Monday, March 10, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE MIGHTY TOTARA – The Life and Times of Norman Kirk” by David Grant (Random House, $NZ49:99)
As soon as I open a book about Norman Kirk, I remember how the man had a direct impact on me. In 1972, I was a 20-year-old university student. I had no desire to be swept into compulsory military service, but I was one of the unlucky ones who were caught by the ballot. I managed to get my military service deferred for one year, and hoped for the best. The Labour opposition said they were going to repeal the old Military Service Act of 1961 and abolish the ballot. I fervently hoped they would win the 1972 election – and they did. Norman Kirk kept his word and the act was repealed within his new government’s first parliamentary session. I never had to report for military service, and that is one reason I have always been grateful to Norman Kirk.
This is a very selfish reason, of course, so I had better expand on my feelings about Kirk. He still seems to me the last politician I could trust, and I became eligible to vote only in his time, which might indicate to you how difficult I’ve found it voting for anyone with a full heart in the last forty years. Kirk bumbled and made mistakes and, of course, died too young – less than two years into his premiership – with a lot left undone. But his combination of left-wing economic policies and conservative social policy is essentially where I myself still stand. Like him, I believe the common good should come before private profit. Like him, I believe in the sanctity of human life. Few politicians sign on for that combination nowadays.
I should add another personal point about “Big Norm”. He makes me feel nostalgic as hell, and it’s not just my amused memory of the BBC radio news speaking of the New Zealand frigate “O-TAY-go” entering the French exclusion zone near Mururoa. Norman Kirk won the 1972 election some months after my father died. My parents were proud “floating voters” which, in the New Zealand of the time, meant they sometimes voted National and sometimes voted Labour, depending on what they thought of the candidates. I knew, however, that they had soured on the National Party by the late 1960s and my father particularly disliked the rising star of that party, Robert Muldoon. Before he died, Dad said Muldoon would be “New Zealand’s worst prime minister”. A prescient person, my Dad. So there my widowed mother and I both are, in front of the television screen on election night 1972, watching the results come in and getting more and more excited as one seat after another falls to Labour. And well before poor old Jack Marshall concedes, and well before the telly pundits have told us what to think, my Mum turns to me and says “You know what this is, don’t you? It’s a landslide!” Prescient woman, my Mum. And we were both jubilant. Like so much of the country, we really believed that Labour electioneering slogan “Time for a Change!”.
And then, less than two years later, we’re crying because Norm is dead. Only one other politician’s death has made me cry in my whole life – US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. And you can forgive me my sentimentality about him, because I was only a teenager and didn’t know a heck of a lot when Bobby got gunned down.
Okay, enough of my maudlin (if truthful) ramblings.
I have before me this very fine and very readable and well-researched and accessible book by David Grant The Mighty Totara, and it’s a crime that I’ve talked so much about my own thoughts on Norm before getting on to this book, because The Mighty Totara deserves better than that.
David Grant is concerned, before anything else, with Kirk’s political career and his impact on New Zealand. With 442 pages of text (before bibliography, endnotes and index), The Mighty Totara takes us briskly through Kirk’s childhood and young manhood. Growing up in Christchurch in the tough years of the Depression with upright working class and Salvation Army parents. Getting a railway apprenticeship. A self-taught man and a voracious reader. Already by Page 36 he’s twenty years old and married to Ruth. He can be a stroppy young man as in the invigorating anecdote of his taking a rifle to kill the rats in the rented accommodation he and his young family had to live in (pp.39-40). By the age of 30 he is elected mayor of Kaiapoi – at that time being New Zealand’s youngest-ever mayor. He makes his first forays into national politics, entering parliament for Lyttelton in 1957. By the mid-1960s, with Labour in the long doldrums of opposition, Kirk successfully challenges the past-it Arnold Nordmeyer for the party leadership, and wins it, becoming, at 43, Labour’s youngest leader up to that time.
You will note that we are only about one sixth of the way through the book when it’s the early 1960s and Kirk is already an MP protesting French nuclear testing in the Pacific. And we are less than halfway through the book (p.190 to be precise) when Kirk wins the 1972 election. This means the 442 pages of text are overwhelmingly devoted to the last ten of Kirk’s 51 years of life – and especially to the less than two years (November 1972 to August 1974) that he was prime minister.
Given that politics and national impact are David Grant’s major interests, there is nothing wrong with this, but I am sorry that The Mighty Totara consequently gives us so little of Kirk’s family life once we’ve locked into his parliamentary career. His wife Ruth is mentioned occasionally as his sturdy supporter and helpmeet with their five children; but, bar the odd mention, she basically vanishes from the story. It therefore comes as something of a shock when, literally five pages from the end, Grant mentions Kirk’s “despair at the state of his difficult marriage with Ruth, who was often cantankerous”(p.439) and then launches into an account of this flawed marriage (pp.440-443). He also gamely gives an account of the unedifying career of Norm’s MP son John Kirk (pp.420-423), a part of the Kirk story that some admirers might have preferred him to gloss over.
