Norman Kirk

Last updated

Lucy Ruth Miller
(m. 1943)
Norman Kirk
Norman Kirk, crop.jpg
Kirk in 1966
29th Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
8 December 1972 31 August 1974
Children5, including John Kirk
Relatives Jo Luxton (grand-niece)
ProfessionRailway engineer
Signature Norman Kirk Signature-01.svg

Norman Eric Kirk PC (6 January 1923 – 31 August 1974) was a New Zealand politician who served as the 29th prime minister of New Zealand from 1972 until his sudden death in 1974.


Born into poverty in Southern Canterbury, Kirk left school at age 13 and joined the New Zealand Labour Party in 1943. He was mayor of Kaiapoi from 1953 until 1957, when he was elected to the New Zealand Parliament. He became the leader of his party in 1964. Following a Labour victory in the 1972 election, Kirk became Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and New Zealand changed into a far more assertive and consequential nation. [1] He stressed the need for regional economic development and affirmed New Zealand's solidarity with Australia in adopting independent and mutually beneficial foreign policy. Having withdrawn New Zealand troops from Vietnam upon taking office, he was highly critical of US foreign policy. [2] The same year, he strongly opposed French nuclear tests in the Pacific, and threatened to break off diplomatic relations if they continued. [3] He promoted racial equality at home and abroad; his government prevented the South African rugby team from touring New Zealand during 1973. However, his government has been criticised for the launching of the Dawn Raids, the aggressive crackdown on alleged overstayers that near-exclusively targeted Pasifika New Zealanders. [4] [5] Kirk relented to public pressure and discontinued the raids in April 1974. [6]

Kirk had a reputation as the most formidable debater of his time and once famously said that "there are four things that matter to people: they have to have somewhere to live, they have to have food to eat, they have to have clothing to wear, and they have to have something to hope for", [7] often misquoted as "somewhere to live, someone to love, somewhere to work and something to hope for". [8] In private, he suffered from effects of obesity and work exhaustion; his health rapidly deteriorated in the winter of 1974, and he died suddenly on 31 August that year. His death shocked the nation and led to an outpouring of grief; he is the most recent New Zealand Prime Minister to die in office. [9] He was given a combined state funeral and tangi in two locations, with a combination of European and Māori rites. Owing to his energy, charisma and powerful oratory, as well as his untimely death, Kirk remains one of the most popular New Zealand prime ministers. He was succeeded as head of government by Bill Rowling, who lost the subsequent election and remained party leader until 1981.

Early life and family

Norman Kirk's childhood home Norman Kirk's childhood home.jpg
Norman Kirk's childhood home

Born in Waimate, a town in South Canterbury, New Zealand, Norman Kirk came from a poor background, and his household could not afford things such as daily newspapers or a radio. [9] His father, also named Norman Kirk, was a carpenter, while his mother Vera Janet (née Jury) had migrated from the Wairarapa. [10] [11] Throughout his life, it was often speculated that Norman Kirk had Māori whakapapa, and was of mixed Kāi Tahu ancestry. This led to allegations that Kirk was passing as Pākehā. It was also claimed that Kirk had Māori relatives, which is true at least through his great-niece Jo Luxton, the current Member of the House of Representatives for Rangitata. [12] [13] While Kirk never denied being Māori, a study of his genealogy found no evidence he was Kāi Tahu and he never publicly identified himself as such. [10] [14]

While very intelligent, Kirk did not perform well academically. He left school shortly before he turned thirteen after his father lost his job. [15] [16] Despite this, however, he enjoyed reading, and often visited libraries. In particular, he enjoyed the study of history and geography. [9]

After leaving school, Kirk worked in a number of jobs, initially as an assistant roof-painter and later as a stationary engine driver, operating boilers in various factories. His health, however, deteriorated, and when the New Zealand Army called him up for military service in 1941 it found him medically unfit. After recovering somewhat, he returned to work, holding a number of different jobs. [9]

In 1943, Norman Kirk married Lucy Ruth Miller, known as Ruth, who was born in Taumarunui. The couple had three sons and two daughters. In 1975 Ruth Kirk was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). In 1974, while her husband was Prime Minister, she became patron of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. She took part in anti-abortion protest marches in Wellington and Hamilton. She died on 20 March 2000, aged 77. [17]

