By Michael Bassett
New Zealand’s fourth Labour prime minister, Norman Eric Kirk, was the first to be born and grow to maturity in New Zealand. He was born at Waimate in South Canterbury on 6 January 1923, the eldest of three children of devout Salvation Army parents Norman Kirk, a cabinet-maker, and his wife, Vera Janet Jury. Persistent rumours during his lifetime and since claimed that Norman Kirk had some Ngai Tahu ancestry, but there is no evidence to substantiate this.
Norman Kirk senior’s cabinet-making and his considerable skills as an odd-job man (he taught his son how to make concrete building blocks and how to convert old cars into pick-up trucks) produced irregular income. The family left Waimate for Christchurch and Norman became a foundation pupil at Linwood Avenue School in April 1928. His father had only intermittent work before he joined the ranks of the unemployed during the depression. He worked on relief schemes, and his son would detail in later life a series of indignities he believed had been visited on his family by bureaucrats, such as a five-week stand-down from unemployment relief because his father had accepted a few days of privately paid work. However, the family always had food, although there was no spare money or a radio or newspaper in the home.
At school Kirk quickly learned to read. He developed a lifelong passion for libraries and books and acquired an extensive vocabulary, even if he mispronounced occasional words. The origin of the New Zealand Authors’ Fund, which he was to introduce in 1973, and of his own considerable collection of books, can be traced to this time. Geography and history were his favourite subjects. Sundays were special days, when the Kirk family spent much of their time at the Salvation Army citadel. Kirk senior was bandmaster; young Norman became second baritone. In time his adherence to the Salvation Army faltered; no other religion replaced it, although Kirk respected several, particularly Catholicism, mainly because of contact with colleagues and bishops whom he met and liked. Kirk’s habit of baring his soul and discussing intimate matters – especially his own health – helped him to develop a varied circle of friends.
Kirk’s love of the outdoors developed from regular visits to relatives in Waimate. Open spaces, he claimed, reduced him to ‘proper proportions’. Milking cows, rabbit and possum hunting, and fishing were part of his life in Waimate, and he developed a passion for swimming. Trips to visit his Kaiapoi relatives were frequent. There he liked to ride his bicycle in the flood-prone Waimakariri River.
Kirk did not shine academically, although in later life he revealed considerable intellectual gifts and a formidable memory. He left school when nearly 13 with his proficiency certificate and sought work, which he was lucky to find in 1935 as an assistant roof painter in Christchurch. By chance, Kirk picked up the rudiments of gas welding. More important for his future, he was beginning to take an interest in politics: on 27 November 1935 Kirk’s parents voted for M. J. Savage’s victorious Labour Party.
Seeking advancement, Kirk first worked as an apprentice fitter and turner (he did not complete the course), then in October 1940 won a job with New Zealand Railways at Frankton Junction in Waikato as a cleaner. He soon became an acting fireman, working with boilers. Much of his work was done at night. By 1940 he was becoming a large man: when fully grown he topped six feet one inch, and carried more and more weight, reaching 21 stone in later years. However, his health fluctuated. Goitre caused him to be laid off on sick pay in 1941, and made him unfit for military service when called up. On 19 October 1941 he began work for the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company on the Hauraki plains as a boiler assistant. From there the restless youth moved on to the Martha goldmine in Waikino in August 1942, having passed by correspondence his engine driver’s certificate, second class. He shifted to Devonport for six months in 1943 to work on the Toroa , securing his river engineer’s certificate in February 1944. He also joined the Devonport Ferry Company Employees’ Union, where he was briefly vice president. It was to be his only significant position within a union.
At the Holy Trinity Church, Devonport, on 17 July 1943, Kirk married Lucy Ruth Miller. They had met on a blind date in Paeroa and she was his first girlfriend. Kirk told journalists in later years that he possessed £7. 10s. when he married. In February 1944 the Kirks returned to the Bay of Plenty, where Norman worked as a boiler engineer at a dairy factory in Katikati on a wage of £4. 14s. per week, plus a stabilisation bonus of 14s. 7d. For a brief time they inhabited a Public Works Department hut. Over the next 16 years Norman and Ruth Kirk had three sons and two daughters.
