What If Jacinda Was Suddenly Taken From Us – Like “Big Norm”?



ON SATURDAY, 31 August, it will be 45 years to the day since Norman Kirk died. He was no age at all, just 51, and although he died in hospital, hardly any New Zealanders were aware that his reasons for being there were likely to prove fatal.

That’s why the shock of his passing was so devastating. For a brief moment it brought the whole country together. Bosses and trade union leaders stood side-by-side to pay their respects. RSA men wept alongside long-haired hippies. Pakeha and Maori mourned according to their own traditions, but, as always, the Maori did so in ways that both enriched and enlarged the moment of national grief. For the first time, the Maori proverb: Kua hinga te totara i te wao nui a Tane – A Totara has fallen in the forest of Tane, imprinted itself upon the cultural consciousness of the Pakeha nation.

The tragedy of “Big Norm’s” passing was by no means contained within his homeland’s borders. Upon hearing the news in faraway Tanzania, its President, Julius Nyerere, burst into tears. In Beijing the Chinese premier, Chou Enlai, bowed three times before Kirk’s photograph in solemn acknowledgement of his worth. Australia’s Gough Whitlam hastened across the Tasman to stand by his casket.

Though few were willing, or able, to articulate exactly what it might be; the feeling that something vitally important to the country’s future would now be left undone was palpable. Long before he was buried amidst rain and an all-enveloping mist (as befitted a rangatira of such great mana) the myth of Norman Kirk and his all-too-brief prime-ministership was sending its taproots down deep into the nation’s collective memory.

Recalling Kirk’s death raises some troubling thoughts about New Zealand’s current prime-minister, Jacinda Ardern. God forfend that it should happen, but if she were to die, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the second year of her premiership – how would she be remembered?

Only the most churlish (and dishonest) of observers would suggest that the death of “Jacinda” would inspire anything less than a truly massive outpouring of national grief. The public’s sense of shock and bereavement would be every bit as great as that which greeted Kirk’s demise. Indeed, it would, almost certainly, be greater. Young New Zealanders, in particular, would feel that they had lost not only a personal friend, but a generational champion. Jacinda’s defining quality of empathy would be reflected many times over in the over-brimming emotions of the nation’s stricken youth.

The parallels would not end there. As a living Prime Minister, Kirk had towered above his political contemporaries. The NZ Labour Party contained no one within its parliamentary ranks who could hold a candle to “The Boss”. His eventual successor, the intelligent and thoroughly decent Wallace “Bill” Rowling, was never able to escape Kirk’s huge shadow. The only political leader of any substance left upon the national stage following Kirk’s departure, was the Leader of the Opposition, Rob Muldoon. Everyone who understood the politics of the day grasped immediately that he was the man who, in just 15 months, would be leading the country. The moment Big Norm’s heart stopped beating, Labour became a dead man walking. Without Jacinda, Labour would, similarly, be instantly transformed into a zombie party.

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The Myth of Jacinda, like Kirk’s, would swell rapidly to epic proportions. “If only Grant Robertson, Winston Peters and James Shaw had let Jacinda be Jacinda!”, would be the cry that went up from her bereft followers, “Instead of always coming up with reasons why everything she wanted to do couldn’t be done. If only she had been allowed to spend the money needed to end child poverty and homelessness. If only all those men hadn’t prevented her from making Climate Change – as she had promised – the Nuclear-Free Moment of her generation. Jacinda knew what had to be done – why wasn’t she empowered to simply forge ahead and do it?”

Like Kirk before her, a Jacinda taken from her people many years before her time, would rapidly become the righteous receptacle for an ever-increasing multitude of what-ifs and might-have-beens.

Nearly always, the counterfactuals swirling around Kirk posit an alternative future in which all of the Third Labour Government’s reforms – NZ Superannuation in particular – bear healthy fruit and prosper. Hardly ever do those who ask “What if?” raise the possibility that, even in the New Zealand where a healthy Norman Kirk contests the 1975 general election, a rampantly populist Rob Muldoon might still have delivered a knockout blow against the big man’s government. What if the  widely-held assumption that “Big Norm” would have defeated Muldoon easily is dead wrong? What if, as is demonstrably happening to Jacinda as she approaches the second anniversary of her prime-ministership, the gloss had well-and-truly come off Kirk?