Early political career

Also in 1943, Kirk joined the Labour Party's branch in Kaiapoi, where he and his wife had decided to build a house. Kirk bought a 1,261 m2 (13,570 sq ft) section at 12 Carew Street for just NZ£40 (compared to today's land valuation of NZ$126,000). [18] Owing to a shortage of funds and building materials following World War II, Kirk built the house himself entirely, right down to the casting of the bricks. The house still stands today, albeit with an extension at the back and a hipped corrugated iron roof to replace the original leak-susceptible flat malthoid roof. [19]

In 1951, Kirk became Chairman of the party's Hurunui electorate committee. In 1953, Kirk led Labour to a surprising victory in elections for Kaiapoi's local council, and he became the youngest mayor in the country at age 30. [20]

As mayor, Kirk showed great creativity and implemented many changes. He surprised officials by studying issues intensely, often emerging with better knowledge of his options than the people functioning as his advisors. He resigned as mayor on 15 January 1958 and moved his family to Christchurch after being elected MP for the Lyttelton electorate. [9]

Member of Parliament

New Zealand Parliament
1957 1960 32nd Lyttelton Labour
1960 1963 33rd Lyttelton Labour
1963 1966 34th Lyttelton Labour
1966 1969 35th Lyttelton Labour
1969 1972 36th Sydenham Labour
1972 1974 37th Sydenham Labour

In 1954, Kirk stood as the Labour candidate for the Hurunui seat. While he increased Labour's share of the vote considerably, he did not win. [9] Following this, Kirk sought the Labour nomination for a by-election in Riccarton, but ultimately withdrew from the selection contest. He then turned his attention to winning nomination in the seat of Lyttelton, which Labour surprisingly lost to the National Party in a previous election. Kirk beat five better known and connected candidates including Mayor of Lyttelton Frederick Briggs and Lyttelton Borough Councillor Gladys Boyd for the nomination. [21] At the 1957 general election Kirk won the Lyttelton seat and became a Member of Parliament. In 1969 he transferred to the Sydenham seat which he held until his death. [15]

Throughout his political career, Kirk promoted the welfare state, supporting government spending for housing, health, employment, and education. As such, Kirk often appeared as a champion for ordinary New Zealanders. His working-class background also gave him some advantage, as ordinary voters saw many other politicians as out-of-touch and aloof. [15] Gradually, Kirk began to rise through Labour's internal hierarchy, becoming vice-president of the party in 1963 and president of the party in 1964. He came to the attention of media and colleagues as a potential future leader. [22] He stood for the position of Deputy Leader in 1963 following the death of Fred Hackett but was defeated by Hugh Watt. Despite lacking Watt's length of service or ministerial experience Kirk only lost by one vote, a surprising show of support. [23]

With the memory of the "Black Budget" still plaguing Labour leader Arnold Nordmeyer's profile and many within the party believed that it was time for a fresh start. In 1965 a group of mainly younger Labour MPs formed a group who became dedicated to replace Nordmeyer with Kirk, becoming known as the "Mafia". At the end of 1965 he successfully challenged Arnold Nordmeyer for the parliamentary leadership, becoming Leader of the Opposition. As leader Kirk assembled a more formal shadow cabinet system amongst the Labour caucus than had been seen in the past wishing to boost the profile of his senior MPs. However, he found it challenging to avoid it being composed mainly of Auckland and Christchurch based MPs. [24]

Using the slogan "Make things happen", [25] Kirk led Labour into the 1969 general election — the party did not win a majority, but it did increase both its share of the vote and number of seats to 44.2% and 39. [26]

Kirk speaks to a crowd outside Labour Party headquarters, Levin, 1972 Norman Kirk Levin 1972.jpg
Kirk speaks to a crowd outside Labour Party headquarters, Levin, 1972

Prime Minister (1972–1974)

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Further reading

  • Clark, Margaret, ed. (2001). Three Labour Leaders: Nordmeyer, Kirk, Rowling. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press. ISBN   0-86469-394-X.
  • Garnier, Tony; Kohn, Bruce; Booth, Pat (1978). The Hunter and the Hill : New Zealand politics in the Kirk years. Auckland: Cassell. OCLC   5288883.
  • Hayward, Margaret (1981). Diary of the Kirk Years. Auckland: Reed Publishing. ISBN   0589013505.
Norman Kirk Portrait.jpg
Premiership of Norman Kirk
8 December 1972 31 August 1974
Government offices
Preceded by Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Lyttelton
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Sydenham
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by
Owen Hills
Mayor of Kaiapoi
Succeeded by
Charles Thomas Williams
Party political offices
Preceded by President of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the Labour Party
Succeeded by