Helen Watson White
We Need to Talk About Norman: New Zealand’s lost leader by Denis Welch (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2023), 168pp, $39.99
In 1972, a general election ushered in the Third Labour Government headed by Norman Kirk, a leader Denis Welch claims is still worth talking about fifty years on. Once in office, he relates, Kirk announced that a navy frigate would be sent to protest French nuclear testing in the Pacific; his deputy Hugh Watt confirmed that Lake Manapouri would not be raised to make hydro-electricity; a rent-appeal board was set up; communist China was recognised; our troops were finally pulled out of Vietnam, and compulsory military training abolished—all in the first six months of Kirk’s incumbency. His single term, though action-packed, was abruptly shortened by his death in 1974 at the age of 51.
We Need to Talk About Norman was begun before historian David Grant published his biography of Kirk, The Mighty Totara, in 2014; Grant’s book meant Welch ‘had to rethink’ his own project, he has said. The result is an emphasis on Kirk’s achievements—something of a forgotten legacy—especially those that relate to the ethos and policies of subsequent Labour governments.
Kirk’s story needed to be retold, Welch suggests, because ‘inspirational leaders are rare in New Zealand’: as he sees it, we’ve had only three. The first, Michael Joseph Savage, welfare state initiator, inspired the second, Kirk, who inspired the third, Jacinda Ardern, who often referred to Kirk’s summary of what people want: ‘someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.’ Those four things, Labour’s Grant Robertson had written in 2013, ‘are the foundations of a decent society that we still strive for today.’
Welch also wrote a biography of Helen Clark, but strangely she is not included in this list, despite inspiring many women, including Ardern. That is one of the few points I disagree with in this thorough account of the Kirk government’s accomplishments in the ‘relatively unsung’ year, 1973.
Welch is right about 1973 being ‘pivotal’ for several reasons. This was the time of the first ‘oil shocks’ when Arab oil-producing nations showed their ability to affect the West through their power over the oil market and supply. It was also the year Britain seemed to turn her back on former colonies to join the European Economic Community (EEC). The two decades before 1973 seemed a golden time, writes Welch: ‘there was no unemployment, we were the best place on Earth to bring up kids, we had the third highest living standard in the world …’ But ‘the age was only golden to the extent that international economic circumstances allowed it to be.’ And things changed: ‘the last year this country recorded a current-account surplus was 1973; there has not been one since.’
This sort of analysis takes We Need to Talk About Norman beyond biography.
While this is a short book, it is packed with substance and interesting historical comparisons and opinions, and its informal style incorporates an educated overview. He has found fascinating examples from other writers to confirm the changes that were happening in our political and economic thinking (or non-thinking) in Kirk’s time. For instance, he quotes a former American Ambassador to New Zealand, John F. Henning, saying at Kirk’s funeral that ‘unbridled capitalism perished in the Depression’: a different state of affairs had come to be, its values expressed in the work of this great man:
Never again would the state pretend that it should be partner to economic and social exploitation. Private enterprise must be bent to the public good. Never again would millions suffer in patience the supposedly blind workings of economic law.
There is a searing irony between the lines here, as Welch claims—justifiably—that the agents of neoliberalism in the Fourth Labour Government (1984–1990) did their calculated best to reverse the humanist programme of the Third. Kirk knew there had been changes already; Welch observes in a letter by his subject to another of his Depression generation: ‘We have a materialistic society that deprecates the very people who made it possible—the old.’ Again, in a speech to the Labour Party conference in 1974, Kirk stated: ‘the permissive society sanctioned not only the right to sleep around and smoke marijuana but the right to exploit, speculate and put monetary gain ahead of social duty.’
Welch often adds his personal opinions to Kirk’s views, in this case remarking that ‘it took a pandemic to reawaken awareness of what a nation’s people—as opposed to the market—can do when they put their minds to it.’ He also weighs his words, preferring, like Kirk, to call a spade a spade, or neoliberal economics ‘hypercapitalism’, to use Thomas Picketty’s emphatic term.
It is for his encouragement of post-colonial nationalism that Kirk may be best remembered, in stressing the situation of our country located in the South Pacific and East of Asia, and our freedom to stand for things independently from the UK and Europe. In that context, David Lange’s nuclear-free New Zealand agenda can be seen as coming in a direct line from Kirk’s positioning, and that, too, may be the main thing for which Lange is remembered and honoured.
Interestingly, both Kirk and Lange were gifted orators. Welch discovered this about Kirk from Parliamentary personnel, as he wasn’t actually in New Zealand from 1972 to 1974. From speechwriter Chris Moore, he learned that Kirk’s Salvation Army (like Lange’s Methodist) background meant he was brought up hearing sermons in church. Moore gathered from Kirk’s personal style that he favoured ‘simple, direct language which never patronized: fact, policy and philosophy delivered in emotion-layered biblical cadences.’ Welch records Kirk saying the New Testament was ‘the best piece of social writing he’d ever read’ and on another occasion suggesting that ‘Labour’s social welfare policy would be best expressed in near-biblical terms.’
‘Big Norm’, with his famous height and girth, had a commanding presence and a big voice; but ‘counterintuitively’, Welch relates, he would begin a speech very softly, so people had to attend, then crank it up: ‘It was a way of drawing his listeners in’. Even when dogged by ill health, Kirk continued to orate, relating, in a single speech, subjects as diverse as Samoan cultural values, world peace and the starving in India. In another speech a year earlier, he set about ‘analysing world problems of poverty and under-development in terms of wealth distribution.’ As Welch remarks, ‘the range of his subject matter was extraordinary’. He could also be very blunt. Welch quotes his statement to his administration being sworn in: ‘Money will be running second and people first. Every member of my cabinet is pledged to support this human approach to the problems of government.’
