New Zealand politics stirs ghost of Norman Kirk


Norman Kirk meets Gough Whitlam in 1973. Photo: Archives NZ

I became aware of New Zealand politics, circa 1960 when a tall Kiwi farmer with coiffed hair and a plummy accent won an election in his own right. After serving as interim PM in 1957, Keith Jacka Holyoake went on to become Sir Keith and later the country’s Governor-General, the only person ever to hold both offices.

The National Party (Conservative) leader ruled New Zealand politics from 1960 to 1972, ousted by a Whitlam-esque Labour figure, Norman Kirk (left). After a promising start, Kirk battled ill health through 1974 and died in office, aged just 51.

Kirk, a working class man who built his own h0me at Kaiapoi, could have been anything. He once said, “People don’t want much, just someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”

As Labour scholar Vittoria Trevitt recounts for the Chifley Research Centre, Kirk immediately set about turning New Zealand politics on its head. Social security benefits were increased and new social programmes introduced. Like Whitlam, Kirk ushered in a single parent’s pension. He encouraged Kiwis to build new homes, formed appeal boards so tenants could oppose rent increases and introduced ‘second chance’ re-finance loans for divorcees and others.

Workers benefited from a ‘no fault’ national accident compensation scheme. The Kirk government also increased the minimum wage, improved leave entitlements and fast-tracked equal pay legislation.

As an aspiring scribe in the early 1970s, I became a Kirk fan when he established a fund for writers. And idealists initially embraced the “Ohu Scheme”, where marginal land in remote rural areas was granted to people who wished to establish alternative settlements or intentional communities.

By Trevitt’s account and other sources, it was Norman Kirk who scrapped compulsory military service; Kirk who on day one called NZ troops back from Vietnam; Kirk who ensured that people who had served in the military would have entitlements and employment opportunities. He refused to host a Springbok tour in 1973 because of South Africa’s apartheid policies and confronted France over nuclear testing in the Pacific. And he turned Waitangi Day into a public holiday. Not bad for just 21 months in office.

Kirk’s successors, Hugh Watt and Bill Rowling, lasted until late 1975 when they were rolled by Rob Muldoon’s National Party. In turn, Muldoon was ousted nine years later by David Lange, whose term as Labour Prime Minister is possibly best remembered by his refusal to allow US nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships into New Zealand waters.

(Vin Garbutt sings Lynn Clark’s anti-nuclear song Send the Boats Away (song starts at 0.58)

As head of New Zealand politics, Lange held office for two terms and Labour reigned until 1990. After Jim Bolger’s stint as National PM (1990-1997), the National’s Jenny Shipley had a two-year spell before being evicted by Labour’s Helen Clark, who held a coalition together for three terms before resigning from politics, seemingly disillusioned.

Since 2008, the National Party’s John Key has held sway, until his surprise exit from New Zealand politics last year in favour of caretaker PM Bill English.

So to the Kiwi Labour Party (they spell it with a ‘u’). Exiled since 2008, they have been buoyed by polls, a young, positive leader in Jacinda Ardern and a Whitlam-esque slogan: “let’s do this.” (kia mahi a tenei). Ardern stands a better than 50/50 chance of becoming New Zealand’s third female prime minister and the eighth Labour leader since Joseph Ward in 1906. If so, Australia’s government ought to be worried.

She may have to form government with the Greens and the Maori party, but the polls are saying it could happen. Roy Morgan election poll projections show Labour with 49 seats, Green with 11 seats and Maori Party two seats (62 seats).  The poll predicts National will win 50 seats, NZ First seven seats and Act NZ one seat (58 seats).

I had lost touch with what is now known as the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, after a flirtation in the early 70s with the vanguard movement, the Values Party. As has happened here, many staunch Labour voters in NZ have drifted to the Greens. As a former Labour diehard source puts it: “Labour has sold us out before and they’ll do it again. They can only be a real government of progress with the guidance and support of a Green coalition partner.” 

Lobbying Kiwis living abroad

This week we got an email from James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa.

“Kia Ora,” he began, meaning G’day or What’s up Bro?

The Green Party needs every vote we can get to ensure the outcome is the most environmentally-friendly and progressive result possible.”

Don’t sit this one out,” said James (Bob resisting the urge to add “to Red Molly”- this one is for RT fans- ed.).

Party Vote Green from anywhere in the world to make sure New Zealand remains a great place to call home.”

The Greens have a reformist agenda which includes a Zero Carbon Act, a Climate Fund and a 1.2 billion tree planting programme. The party opposes new coal mines, fracking, and deep-sea oil and gas drilling.

My sources in NZ and the UK reckon the campaign to recruit expat Kiwis (assisted here by the Australian Greens), is a smart move. “People living in London and elsewhere like the idea of ‘the clean green NZ’. We also have a lot of youth abroad and they tend to vote progressive,” one Green supporter said.

Last I heard there were 650,000 New Zealand citizens living in Australia. There’s no shortage of election issues in New Zealand politics: housing shortages and property prices, health needs/shortages, offshore drilling, water purity and river pollution are just a few. Swinging voters, the so-called “Middle NZ” – people who typically own more than one property – might be swayed to the conservatives by speculation of a Labour/Greens capital gains tax (NZ doesn’t currently have one).

In the Red corner, Labour’s effervescent leader Jacinda Ardern, 37, is gaining an international profile.

As this BBC article “Can ‘stardust’ beat experience?” reveals, Ardern’s elevation to the top job in Labour politics is no accident. A left-wing activist in her teens, she worked in former PM Helen Clark’s office and in the UK as a policy advisor to Tony Blair. She’s been a politician since 2008.

In the Blue corner, incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the National Party Bill English has been a politician since 1990 and Finance Minister twice. He was deputy PM under John Key from 2008 to 2016. In December 2016, When Key suddenly resigned as prime minister, English won the leadership unopposed (with Key’s endorsement).

A new National Party promotional video seeks to counter Ardern’s appeal to women by portraying English, a father of six, as a family man. Bill’s wife Mary recalls the era of cloth nappies when her husband was a stay-at-home dad.

“Bill ran the nappy bucket. That was his job.”

The video includes positive interviews with Education Minister Nikki Kaye and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett. Former PM John Key praises English for keeping a cool head during the global financial crisis and shrewdly notes Bill’s love of rugby.

Now that ought to do the truck.



  1. 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.

  2. Thanks John for pointing out the error (I said Porirua – wrong). As you said, everyone knows thet.
    (It is FoMM’s policy to correct errors as they are pointed out)

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