One or two of Grant’s characterizations may surprise readers. Of the man who preceded Nordmeyer as Labour’s leader, Grant writes:
“[Walter] Nash was a ponderous authoritarian scared of change and, particularly in caucus, intolerant of MPs who did not agree with his views. He procrastinated over decisions, became bogged down in detail and often refused to consult or confide in colleagues.” (p.57)
Some of the things he tells us about Kirk are also surprising. I didn’t know that the man with such an anti-militarist foreign policy was also the man who liked rabbit hunting and pigeon shooting and collected pistols.
In political matters, however, you can’t fault Grant’s punctiliousness. He dots his “I”s and crosses his “T”s. In the chapter (Chapter 8) on Kirk’s putting together a new parliamentary team after the 1969 defeat, Grant lists every single party spokesman and his ranking, with appropriate comments on his performance.
Of course there were times when reading this book made me acutely aware of the time that has elapsed since the events it records. This is not quite a nostalgic aspect so much as a sense of “autres temps, autres moeurs”. To give one obvious example, Labour lost two elections when Kirk was party leader (1966 and 1969). As I read of the 1969 defeat (Chapter 7), I couldn’t help reflecting that no political party now would keep on a leader after two successive electoral defeats. But Grant himself later suggests that there was a wisp of the same mentality, in 1971, when Kirk
“…was unnecessarily anxious, walking with an unsteady gait to the caucus room. He was conscious that a party in opposition too long could change its leader to invigorate itself, and Kirk had led his party through two unsuccessful election campaigns…. Kirk need not have worried; he retained the leadership unanimously.” (p.162)
This book reminded me of forgotten controversies such as the fuss (Chapter 10) when the National government in effect sacked the editor of The Listener. I also thought how different things were when I was reminded (p.222) that in 1973, Mat Rata was the first Maori to be Minister of Maori Affairs.
It has to be said that this is dominantly a work of admiration. From the adulatory title onwards, Grant wants us to like Kirk, and he succeeds. There is a necessary sense of excitement over the 1972 election victory. The lead-up to that election was tense because the National government was at odds with the radical Auckland branch of the Seamen’s Union and therefore dusted off the usual propaganda line linking the Labour Party to wildcat strikes and union radicalism. But it didn’t wash because Kirk himself so clearly had little sympathy with the more radical unionists; and he and FOL boss Tom Skinner were able to appear as beacons of reasonableness. Besides, with the hesitant Jack Marshall having taken over from Holyoake as National prime minister, Kirk was able to dominate debate in the House. At the opening of the election campaign, Grant remarks:
“Kirk was in top form at this Palmerston North address, raising and lowering his voice at appropriate moments, mastering the pause, gesticulating at the right instant, and confidently exchanging jibes with youthful hecklers, some of whom were farmers’ sons attending Massey University, not part of Labour’s traditional catchment” (p.185)
So Grant writes about the man who repealed the Military Service Act of 1961, wanted an independent foreign policy for New Zealand, recognized China, established an embassy in Beijing and reopened the embassy in Moscow, set up the Literary Fund remunerating authors for their works held in libraries, and took real risks. Kirk (Chapter 14) called off the 1973 Springbok tour of New Zealand, even though he knew it would cost Labour rural votes in the next election (and it did). As he had promised he would before the election, Kirk also sent a frigate (Chapter 15) into the French exclusion zone near the atmospheric nuclear tests at Mururoa.
Grant admires Kirk for all these things, but he makes it convincing in part because he steers smartly away from hagiography. Kirk’s negative side gets a fair mention and the portrait is a nuanced one. Kirk wouldn’t have got where he did without sometimes playing the political game, as when he sent birthday and wedding anniversary greetings to the wives of Labour MPs who could support his bid for the party leadership in the 1960s (p.80). There were times when he was not always gracious about Arnold Nordmeyer, the party leader he de-throned. (pp.87ff.). We are frequently told of his mistrust of “bloody intellectuals” and Labour people who did not have true working class credentials, and this affected some of his initial cabinet appointments once he was prime minister. It also affected his relationship with the Australian Labor leader Gough Whitlam whom Kirk judged guilty of “intellectualism”. We are told that, although he was opposed to New Zealand’s military engagement in Vietnam, Kirk “disingenuously” (p.158) failed to support mobilisation protests against the war, because he did not wish to alienate working class hawks. When Grant discusses a conference that was held to coordinate broadly left-wing opinion, ahead of the 1972 election, he speaks of “the less attractive side of his personality, a paranoia towards groups and individuals not inside the party machine whom he thought, wrongly, might have been damaging to Labour” and also uses the word “intolerance” (p.207).