In 1974-75 a great many New Zealanders were frightened and angry. Frightened by the power of the trade unions; by New Zealand’s growing indebtedness; by inflation eating away at the purchasing power of their salaries and pensions; by hippies and protesters calling the shots at home (hadn’t they persuaded Kirk to cancel the 1973 Springbok Tour?) and by Third World nations defeating the United States, and pushing up the price of oil, abroad. Young people, women and Maori had forgotten their place. Many of the old certainties were under serious challenge – along with the authority figures who defended them. Conservative working-class voters, no less than National’s traditional middle-class supporters, were looking for a strong leader: someone prepared to give them New Zealand the way they wanted it.

Who’s to say that, under a first-past-the-post electoral system, that fear and anger would not have been enough to overpower even Norman Kirk’s hopeful visions of the future?

We shall never know. Forty-five years on, Kirk’s might-have-beens, like the lustre of the man himself, are still sufficiently tantalising to inspire us. Courage. Vision. A principled refusal to step back when confronted with the concentrated malice of the Powers-That-Be. These remain the sacred political talismans handed down by the Labour Prime Minister who died on Saturday, 31st August 1974.

All nations need a mythologised Totara to shelter under.

Even after it has fallen.


  1. I reckon Chris is over-stating the love of Jacinda. He needs to talk to a wider range of people.

    The Twitteratti, Women’s Day and female journalists may hold Jacinda up as a shining light, the Anti-Trump of the South Pacific.
    She might be a secular saint amongst the Labour faithful, the one true queen who pulled the party out of the darkness of permanent opposition into the Light of Government.

    But to most Kiwis she is Nice but Naive, and she can’t control Winston (who ever has!).

    • This somber message always seems to come up the closer we get to an election. There are so many great messages these days, I mean the worlds different and you can hear many voices if you want to take the time to look.

      There are some great messages, things like: Jacinda is inept and incompetent and she should retire. Or, or, she’s not a progressive anymore. Or, or, you’re doing the politics of kindness and then running away from Ihumātao. Y’know, I always get a kick out of the sudden emergence of radical concern and self reflection every time right wingers loose.

      And since the elections are coming up there will be the inevitable Jacinda has no chance, she’s the worst, she’s the most terrible and so on. What Iv notice is the great thing is that there are gifts of youth, there are gifts of middle age and so on and so on, and when you gain the gifts of one, sometimes you loose the gifts of others. Oh and we want the Green Energy Fund.

      The crazy thing is that so long as you stay in the fight, you are going to keep on getting those gifts. It’s when you stop fighting, then the gifts stop and in turn all you have is loss. And Jacinda is not giving up. What blows my mind is The National Party is polling higher and even if they are or are not the largest single party it doesn’t really matter, because the crazy thing is that everyone who thinks Jacinda can not do it need to do the math, figure it out, and figure out why. And when you do these calculations in this Game of Thrones that we are all playing, don’t diminish yourself into thinking like a pawn. Y’know don’t be that piece that thinks you can only do one thing.

      Look at all the information and just except it because right wing calculation will always assume that the largest single party will win. And when the National Party losses the right wingers will be struggle lugging for answers and they are going to resist it. So open your mind now, it might not be how you like it, it might upset you, you might have to change the way you look at the world. Your welcome.

      • I don’t believe your analysis. I’m right wing and would have happily joined Jacinda’s version of the future if she had stood by it. She hasn’t.

        • you fucked up my superannuation the only thing i want is to see nats kicked into the gutter where you belong

          • Now now, there’s no way of truely knowing if new view has anything to do with retirement funds. Whether new view joins upto a party of his particular right wing flavour is none of our business.

          • What an irrational comment. By replying I’m almost getting down to your level but not quite. I’ve worked 50 years to earn my super. How long have you worked. And how many sickies have you pulled Mike. Come on be honest now.

    • You have been reading too much of the right wing dogma thrust down our throats by the Herald. Television N.Z. and the over bloated egos of our papers right wing journalists. Thus to say Ada, you too have been sold by the “most kiwi’s” bullshit.

