In 1972 Norman Kirk broke National’s 12-year-long grip on the Treasury benches and became Labour’s first New Zealand-born PM.
Kirk was from the working class. He built his own house. He had little formal education but like earlier Labour leaders, he read widely and became a skilled debater. He won Lyttelton in 1957 and eight years later became leader of the opposition.
After narrowly losing the 1969 election, Kirk swept up his image and that of his party, which won handsomely in 1972 with the slogan ‘It’s time’. His ministry included many young faces.
Kirk’s interest in foreign affairs brought new links with Africa and Asia. He campaigned strongly against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. At some cost politically, he also prevented a racially selected Springbok rugby team from touring.
At home, Kirk’s ministry brought a new sense of national identity, launching the Shipping Corporation, creating an author’s fund and restructuring broadcasting. Waitangi Day became New Zealand Day. A photograph of Kirk walking hand-in-hand with a young Maori boy across the marae remains an enduring image of his prime ministership. His government reformed Maori land law and took significant steps towards the settlement of land claims. Perhaps its most far-reaching innovation was the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, which set up the Waitangi Tribunal.
‘Big Norm’, as a pop band dubbed him, weakened as the economy staggered under the impact of the first oil price shock. In August 1974 he died in hospital. Thousands attended his state funeral.
Written by Gavin McLean