This same term crops up a number of times. It is clear that in his very last months, Kirk lost the support of many in his caucus, and Grant says there was a “paranoiac” (p.384) incident when Kirk became involved in an unseemly squabble on talkback radio. He also speaks of Kirk’s “paranoia” (p.392) regarding Bill Rowling’s attempts to overhaul the economy; and Kirk’s “paranoia” (p.394) about being spied on.
It is possible, too, that Grant implies an element of hubris at the beginning of Kirk’s premiership. In 1972, the Labour party defeated the National Party by a landslide – the biggest since 1935 – gaining 56 seats to National’s 31. Buoyant at this result, Kirk declared brashly at his first cabinet meeting as prime minister that “We’re here to govern for 25 years!” (p.227). Grant uses this phrase as a chapter title, probably aware that readers will remember the outcome. Kirk himself was dead in less than two years and the 3rd Labour government lasted just one term.
If Grant tempers his admiration for Kirk with frank accounts of the man’s shortcomings, he is equally commendable is his even-handedness about Kirk’s parliamentary opponents. He admits that by the mid-1960s, National had a very effective parliamentary team and a buoyant economy, making it hard for Labour to dislodge them. Although he clearly has no liking for Robert Muldoon, he notes how the effective debating of Muldoon was one of the handicaps Labour suffered in the run-up to the 1969 election. He also notes generously that it was really Keith Holyoake (pp.294-295) who began New Zealand’s first effective official stance against nuclear weapons.
Grant can give many plausible reasons for the fact that the 3rd’ Labour government lasted only one term. The economy was collapsing under the impact of the oil shock and declining trade with Britain, as Britain entered the EEC. Inflation was running at 13% and there was a huge deficit (Chapter 16).
But there was also the physical failure of Norman Kirk himself.
Sounding throughout much of this book, like a solemn drumbeat, is the tale of Kirk’s declining health. Even in the chapter on the successful 1972 election campaign (Chapter 11), it is made clear that Kirk’s vigorous and successful performance placed a huge strain on his health. As prime minister, Kirk had a heart attack while visiting India. It was witnessed by his secretary Margaret Hayward, who was pledged to keep quiet about it (p.353). By late 1973, a new doctor declared that Kirk was diabetic and had to lose 6 stone if he was to live.
By then “even a modicum of physical activity was making Kirk breathe heavily and sweat profusely. By now he had a very clear view of his mortality. To close friends he was admitting that he ‘wouldn’t make old bones.’ ” (p.370). When he finally appeared at the Labour Party’s May 1974 conference, after a major operation “many gasped in shock at his gaunt, stooped appearance.” (p.376). He died of pulmonary embolism on 31 August 1974, aged only 51.
I might question a few of David Grant’s judgments. When he explains how Kirk was opposed to abortion, Grant feels bound to explain that Kirk was no misogynist or opponent of women’s rights, and how he set up a Committee on Women (pp.176-178). I naturally ask – how on earth does being opposed to abortion mean one is opposed to women’s rights?
It is not Grant’s fault that there is an ambiguity about who Kirk was. This is signalled in Grant’s preface, where he declares that Kirk “was New Zealand’s last working class prime minister…” (p.9) and notes of his premiership:
“Although he moved quickly to stamp a new direction on an expending party, he retained an inbuilt social conservatism that saw him react against the more radical and self-indulgent aspects of the counter-culture that began to swirl around him in the late 1960s and early 1970s; in particular he opposed moves to liberalise the laws prohibiting abortion and homosexuality.” (Preface p.8)
He returns to this later when he surveys the party that Kirk led:
“By now the Labour Party was an amalgam of New Zealanders of different ages, backgrounds, beliefs and levels of education, gathered together to try to find a common ground at a time when the country was on the cusp of huge social change: every week malcontents were marching on the streets protesting apartheid, the Vietnam War, abortion law reform, homosexual legality, and a raft of industrial issues, to name just some. This expansive movement was so much different to the Labour Party of 1962, which was mostly male, elderly and trade union conservative.” (p.181)
The use of the word “malcontents” is interesting here, but I get Grant’s drift. The old working class blokes’ party was really fading away, and Labour was early in the process of becoming the party of smarmy middle class smarties that it is now (very much like the one that faces it from the government benches). Kirk was as much a reminder of the old as a harbinger of the new. This expansive biography makes his role in history clear.