The last labour Prime Minister. The first New Zealand Prime Minister

Fabian Society conference on Norman Kirk, 3 November 2012

When Norman Kirk took office much was settled and much was unsettled — and much that was settled was shortly to become unsettled. In that light the abrupt untimeliness of his exit might be seen as allegory. Kirk was the last of the small-l labour Prime Ministers (if you exclude Mike Moore, which I do).

Among the settled matters was the mixed economy. Market capitalism was the core of that economy but the state had a large role in regulating business activity, in monitoring and managing the labour market, in underpinning economic activity with research, in providing rail, postal and phone services and infrastructure. The state also had a large role in equalising opportunity through education and equalising the basis for a good life with health services, housing, cheap mortgages and family financial support and in providing security against ill-luck.

The heart of this settlement was the guaranteed wage. The first Labour government founded equity on an assured capacity of someone in fulltime work being able to provide for a family, which required a protected and regulated economy. There is a faint echo of this in the current campaign for a “living wage”.

This was social democracy at its apogee. Keith Jackson wrote that the National party was essentially social democratic. In 1972 the Royal Commission on Social Security, chaired by a conservative judge, declared that the goal of a social security system should be to ensure the capacity of everyone to take a full part in society. Thenceforward it was to be “welfare”, not just “security”. The welfare state was arriving.

When Norman Kirk became Labour leader in 1965 New Zealand was solidly in the British Commonwealth and solidly monocultural. The All Blacks played the apartheid Springboks, to near universal approval. Pubs closed at 6pm (allegedly), though you could drink on if you had a “meal ticket”. Mixed-gender flatting by university students had not been invented and the pill had only just become standard diet. We had put troops into Vietnam to fight Communists alongside the Americans. The Arbitration Court set an annual pay rise and Tony Neary’s “electricians ratchet” leveraged this into an award spiral through other industries. One of the biggest events in the economic calendar was the annual distribution of import licences.

But there were stirrings. As historian Norman Davies put it in an interview in the Financial Times on 19 October, “historical change is like an avalanche. The starting point is a snow-covered mountainside that looks solid. All the changes take place under the surface and are rather invisible. But something is coming.”

Something was coming. It came in two parts. One Norman Kirk — the last labour Prime Minister — stood against one part of that change. A second Norman Kirk — the first New Zealand Prime Minister — anticipated the other part.

Norman Kirk was of what used to be known as the working class. His father’s jobs and his jobs as a teenager and young man were manual. He climbed to the heights of driving a stationary steam engine. He built his own house in Kaiapoi, with savings from second jobs. He was mostly self-taught, with a particular bent for political biography and a special regard for Lee Kuan Yew. He read a lot. As Prime Minister, he instituted the Authors Fund.

He shared the manual worker’s conservative prejudices: against louts, long-hairs, demonstrators and lefties and for the status quo on moral issues like abortion. In the 1972 campaign he said he would take the bikes off bikies. He liked steak and earthy jokes and the broad New Zealand accent (we were, thankfully not yet “Kiwis”) slipped into his speeches.

He was not hidebound in policy. Arnold Nordmeyer had fallen out with the hardline union bosses who wanted the party in their image and the party had resoundingly defeated an attempt to restore “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” as a party principle. Kirk was closer to the younger “modernisers” such as Bob Tizard, Warren Freer and Bill Rowling than the old guard, though he was slow to weed out the old guard for fear of being rolled — one of his defects was a small-minded paranoia. For Kirk there would not be a state planning organisation but one of “representatives of all key sectors of the economy” who “ironed out a mutually acceptable overall plan of growth”. [The National government ran a National Development Conference” along those lines in 1968-69.] He wanted more farming and manufacturing diversity with an accent on exports rather than just on self-sufficiency. There would not be blanket price control; instead there would be random checks to see whether price rises were “unjustified”. Incentives and tax rebates had a place beside direct controls. There would be no new nationalisations. On inward foreign investment “there is no resistance … provided it comes in the form that is in the best interests of New Zealand”. In 1973 Jim Eagles and I described Labour under Kirk as a party of social justice, not socialism, pitching to the growing segment of white-collar voters.

