Norman Kirk

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Norman Kirk
Norman Kirk Portrait.jpg
29th Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
8 December 1972 31 August 1974
Monarch Elizabeth II
Deputy Hugh Watt
Governor-General Denis Blundell
Preceded by Jack Marshall
Succeeded by Bill Rowling
19th Leader of the Opposition
In office
16 December 1965 8 December 1972
Preceded by Arnold Nordmeyer
Succeeded byJack Marshall
20th President of the Labour Party
In office
Preceded by Martyn Finlay
Succeeded by Norman Douglas
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Lyttelton
In office
1957   1969
Preceded by Harry Lake
Succeeded by Tom McGuigan
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Sydenham
In office
1969  1974
Preceded by Mabel Howard
Succeeded by John Kirk
Personal details
Born(1923-01-06)6 January 1923
Waimate, Canterbury, New Zealand
Died31 August 1974(1974-08-31) (aged 51)
Wellington, New Zealand
Resting placeWaimate Lawn Cemetery, Waimate, Canterbury, New Zealand
Political party Labour
Lucy Ruth Miller (m. 1943)
Children5, including John Kirk
Relatives Jo Luxton (great-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.


Kirk 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. He stressed the need for regional economic development and affirmed New Zealand's solidarity with Australia in adopting a foreign policy more independent of the United States. In 1973, he strongly opposed French nuclear tests in the Pacific. He promoted racial equality at home and abroad; his government prevented the South African rugby team from touring New Zealand during 1973.

The New Zealand Labour Party, or simply Labour, is a centre-left political party in New Zealand. The party's platform programme describes its founding principle as democratic socialism, while observers describe Labour as social-democratic and pragmatic in practice. It is a participant of the international Progressive Alliance.

Kaiapoi Place

Kaiapoi is a town in the Waimakariri District of the Canterbury region, in the South Island of New Zealand. The town is located approximately 17 kilometres north of central Christchurch, close to the mouth of the Waimakariri River. It is considered to be a satellite town of Christchurch, although in the Waimakariri for statistical purposes it is part of the Christchurch urban area.

New Zealand Parliament legislative body of New Zealand

The New Zealand Parliament is the legislature of New Zealand, consisting of the Queen of New Zealand (Queen-in-Parliament) and the New Zealand House of Representatives. The Queen is usually represented by her governor-general. Before 1951, there was an upper chamber, the New Zealand Legislative Council. The New Zealand Parliament was established in 1854 and is one of the oldest continuously functioning legislatures in the world. It has met in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, since 1865.

Kirk had a reputation as the most formidable debater of his time and once famously said that people don't want much, just "Someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for." [1] 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.

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. [2]

Waimate Town in New Zealand

Waimate is a town in Canterbury, New Zealand. It is situated just inland from the eastern coast of the South Island. The town is reached via a short detour west when travelling on State Highway One, the main North/South road. Waimate is 45.7 km south of Timaru, Canterbury's second city, and 20 km north of the Waitaki River, which forms the border between Canterbury and the Otago province to the south.

Canterbury, New Zealand Region of New Zealand in South Island

Canterbury is a region of New Zealand, located in the central-eastern South Island. The region covers an area of 44,508 square kilometres (17,185 sq mi), and is home to a population of 624,000.

Newspaper Scheduled publication containing news of events, articles, features, editorials, and advertising

A newspaper is a periodical publication containing written information about current events and is often typed in black ink with a white or gray background.

Kirk did not perform well at school, and left shortly before he turned thirteen. [3] Despite this, however, he enjoyed reading, and often visited libraries. In particular, he enjoyed the study of history and geography.

Library Organized collection of resources

A library is a curated collection of sources of information and similar resources, selected by experts and made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing. It provides physical or digital access to material, and may be a physical location or a virtual space, or both. A library's collection can include books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, films, maps, prints, documents, microform, CDs, cassettes, videotapes, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, e-books, audiobooks, databases, and other formats. Libraries range widely in size up to millions of items. In Latin and Greek, the idea of a bookcase is represented by Bibliotheca and Bibliothēkē : derivatives of these mean library in many modern languages, e.g. French bibliothèque.

History The study of the past as it is described in written documents.

History is the past as it is described in written documents, and the study thereof. Events occurring before written records are considered prehistory. "History" is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events. Scholars who write about history are called historians.

Geography The science that studies the terrestrial surface, the societies that inhabit it and the territories, landscapes, places or regions that form it

Geography is a field of science devoted to the study of the lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena of the Earth and planets. The first person to use the word γεωγραφία was Eratosthenes. Geography is an all-encompassing discipline that seeks an understanding of Earth and its human and natural complexities—not merely where objects are, but also how they have changed and come to be.

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.

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. [4]

Dame Lucy Ruth Kirk was a New Zealand prominent anti-abortion campaigner. Her husband was New Zealand's 29th Prime Minister, Norman Kirk.

