The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk
by David Grant (Random House, $44.99)
Reviewed by Max Rashbrooke
For Labour politicians seeking an intellectual touchstone, there is no safer place to go to than Norman Kirk, whose legacy and legend have lasted far longer than the 21 months he spent in power between 1972 and his death in 1974. Two recent Labour leadership contenders, Shane Jones and Grant Robertson, named him as their political hero, while David Cunliffe carried a portrait of him at Waitangi. Current leader Andrew Little spoke at a seminar on Kirk in 2012.
There is much in David Grant’s biography of Kirk, The Mighty Totara, published in 2014, that explains their admiration. In particular, if there is one thing that sets Kirk apart, it was his ability to dream big, especially in foreign policy. Grant’s book makes clear just how much New Zealand’s foreign policy pre-Kirk had been bound up with appeasing Britain and America, and how radically he reoriented us towards trading with Asia and being a more generous neighbour in the Pacific. Both moves have had their proof from time. On top of that, his exceptional courage in sending a frigate to try to disrupt French nuclear testing at Mururoa has, rightly, gone down in legend. Kirk also delivered domestic policies that have changed New Zealand forever, and for the better, most people would argue: ACC, the DPB, the Waitangi Tribunal, and plenty more.