The Kirks stayed in Katikati until 1948. They then moved south to Kaiapoi, where they bought a section for £65. Norman worked as an engine driver at the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company’s factory in Papanui, cycling back and forth to save money. He passed his engine driver’s certificate, first class, after more night study. To raise the cash to build his house in Kaiapoi from concrete blocks he made himself, Kirk occasionally cut scrub and revived old cars, turning some into half-ton trucks.
Kirk had joined the New Zealand Labour Party in 1943 and now set about building the membership of its Kaiapoi branch. He was soon chairman of the branch and in 1951 became chairman of the Hurunui Labour Representation Committee. He was establishing his credentials and reading widely in politics. Initially he concentrated on local government. With the former Labour MP Morgan Williams he approached people to stand for the Kaiapoi Borough Council. In October 1953, after a campaign involving an unprecedented series of household meetings, Kirk led a team of Labour candidates to office, defeating the sitting mayor and several councillors. At 30 he was the youngest mayor in the country, and for the first time there was a Labour majority on the Kaiapoi council.
All his life Kirk had faith in the ability of public authorities to improve the lives of lower-income people. His first objective was to replace the system of night-soil collection and septic tanks in Kaiapoi with a sewerage system built by council staff rather than private contractors. With books from the library, which he read while watching his machine at the tyre factory, Kirk absorbed information and became involved in many of the technical issues – somewhat to the dismay of his town clerk. The council stepped up its roading and footpath programme and rehabilitated the small port on the river. Anxious to see more houses and industries in the town, Kirk supported a switch from capital to unimproved value rating. He was a hard taskmaster: councillors had to do their homework, and staff experienced difficulty standing up to their mayor. He lacked social graces and could sometimes be rude; at meetings with local businessmen he would tongue-lash them, then smooth ruffled feathers – a technique that he used to good effect throughout the rest of his life. He was unopposed as mayor in 1956.
It was soon clear that Kaiapoi Borough Council was too small to contain its ebullient first citizen. In 1954 Kirk stood for Parliament in the Hurunui electorate. He improved Labour’s share of the vote, but lost. Kirk initially sought the Labour nomination at the Riccarton by-election in October 1956, but eventually withdrew from the selection contest. He won nomination for Lyttelton for the 1957 general election. A seat with a long Labour tradition, it had slipped narrowly from Labour’s grasp in 1951. Kirk took time off work and waged an energetic campaign, visiting most homes in the electorate and holding a series of house meetings – a campaign style that he urged on all future Labour candidates fighting marginal seats. On 30 November 1957 Kirk was elected to Parliament by 567 votes. He was to hold the seat until 1969, when he transferred to Sydenham. Kirk resigned as mayor of Kaiapoi on 15 January 1958, and he and his family shifted to Christchurch.
At 35 Kirk was huge. He was described as having ‘a resolute chin, a twinkling eye, a charming smile, and an impish wit’. Kirk ate big meals and loved meat. However, illnesses in youth had left him with an enlarged heart, and he was prone to blackouts, collapsing on one occasion at a parliamentary gathering. But he soon emerged as one of the best debaters in Walter Nash’s government. Kirk’s voice could range between the stentorian and the quietly persuasive, and he commanded attention whenever he was on his feet. In his maiden speech on 17 June 1958 he surprised by speaking for some time about New Zealand’s place in the world; just as he had outgrown Kaiapoi, there were to be times in his political life when he seemed to have outgrown New Zealand.
The affairs of Kirk’s electorate and of the downtrodden were never far from his mind, yet, where others became bogged down in the minutiae of their electorates, Kirk demonstrated a capacity to put local issues within a wider context. The need to expand facilities at the Lyttelton wharf led him to support a road tunnel through the Port Hills to assist the carriage of goods to and from the Canterbury hinterland. Nor did Kirk neglect the Chatham Islands, which were attached to the Lyttelton electorate. Indeed, so persistent did his efforts on behalf of them become, that 30 years later Chatham Islanders still talked about Kirk reverentially. He reminded his backbenchers in later years that no music sounded so sweet to voters as the squeak of the parish pump.