Taumarunui Town in Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand

Taumarunui is a small town in the King Country of the central North Island of New Zealand. It is on an alluvial plain set within rugged terrain on the upper reaches of the Whanganui River, 65 km south of Te Kuiti and 55 km west of Turangi. It is under the jurisdiction of Ruapehu District, Manawatu-Wanganui Region.

Voice for Life organization

Voice for Life is a New Zealand pro-life advocacy group. Voice for Life's advocates the humanity of the unborn from the point of conception and also campaigns on end of life issues.

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). [5] 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. [6]

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. [7]

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. [2]

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. [2] Following this, Kirk sought the Labour nomination for a by-election in Riccarton, but ultimately withdrew from the selection contest. In 1957, however, Kirk won the Lyttelton electorate, reclaiming it for Labour after its surprise loss to the National Party in a previous election. In 1969 he transferred to the Sydenham seat which he held until his death. [3]

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. [3]

Gradually, Kirk began to rise through Labour's internal hierarchy, becoming vice-president of the Party in 1963 and president in 1964. At the end of 1965 he successfully challenged Arnold Nordmeyer for the parliamentary leadership, becoming Leader of the Opposition. Using the slogan "Make things happen", [8] 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. [9]

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

Kirk at Waitangi Day, 1973 Waitangi Day 1973.jpg
Kirk at Waitangi Day, 1973

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 – Time for a change, time for Labour", [10] and on 25 November 1972 Kirk led Labour to victory with a majority of 23 seats. [9]

Soon after entering office, Kirk acquired a reputation as a reforming figure. The conservative Dominion newspaper bestowed its 'Man of the Year' prize on him for "outstanding personal potential for leadership". [2] A few weeks later, on 6 February 1973, Kirk was photographed at a Waitangi Day event holding the hand of a small Māori boy; [11] the iconic picture seemed to symbolise a new era of racial partnership.

Kirk set a frenetic pace implementing a great number of new policies. In particular, the Kirk government had a far more active foreign policy than its predecessor, taking great trouble to expand New Zealand's links with Asia and Africa. Immediately after his election as Prime Minister, Kirk withdrew all New Zealand troops from Vietnam, [10] ending that nation's eight-year involvement in the Vietnam War. The Kirk government also abolished Compulsory Military Training (conscription) in New Zealand; [12] since then the New Zealand Defence Force has remained an all-volunteer professional force.

Two subjects in particular caused comment; one: Kirk's strong protest against French nuclear-weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean which led to his government, along with Australia, taking France to the International Court of Justice in 1972 and him sending two New Zealand navy frigates, HMNZS Canterbury and Otago, into the test zone area at Mururoa Atoll in a symbolic act of protest in 1973. [13] [14] The other: his refusal to allow a visit by a South African rugby team, a decision he made because the apartheid régime in South Africa would not accept racial integration for that sport. [15] He was also highly critical of US foreign policy, speaking before the United Nations of the US involvement in the coup d'état in Chile in 1973. [16]

The Kirk government was also notable for a number of national identity building policies. The government began the tradition of New Zealand Day in 1973, [11] and the government introduced legislation in 1974 to declare Elizabeth II as Queen of New Zealand. [17]

Kirk appointed Bill Rowling as Minister of Finance. The Labour government enjoyed a record budget surplus in its first year and revalued the currency. However, the slowing global economy, an unprecedented rise in oil prices and a rapid rise in government expenditure led to soaring inflation by 1974. [12]

Illness and death

Kirk at the High Commissioner's Reception, New Delhi, 29 December 1973, with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi Mr Kirk at the High Commissioner's Reception (9627638726).jpg
Kirk at the High Commissioner's Reception, New Delhi, 29 December 1973, with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi

During his time as Prime Minister, Kirk kept up an intense schedule, refusing to reduce his workload by any significant degree and rarely taking time off (the Chatham Islands was his favourite retreat). Kirk ignored advice from several doctors and from Bob Tizard and Warren Freer to "take care of himself" and to reduce his heavy consumption of Coca-Cola and alcohol (beer, plus later whisky or gin), saying he would have a "short but happy life". [18] Though a non-smoker, he had diabetes and dysentery.

By 1974 he had difficulty in breathing, eating and sleeping. In April he had an operation to remove varicose veins from both legs at once despite advice to have two operations. Doctors and colleagues were urging him to take time off; on 26 August Social Credit leader Bruce Beetham advised him to take a couple of months off to recover. His final public appearance was on 18 August to open St Peter's Catholic College in Palmerston North, when he stood in the rain for the whole ceremony, and he missed a proposed debate with Robert Muldoon before interviewer David Frost. [19]

