Prime Minister Norman Kirk, M.P. for Sydenham, formerly M.P. for Lyttelton and Mayor of Kaiapoi , died on 31 August 1974.
Growing up in a staunchly Labour-ite household, he loomed large in my childhood – yes, he was a big man – and his death was a shock. He was the Mighty Totara, whose death should not have happened so early (he was only 51).
But childhood memories are notoriously unreliable – I remember a song where the words “Big Norm” seemed to occur with great frequency and affection ! – so what kind of man was he really, and what did he achieve ?
- Norman’s first job was roof painting, and he worked a variety of jobs, qualifying as an engine driver.
- Despite leaving school by the age of 13 (he attended Linwood Avenue School), Norman was an avid reader, and established the New Zealand Authors’ Fund.
- He built his own family home in Kaiapoi, from concrete blocks he made himself.
- He was described as having ‘a resolute chin, a twinkling eye, a charming smile, and an impish wit’, and became a renowned debater.
- In October 1953 Norman was elected mayor of the Kaiapoi Borough Council. At the age of 30, he was the youngest mayor in the country and continued to work at the Firestone Tyre Company.
- On 9 December 1965, 42-year-old Norman Kirk became leader of the parliamentary Labour Party, and leader of the opposition.
- Kirk led Labour to victory with a majority of 23 seats on 25 November 1972.
- In April 1973 his government refused to grant visas to a South African rugby team because the touring Springboks would be racially selected.
- He applied pressure to the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific, then sent a a frigate to the test area ‘to provide a focus for international opinion against the tests’.
- His government reformed Māori land law – the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 set up the Waitangi Tribunal. See television footage of Waitangi Day ceremonies on 6 February 1973.
- His health suffered under a heavy workload and he died at Our Lady’s Home of Compassion hospital in Island Bay, Wellington. He had a state funeral, which was attended by thousands of New Zealanders.