Norman Kirk seldom used the word ‘socialism’ and summed up his and the Labour government’s political philosophy as ‘a social programme which will promote the housing of our people, protect their health, and ensure full employment and equal opportunity for all’. Kirk constantly reverted to these themes. He shone in debates, and Nash predicted that Kirk would one day be prime minister. He retained his seat in 1960 by 260 votes, although the government was beaten by Keith Holyoake’s National Party.
Between 1960 and 1965 Kirk consolidated his position within the Labour Party hierarchy, firstly with solid contributions in Parliament and caucus, and secondly by moving up the ranks of the party organisation. Aided by the conference votes of several large trade unions, he was elected vice president of the party in 1963; in May 1964 he became president, holding the position until 1966. This put him first among equals. He was soon planning to challenge Arnold Nordmeyer for the leadership of the party when the post came up for election at the last caucus of 1965. In a quiet but determined campaign, Kirk revealed considerable guile, seeking, for example, the support of caucus members’ wives. On 9 December 1965, by the unexpectedly wide margin of 25 to 10, the 42-year-old Kirk became leader of the parliamentary Labour Party, and leader of the opposition. His victory seemed the more astounding because under Peter Fraser, Nash and Nordmeyer, Labour had seemed to be declining into a gerontocracy.
The baton had passed from the old guard to the new. Yet, because of the stealth he had used, Kirk was paranoid about others’ intentions. For the rest of his life he suspected plots against him where none existed. He distrusted those with formal education, and this uneasiness affected party activists’ attitudes towards him. It took several years before he established hegemony over the wider party, and this retarded progress in the 1966 election. Victory would have been difficult in any event because of the party’s opposition to New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Moreover, a downturn in the economy in 1967 widened the gap between the parliamentary and union wings of the labour movement, especially when some unions embarked on a campaign of direct action over wages in 1968.
In the 1969 election campaign Kirk finally succeeded in placing his stamp on the Labour movement. Using the slogan ‘Make things happen’, he campaigned tirelessly for planned development which, with new financial incentives, he hoped would lead to faster economic growth. Further price controls and a generous package of spending promises in education, housing and health were also high on his list. However, the two major parties’ ideas for the planned economy were not sufficiently far apart in the 1960s for campaigns to generate much economic debate. The young were more absorbed with foreign policy and race relations. Still no television star, Kirk was slightly more adept in its use than the prime minister, Keith Holyoake. Kirk’s propensity for extravagant language, bold gestures, and appeals to a sense of nationhood, coupled with an uncompromising stand against racial discrimination, attracted attention. But victory narrowly eluded him; Holyoake retained office.
Kirk was even more determined to win government. He lost weight, let his hair grow and bought several new suits. A large, distinguished (rather than fat) man emerged, this one with a shock of curly silver hair. He worked even harder, and was merciless with his colleagues, who were expected to keep the tired National government on its toes. A detailed policy document was drawn up: the promises had price tags running to hundreds of millions of dollars. Kirk’s belief that central government could fashion an environment of equal opportunities became inspirational. Like an evangelist, he carried the document everywhere, thumping it vigorously and using an occasionally savage wit on opponents within Parliament and the bureaucracy. However, continued slow economic growth led to increasing union unrest. In 1971 Kirk appealed to unions to ‘cool it’, and to create collaborative campaign teams of union and party workers to fight the 1972 election.
In February 1972 Keith Holyoake resigned as prime minister and was replaced by Jack Marshall. Not even this could blunt Labour’s campaign slogan, ‘It’s time for a change’, and on 25 November 1972 Kirk led Labour to victory with a majority of 23 seats. It was very much Kirk’s personal triumph; he dominated the campaign, and gave his government a presidential stamp of authority that caught the public imagination during its first year of office. The conservative Dominion bestowed its ‘Man of the Year’ prize on him for ‘outstanding personal potential for leadership’. A few weeks later, on 6 February 1973, Kirk was photographed at Waitangi holding the hand of a small Maori boy. It seemed to symbolise a new era of racial partnership.
