordingly in terms of his health.

"The fact that he died young puts him in a sort of chrysalis. It's easy to be a star in your first year and then have the star fade."

You can do some counterfactual history, imagining what could have happened if Kirk had not died. He might have won the 1975 election, possibly keeping Muldoon out of the picture. The Superannuation scheme that Labour devised may have stayed in place, making New Zealand much better off today. Even Rogernomics may not have happened in the same way or to the same degree.

Or little may have changed. The economic impact of the oil shocks may still have pushed Labour out of office. Kirk would at least have had to scale back his generosity. And many of the Kirk Government's initiatives remained in place under Muldoon: the Accident Compensation Corporation, the Domestic Purposes Benefit, the Waitangi Tribunal. His foreign policy independence was picked up again by David Lange in 1984.

In some ways, the Kirk and Muldoon governments were alike. Both prime ministers believed in big government, led and dominated by one man. Both were big spenders. Both made succession difficult. A key difference is that "there was no humanitarianism in Muldoon, in my view," Grant says.

The Kirk legacy also continues in other, less public ways, as Grant explains in a footnote. He writes that "it is a source of quiet pride that Bob and Julie Kirk's youngest daughter, Kristina, works today for MFAT in foreign affairs matters for New Zealand, an area of her grandfather's strong interest and most significant achievements".

As for Labour, it has had five prime ministers since but perhaps none is as fondly remembered, particularly for current MPs keen to reposition the party. Leader David Cunliffe carried a portrait of Kirk at Waitangi this year. Grant Robertson and Shane Jones both rate him as their political hero. Robertson liked his "sense of social justice and a belief in a better world". Jones admired Kirk's practical leadership.

But you might also wonder if Labour can take other lessons from the Kirk years. Kirk spent seven years as leader of the opposition and was defeated in two elections without his party trying to roll him.

When he took over as leader in 1965, he inherited a party of "past glories, split loyalties and the dead weight of old men and women whose best days were behind them". Cunliffe might empathise.

The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk by David Grant. Random House, $44.99.

The Press