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.
But there is much else in Kirk’s story that must make unnerving reading for people who set their star by his memory. He was a moral conservative, actively opposed to homosexual and abortion law reform, and generally unsympathetic to the growing liberation movements of the 1970s. (Against this, his support for the DPB and the creation of a Committee on Women within the party were, Grant argues, proof that he was not “anti-women”.) Especially towards the end of his life, he regularly attacked bikies, soft drugs and what he saw as the general moral decline of the age; none of these sentiments resonate today.
It is also instructive to learn how badly Kirk was at sea in the economic troubles of the 1970s, as oil price rises triggered a period of low growth and high inflation. Never comfortable with economics, Kirk mostly left the subject to his deputy, Bill Rowling – but by 1974 was routinely over-ruling him in order to stick to social spending promises, by then probably untenable, that he had made in winning the 1972 election. The lessons for today are clear. No one would argue that a Labour leader should have to understand economics to the exclusion of all else; but if they can’t pass muster in that subject, they are likely to find themselves in deep trouble, just as Kirk did.
Where Kirk was very strong was in his moral vision, in particular a sense of the basic worth of all people, including the common man (and to whatever extent the common woman). But again, there is probably some discomfort for modern-day Labour politicians in realising that Kirk’s moral views were shaped very largely by his parents’ devout adherence to the Salvation Army. As Grant puts it: “He understood quickly from his biblical study, particularly the New Testament, about notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and that shaped the values he would carry for the rest of his life.” This had some odd consequences, such as his badly designed and deeply unpopular policies to increase subsidies for private schools (to help rescue struggling Catholic institutions), but in general it was a powerful moral compass.
The modern day Labour Party in general doesn’t “do God”, in Alistair Campbell’s famous phrase, and given religion’s declining importance in the 21st century, that doesn’t seem likely to change. But religion did give people a clear way to articulate a view of the world in moral terms ,an articulacy that modern politics often seems to lack, and it seems strange that (for their own electoral success, if nothing else) few Labour politicians seem to have thought about trying to recreate that clarity of vision. There are lessons to be had from Kirk’s legacy, in other words – but not necessarily the ones that are usually drawn.
Max Rashbrooke is a journalist, and the author of ‘Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis’.