Capable of rambling at cabinet meetings and sometimes speaking in parables as he edged the process of decision-making forward, Kirk none the less gave the public appearance of a man in a hurry. Pensioners were given a Christmas bonus; home-building was stepped up; diplomatic relations were established between New Zealand and the People’s Republic of China; a grant was made to the United Nations Trust Fund for South Africa; and warm personal relationships were established with the leaders of Commonwealth countries such as India, Tanzania and Bangladesh. ‘We want New Zealand’s foreign policy to express New Zealand’s national ideals as well as reflect our national interests’, Kirk declared. On 10 April 1973 the government refused to grant visas to a South African rugby team because the sport was not racially integrated. He applied pressure to the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific, and when this failed, a frigate was sent to the test area ‘to provide a focus for international opinion against the tests’. Kirk was heading an activist government the like of which had not been seen in New Zealand for 40 years.
The new government enjoyed a record surplus in its first year and revalued the currency. However, the slowing world economy, an unprecedented rise in oil prices, and a rapid rise in government expenditure fuelled inflation. By the early part of 1974 the country’s economic prospects were less rosy. Kirk’s determination did not falter; he kept reminding the Labour caucus of the sanctity of its election promises, no matter what the state of the economy. Inflation kept rising. Large wage increases became necessary, and a complex – and ill-fated – system of price justification called Maximum Retail Prices (MRP) was devised.
Kirk followed a gruelling schedule; while others were at the beach over Christmas and New Year 1973–74 he, as minister of foreign affairs, toured New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Bangladesh. In New Delhi on 28 December 1973 he developed a heart problem, but recovered. He then contracted dysentery. After the British Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in February 1974 and a series of visits from heads of state, including the Queen, Kirk decided to have his painful varicose veins attended to. His recovery from the operation on his legs on 10 April 1974 was slow; blood clots developed, and his heart gave further trouble. Flights in an unpressurised aircraft to the Bay of Islands and back exacerbated his discomfort. Kirk lost weight and sweated constantly. Yet he continued to work and attended the Labour Party conference on 16 May. Delegates were shocked by his gaunt appearance. His private behaviour became erratic; he spent time on small issues, neglecting substantial matters requiring attention.
Kirk returned to Parliament in June and spoke and handled questions, occasionally with his old flair. However, July brought a steadily worsening industrial scene with strikes and soaring inflation. Abortion and homosexual law reform, both of which Kirk opposed, began getting media attention. Polls showed that Kirk himself retained voter loyalty, but the government’s stocks were sagging. The aggressive Robert Muldoon toppled Marshall as leader of the National Party; Kirk, his health no better, and lacking sleep, was sustained by sheer willpower during the chaotic parliamentary wrangles that followed.
In the second week of August 1974 Kirk insisted on attending crucial debates on the government’s superannuation scheme. Sometimes he had trouble breathing and his staff knew that he suffered from fluid retention. After a cabinet meeting on 19 August he went home to his ministerial house in Seatoun with flu. Unable to sleep, he kept ringing colleagues and staff. On 28 August a heart specialist, Tom O’Donnell, persuaded Kirk to enter Our Lady’s Home of Compassion hospital in Island Bay. He died there on Saturday 31 August 1974 of ‘congestive cardiac failure’ and ‘thromboembolic pulmonary heart disease’. He was 51. Kirk was survived by his wife and family. Ruth Kirk died in March 2000.
There followed an outpouring of grief paralleled only by that which had followed M. J. Savage’s death in 1940. People who had been slow to embrace Kirk as a leader could not believe that he had been snatched away, seemingly in his prime. As the Labour Party slid towards defeat at the 1975 election, legends grew about the man who might have saved the country from Muldoon. Princes, prime ministers and potentates with whom Kirk had established friendships also mourned his passing; most thought him an extraordinary individual, and the ‘log cabin to White House’ metaphor was on many lips. He was Labour’s last passionate believer in big government, someone whose commanding presence and extravagant rhetoric introduced a new idealism to political debate in New Zealand.
How to cite this page: Michael Bassett. 'Kirk, Norman Eric - Biography', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Sep-10