Nevertheless, “social justice” marked the Kirk party out as unmistakably Labour, as distinct from National. And on domestic policy generally Kirk was unmistakably labour, concerned foremost with wage and salary workers. There was to be no capitalist free-for-all, unions were compulsory and wage setting was by strict rules. Rent control was one of his government’s early initiatives. Trade could be “free” for exports but not for imports. The state would be used to protect wage workers and create “a satisfying society in which each person may seek fulfilment through the application of their talents, abilities and hopes, a society of purpose”.

That was one Norman Kirk: the last labour Prime Minister. Under this Prime Minister the social democratic project, updated to the 1960s, continued: enhancements of social welfare and housing, health care and education; a priority for social policy over fiscal management.

But there was a noisome bunch of young new-left-liberals, of whom Michael Bassett and Michael Hirschfeld were among the most prominent, with whom small-labour Prime Minister Kirk did not fit. This irritating gang demanded an end to rugby with the Springboks and to fighting the Vietnamese and a much more liberal moral order, including more rights for women. Kirk on the campaign trail continuously extolled the “family unit”. This Bassett-Hirschfeld new left was concerned more with liberties than wages, reflecting the 1960s “values revolution” of the baby-boomers. At party annual conferences they clashed noisily with the gruff old unionists keeping order on the platform.

The Bassetts, Hirschfelds and fellow-travellers were the barely audible rumbles of the nascent avalanche of change, which was to burst through in 1984 in a wave of radical policy that would sweep away the guaranteed job, deregulate business, cut taxes and open the economy to the world. That interred the 1960s heroic belief in social democracy’s capacity to perfect society. Trapped in the Friedman world of heroic markets, Steve Maharey and Co had to turn down a Blairite “third way” which was a technocratic reorientation, not a pathway to paradise (with or without pavlovas). I used to joke that the third way was any way between any two other ways.

Norman Kirk the last labour Prime Minister would have been dismayed and dismissive. In his experience the free market had blighted his father’s life and his early life.

But the avalanche travelled down two channels. Both reflected the values-revolutionaries’ obsession with freedom. One channel freed economic activity. The other freed New Zealand from its colonial past, turned the formal independence of 1947 into the reality of a distinct nation. That, too, was the product of those noisy and noisome baby-boomers.

And that part Kirk did not dismiss. He wasn’t the sort to make it legal to be a queer or go along with noisy feminists like Helen Clark who were turning up in the party late in his leadership (though his government did make some positive changes for women). But he did cancel the 1973 Springbok tour (on police advice that there would be civil disorder). He sent a frigate up to Mururoa atoll to protest at France’s testing of nuclear weapons and joined an Australian case to the International Court of Justice to get the tests stopped, thus laying the ground for a ban on nuclear ship visits. Though he kept the Australia New Zealand and United States (Anzus) treaty as a cornerstone of defence policy , he pulled New Zealand’s troops out of Vietnam. He recognised (Communist) China.

This leads us to the other Norman Kirk: the first New Zealand Prime Minister. He anticipated the independence that came fully to flower a decade after his death. Foreign policy (though Kirk’s “independence” in that arena was qualified) was one element.

The most important dimension of that independence was a change of mentality more than a change of policy. The baby-boomers did not talk of Britain as Home as their parents did. Their craft, art, writing, music and film — and revision of history — were unselfconsciously New Zealand and prolific. I have argued that the baby-boomers indigenised the ex-British. They wrought our independence revolution and that revolution was much bigger than Rogernomics.

The baby-boomers also made us bicultural. Maori re-indigenised, reclaimed their status as first arrivals, claimed Maori culture should stand alongside the ex-colonial European culture. This, too, was much bigger than Rogernomics.

Kirk did not fashion that biculturalism. New Zealand was not ready for it. But recall that iconic newspaper photograph of him walking hand in hand with a small Maori boy at Waitangi. Kirk’s take on Maori issues was classically social democratic: use the state’s power to reduce socioeconomic inequalities. That had a paternalistic ring which marked much of Labour’s relationship with Maori from the Ratana pact on. But there was another dimension which has a remarkably modern ring. In 1967 he said that “our laws must take into account the desire of the Maori people to be equal partners in the determination of the country’s destiny [and] pay full heed to the wish of the Maori people to retain their cultural identity”. He made that comment in the parliamentary debate on the Maori Affairs Amendment Bill, which rationalised the ownership of small Maori land holdings and which he opposed. It was the government he initially led which passed (though after his death) the Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 setting up the Waitangi Tribunal to report on breaches of the Treaty.