In case readers underestimate someone who left school for his first job at thirteen, Welch fully acknowledges the breadth of Kirk’s thinking. Historian Tony Simpson judges him ‘the best kind of autodidact’ with his lifelong love affair with books. His practical skills, too, were legendary: having built his own house, he never lost the instinct for approaching physical problems as an engineer. But this is not hagiography. Welch concedes ‘it would not be wildly inaccurate … to describe him as a homophobic moral conservative with traditional views about the role of the family’ and, what’s more, ‘as phobically anti-communist as any National Party leader’. But writer and feminist Fiona Kidman told Welch that ‘she was devastated by Kirk’s death and waited in line at Parliament for hours, like thousands of others, just to stand by his coffin a moment. “We felt,” she says, “as though our heart had been ripped out of us.”’
We return, inevitably, to Kirk’s size: the size of his heart, which became ‘our heart’; the size of his energy and of the impression he made on us because of the size of his commitment and aspirations—which he acted upon with alacrity, says Welch, as if he knew he wouldn’t have enough time. And it wasn’t only New Zealanders who were impressed. World leaders like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Bangladesh’s Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and India’s Indira Gandhi became personal friends, and others admired his generous diplomacy. Kirk’s private secretary, Margaret Hayward, reading press accounts from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Ottawa in 1973, noted the headline of the Ottawa Star calling him the ‘Hero of the Commonwealth Liberals’ and a remark by an Indian official quoted in the Melbourne Age: ‘he deserves a bigger country.’
Margaret Hayward’s monumental Diary of the Kirk Years (Cape Catley/Reed, 1981) did an excellent job detailing Kirk’s part in history. Welch admits that his book, which brings a new and broader perspective, could not have been written without Hayward. Grateful to be given access to her Kirk-related interviews, he was also able to consult two longer drafts, which she reduced to 336 crowded pages, with an index and notes. The diary Hayward and Kirk maintained together (he called it ‘our book’) often included her opinion or interpretation of events, giving the lie to the notion that Kirk, the conservative, didn’t value women’s ideas.
1973 was ‘pivotal’ for anyone open to notions of women’s liberation at the time, and Welch doesn’t shy away from looking at the marriage of Ruth and Norman Kirk with a historical eye. With the first United Women’s Convention held in Auckland that year, and the second in Wellington in 1975, there were nationwide discussions of what used to be called the role of women (as if there were only one). Welch does a good job placing Ruth’s experience in that context—as he must if he is to do justice to that period of questioning and pushing boundaries. While the Kirks’ relationship seemed, by all accounts (especially Hayward’s) to be flawed, Ruth gained a more public profile after Norman’s death and received an even-handed tribute from former diplomat Gerald Hensley, who summed up Norman as ‘a very large character’, and his wife as ‘a very clear-minded, forceful woman whom I admired.’
It has to be said that, although Kirk didn’t call himself a socialist, his politics were based on the solid belief that all people were born equal and deserved the same things on the grounds of their shared humanity. While he was resistant to any talk of abortion or homosexual law reform, both Hayward and Sonja Davies approved his concern for women’s (human) rights to good housing, health and childcare, equal pay and accident compensation. By 1973, New Zealanders had a Domestic Purpose Benefit and an expansion of benefits that we would not have had without Norman—and without Ruth, who, as Welch writes, ‘bore and raised five children and kept a busy household functioning while Norm Kirk focused on other things’.
There was a similar advancement on the front of Māori rights, despite Kirk’s view of New Zealand as a nation with ‘no legacy of bitterness’—a statement that directly contradicts the hard historical experience of Māori. Welch quotes Kirk’s unscripted speech on the Treaty grounds at Waitangi in 1974: ‘If we join together in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect, everything is possible—nothing is beyond us.’ The significant outcome of this attitude was the creation of the Waitangi Tribunal in Kirk’s term; as in many other things, he may have been ignorant of the background, but his intentions were right. Welch is at pains to underline a certain moral authority in Kirk’s actions, which gave dignity and mana not only to himself but also to those who had been treated as other for so long.
After a painful but very moving account of Kirk’s last illness, Welch’s book ends with a sizing-up of his legacy. Due attention is given to his official actions in protesting nuclear tests twelve years before Lange’s government banned nuclear ships from our ports, and to his stopping the apartheid state of South Africa from sending an unrepresentative rugby team here eight years before the mass protests of 1981. Throughout the book, we are made aware of Kirk’s serious interest in Asia and Africa and our trade and diplomatic relations there; in his own words, he sought to ‘alter and enlarge New Zealand’s view of itself and the world’, and he achieved that in foreign affairs.
He also achieved an increased sense of domestic security: in 1974, for instance, Labour ‘built twice as many new homes as the National government did forty years later in 2014’. Our sense of pride in the land we live on, mana whenua and Pākehā alike, was confirmed by the preservation of Lake Manapouri and the idea that leading protestors could become ‘Guardians of the Lake’ instead. Regional development began to be a priority for government funding, in a new way, and a state superannuation scheme was conceived that paved the way for later conceptions of a collective fund—albeit less aspirational—that would secure our future.
The good humour and positivity that accompanies Welch’s clear-sighted realism comes directly from his subject. ‘What Kirk said in 1973—that New Zealand suffers from under-imagination—remains true’, he concludes. ‘If he did nothing else, he showed it was possible to enlarge our imaginations, and think more boldly for ourselves.’ This story of the big man’s achievements is about what we lost, but Welch’s book also remembers and celebrates what we gained.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin writer with a background in university teaching, library work and editing. She has published a long list of reviews of theatre, books, music, art and opera, along with articles, short stories, poems and photographs.