On 15 August 1974 he decided to take two days off, and on 26 August he decided to have six weeks of complete rest. He had been checked over by many doctors, and an examination by Professor Tom O’Donnell on 27 August confirmed that he had an enlarged heart gravely weakened by embolisms, and which was not pumping regularly enough to get sufficient oxygen into his bloodstream; one lung was two-thirds incapacitated by the clot; and his stomach was very sore as his liver was swollen with retained fluid. He went into the Home of Compassion Hospital, Island Bay, Wellington on 28 August. He was photographed going in the boilerhouse door to avoid the media at the front. He rang and reminisced with close colleagues, and his bed was covered with official papers. On Saturday 31 August he told his wife Ruth, who had been told of his serious situation and came to Wellington, "I am dying .. please don't tell anyone". Soon after 9 pm, while watching a police drama on television ( Softly, Softly: Taskforce with Stratford Johns on NZBC TV), he slowly slid from a sitting position. He died of a pulmonary embolism when a blood clot released from a vein into his heart cut off the blood flow and stopped the heart. O'Donnell signed his death certificate. [19]

While colleagues had been urging him to take some time off, none were aware of the seriousness of his last illness. [20] Bob Harvey, the Labour Party President, said that Kirk was "a robust man" with the "constitution of a horse". He proposed a Royal Commission to investigate rumours that he had been killed, perhaps with contact poison, by the CIA. This story returned during the 1999 visit of Bill Clinton to New Zealand. [21]


After a lying-in-state in Parliament House from Monday to Wednesday there was a large official funeral in Saint Paul's Cathedral, Wellington, on Wednesday 4 September attended by Prince Charles and Gough Whitlam; then on Thursday 5 September another service, also inter-denominational, in the Christchurch Town Hall followed by a simple burial service in his hometown Waimate. He was buried near his mother's grave; the burial service was delayed as the RNZAF Hercules could not land at Waimate and the procession hurried by road to meet the daylight requirement for burials. Memorial services were held around New Zealand, and on 26 September in Westminster Abbey, London. [22]

He was succeeded in the Sydenham electorate by his son John Kirk, who won the resulting by-election in November 1974. [23]

The New Zealand pop band Ebony wrote the song "Big Norm", featuring tongue-in-cheek lyrics praising Kirk. In 1974, it reached No 4 in the charts and Ebony won a New Zealand music RATA award for group of the year. The last telegram Kirk sent before his death was to Ebony congratulating them on their win. [24]

See also

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  1. "Election essay: The town that's used to being disappointed". BBC News. 23 March 2015. Retrieved 23 March 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Bassett, Michael. "Kirk, Norman Eric". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography . Ministry for Culture and Heritage . Retrieved 8 November 2012.
  3. 1 2 3 Bassett, Michael. "Norman Kirk Official Biography – Archives New Zealand. Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga". Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  4. "Kiwis who left their mark on the nation". The New Zealand Herald . 30 December 2000. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  5. "Rating enquiry – 12 Carew Street, Kaiapoi – Waimakariri District Council" . Retrieved 20 September 2010.
  6. "Norman Kirk's House (Former)". Register of Historic Places. Heritage New Zealand . Retrieved 20 September 2010.
  7. Broun, Britton (11 October 2010). "Porirua's new mayor New Zealand's youngest". Dominion Post. Retrieved 29 October 2010.
  8. Bassett, Michael (2000). "Kirk, Norman Eric". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  9. 1 2 "General elections 1890–1993". Electoral Commission. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  10. 1 2 "1972 – key events". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 23 January 2015. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  11. 1 2 McLean, Gavin (8 November 2017). "Norman Kirk". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  12. 1 2 Aimer, Peter (1 June 2015). "Labour Party – Second and third Labour governments". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  13. Mururoa Nuclear Tests, RNZN protest Veterans Archived 23 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  14. Disarmament and Security Centre – Publications – Papers Archived 13 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  15. "Stopping the 1973 tour". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 13 August 2014. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
  16. "Norman Kirk – The Mighty Totara". Stuff. 10 March 2014. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  17. Peaslee, Amos J. (1985). Constitutions of Nations (Rev. 4th ed.). Dordrecht: Nijhoff. p. 882. ISBN   9789024729050.
  18. Freer 2004, pp. 113,195.
  19. 1 2 Grant 2014, pp. 380–1, 389–400.
  20. Grant 2014, p. 403.
  21. Phillips 2014, pp. 114–117,153–156.
  22. Grant 2014, pp. 405–417.
  23. "Parliamentary Debates". Hansard. New Zealand Parliament, House of Representatives. 23 April 1975.
  24. Hunt, Tom (25 August 2012). "A nation mourned when we lost Big Norm". The Dominion Post . Retrieved 24 February 2018.


Further reading

Government offices
Preceded by
Jack Marshall
Prime Minister of New Zealand
Succeeded by
Bill Rowling
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Harry Lake
Member of Parliament for Lyttelton
Succeeded by
Tom McGuigan
Preceded by
Mabel Howard
Member of Parliament for Sydenham
Succeeded by
John Kirk
Political offices
Preceded by
Owen Hills
Mayor of Kaiapoi
Succeeded by
Charles Thomas Williams
Party political offices
Preceded by
Martyn Finlay
President of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Norman Douglas
Preceded by
Arnold Nordmeyer
Leader of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Bill Rowling