Norman Kirk was a Man of Action

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made the extraordinary claim that her government is the most committed to delivering progressive change since the mid-1970s. In other words, she is comparing her government to the Labour government of Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling.

Norman Kirk’s Labour government came into power after the National party had been the government for twelve years.

It makes sense for Labour’s campaign strategists to associate Ardern with Kirk. The Baby Boomers are conscientious voters. If they can be persuaded to see Jacinda as the re-incarnation of “Big Norm”, then those who remember the tragic fate of his government will want to do everything they can to ensure that hers does not share it. Kirk died in office, and Labour was thrown out after a single three-year term. Over the years, many members of the Baby Boom generation have asked themselves: How might New Zealand have fared if Kirk had lived and Labour had won a second term? Encouraging these voters to hope that, somehow, re-electing Jacinda will show them, isn’t a completely stupid idea.

It would be a good idea if Jacinda was a woman of action rather than words. She is seen as someone who has lofty progressive goals but not as someone who actually achieves them. Kirk was a man of action. Ardern’s government is all mouth and no trousers, all steam and no hangi.

When she does announce change it is never bold or unequivocal. For example, when she made the decision to withdraw from Iraq it wasn’t immediate but was to be phased out over three years. Her Captain’s call on Oil and Gas was the same. It was what Chris Trotter has described as a “post-dated cheque, not a decision with immediate effect.”

If Jacinda’s coalition government really was the progressive equal of Kirk’s, then it would have behaved very differently in the 100 days following its formation. Kirk, like his counterpart across the Tasman, Gough Whitlam, wasted no time in announcing a complete withdrawal of troops from Vietnam; abolishing compulsory military training; and recognising the People’s Republic of China. These were all commitments he had made while in opposition, and he lost no time fulfilling them in government. […]

And this, of course, is the fundamental difference between the Kirk/Rowling Government and Jacinda’s. Such decisions as the PM and her colleagues have made all tend toward the tentative, small steps of the preternaturally cautious. Entirely lacking is the bold, unequivocal gestures that distinguished the Third Labour Government. Kirk’s decision to send a frigate to the French nuclear testing ground at Mururoa. His cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour. Labour’s bold steps in public broadcasting. It’s economy-transforming superannuation scheme. Bill Rowling’s green-lighting of Matt Rata’s revolutionary Waitangi Tribunal. Kirk’s Government didn’t have to call itself “transformational” – it simply got on with the job of transforming New Zealand.

To be fair though, Norman Kirk was not hamstrung by coalition partners. Ardern is in many ways a figurehead. Her inability to reshuffle any of the NZ First MPs in cabinet illustrates that fact brutally.

Another brutal difference is housing. The third Labour government constructed in just three years, thousands of State houses to address the housing shortage of the seventies.

In one respect, however, Jacinda’s government is comparable to Kirks. Not in the policy sense, but in terms of its heterogenous political composition. The Labour Party of the 1970s was a very broad church, encompassing everyone from rabid anti-communists, to American-style liberals, to avowed socialists. Jacinda’s coalition encompasses a very similar political assortment. From the social conservatives and economic radicals in NZ First, to the social liberals in Labour and the Greens. (Direct descendants of the ground-breaking Values Party which was also an artefact of 1972.)

And yet, even here, the comparison falters. Norman Kirk bestrode his party like a colossus. He kept a copy of Labour’s manifesto at his elbow in Cabinet meetings – and woe betide the minister who attempted to deviate from it. Jacinda does not command her government in anything like the same way. What she does is front it. Spectacularly well, it must be said, but only in the way that a ‘method’ actor is spectacularly good. She has the same instinct for the camera; the same ability to deliver her lines with gut-wrenching conviction.

Norman Kirk wrote his own.

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