In that sense, Norman Kirk the first New Zealand Prime Minister anticipated the change to come a decade later. The walk with the little boy was a shadow symbol of the partnership to come.

Kirk was fourth generation born in New Zealand on his mother’s side and third on his father’s. Sir Keith Holyoake who preceded him had similar antecedence and itched to be free of empire but his cabinet denied him leeway. Kirk was not so constrained. He trumpeted a “New Zealandism”, as the anonymous editor of a small 1969 book of selected excerpts distilled from his speeches wrote: “Everything he expresses in his speeches can be related to his New Zealand and his Labour backgrounds… He spoke for a New Zealand which was no longer an appendage of Britain and which did not wish to become an Australian or an American one.” “All too often,” Kirk said in a speech in Greymouth in November 1968, “we have heard American policy announced in Wellington with a New Zealand accent”.

He insisted the words “New Zealand” were as important as “Labour party” in the party’s title. “We are for New Zealand,” he said in his leader’s address to the Labour party conference in 1968. “We aim to strive for opportunities for New Zealanders in every field. We demand that New Zealanders should be allowed to run their own affairs.” He aimed “to accelerate New Zealand’s journey towards nationhood.” “Let us proudly cultivate a sense of nationhood and stand up for ourselves in international and political and trade circles, not acting in a spirit of independence merely for the sake of asserting ourselves but to protect our own interests, both political and commercial.” He also talked, in that same year, of “an open-ended commitment to free trade with highly industrialised nations like Japan and Singapore” and added: “[L]et us not be frightened of all this or run for shelter.”

As I wrote in 2007, Kirk’s independent nation was to be outward-looking, aiming to better all mankind, making a virtue of its non-threatening outlier smallness to push for change internationally. “We are seeking to create a more just society in New Zealand, so we intend to work toward the same goal in the international community,” he said in 1973.

Even today a surprising amount of what Kirk said in those speeches (if one takes out the deficit-budgeted mixed economy and the social conservatism) has a modern ring. Kirk prefigured the 1980s mentality of independence. He expressed a confidence and an energising sense of nation which drew young idealists to him and into the Labour party. Helen Clark, who chaired the party’s youth advisory council in 1973-74, says that “we felt Kirk spoke for us” on social and foreign policy. For a small time, New Zealand, if it let itself go with Kirk’s rhetoric, could almost forget it was an outlier at the bottom of the world, distant from centres of commerce, culture and power. New Zealand could be a big little nation, as once the earliest settlers had imagined its future: an outlier by definition of its geography, but an outlier in the world, not huddling from the world.

Now put those two Norman Kirks together: the small-l labour Norman Kirk, product of the working class and the guaranteed job; and the stand-up-New Zealander Norman Kirk, confident it was time to be independent. One Norman Kirk looked back on Labour’s peak years, the other forward to a nation still to be fully self-defined. He was in a sense a political pivot, between two eras. That is perhaps his defining place in our political history.

The Kirk pivot poses a modern question, not just to Labour but to all other parties and the nation as a whole. It is to ask if the right policies will come from reacting to events or from shaping them: making policy with a backward look or by looking through the present to a different future.

If the Kirk analogy has some validity, it is not that the past has no value. Kirk was grounded in his working-class origins. Those now in their upper 40s, as Kirk was in his formative years as leader, are grounded in the 1980s revolution which founded an independent and bicultural nation, to which Kirk looked forward.

Is it time for the Jacinda Arderns and Simon Bridges to look forward to something different from the past 30 years, to a society and set of policies that fit us for the 2020s? I say Arderns and Bridges because the Gen-Xers are an in-between cohort, no freer of the past than the 1960s-70s Labour modernisers Tizard, Rowling and Freer were. But the caution and tentativeness Ardern and Bridges have exhibited — so far — suggest to me they may prove to be in-betweeners, too. If so, I await the coming of political age of today’s 20-somethings to see if there is a Norman Kirk among them to be the pivot of the 2020s.