  2. No disrespect to Big Norm, but a rather gruesome speculation from our long distance columnist…

    Personally I would rather see “what ifs” on developing a strong activist movement, like at Ihumātao, dedicated to burying Roger’n’Ruth’s neo liberal legacy. A cruel wrecking ball that swung through old NZ, and has had many in NZ on the ropes for 30 years.

    –Return all SOEs to Govt. Depts
    –Make all Senior public servants and CEOs in the ministries reapply for their jobs, send them packing, and for example appoint the likes of AAAP (Auckland Action Against Poverty) to oversee the retirement of WINZ/MSD
    –Restrict the free in and outflow of capital
    –Massive infrastructure projects and non degree training
    –Return to transferable ‘opt–out’ union membership…

  3. Kirk didn’t just have a vision of how NZ should be, he had an understanding of what needed to be done, what things he had to take control of to put it into place. Jacinda only has the vision of how NZ should be; and a forlorn hope that her neoliberal minister of finance can provide the means.
    With Winston in charge of the economic portfolio that would have far more chance of working , but in the present arrangement there’s no show.
    Jacinda might have time to learn though; Norm probably gained from his longer experience of the world , life and government. Next term Jacinda could have more self confidence to take control.
    Here’s hoping.
    D J S

    • new zealand is faceing a private debt bomb of nats making personaly i see a mass insolvency event on the horizon we will be in uncharted waters

  4. Very different times Chris. Yes there would be some greif but a ‘truly massive national outpouring’ I very much doubt.

    Politicians these days don’t have the respect they once did, nor do they deserve it.

    • And we have so many more entertainment options; and politicians are so much less dominant in the nation’s consciousness.

      • Ada you may need to talk to a wider range of people – politicians are not entertainment options in the way, for instance, that those in Rome’s magnificent forum were, and they rarely are – and they may be best kept that way – or in your women’s mags.

        PM Ardern is certainly not naive; her lauded response to the horrific ChCh mosque massacres showed an instinctive empathy and political maturity which many could simply never attain – or even begin to understand, more’s the pity.

        Where the Ardern govt has shown itself to be a moral giant is in addressing the Pike River Mine re-entry, and the inquiry into the NZDF in Afghanistan, values for which I suggest history will salute them, as many of us do now

        • In Kirks day, how many TV channels were there? Any social media?
          And PMs really did decide where schools were built, and the Finance Minster set the interest rates. The PM really did dominate public debate back then.

          I’m pretty sure no-one outside of the readership of The Standard and The Daily Blog remembers or cares about the Afghanistan Inquiry and it didn’t take an act of moral courage to order that inquiry. It’s not like Ardern was putting her own decisions under the microscope.

          Pike River? What moral challenge was it to order the re-entry?

          When you refer to ‘us’, it’s a vanishingly small number.

          • Ada, I don’t watch television, so I wouldn’t know about the numbers of channels. I was overseas during Kirk’s tenure, and the only PM I am aware of dominating public debate was Muldoon, and whether or not domination is the hallmark of an effective leader, is a moot point.
            Leaders lead – bullies dominate.

            If you think that domination is a positive leadership attribute then I think differently from you, but one of the joys of management is the enriching and constructive dialogues experienced by the sharing of ideas and views which can often lead to outcomes possibly never envisaged by those only able to dominate.

            There are times when doing the right thing is important. One of these is facing up to the type of people which we as a country are.
            If you think it acceptable to go to a country like Afghanistan and behave in a way reported by the New York Times as a cruel act against civilians, then you can think that way, but to say that an issue is unimportant simply because few may care about it, does not make one iota of difference to the rights or wrongs of what happened, and what moral obligation we may have to those we have harmed. Think the Nuremberg Trials were just for fun do you ? Think that evil is ok as long as people don’t know or care about it ?

            We’re a violent ignorant little adolescent country and part of our coming of age may be when we start behaving like adults about all of the things which we do, and accept that might isn’t necessarily right.

            The Afghanistan inquiry going ahead under the aegis of PM Ardern is a PM acknowledging that there is a moral dimension to human existence.

            Pike River is multi-faceted. But if you see it as an unimportant or negligible sort of issue, then you must realise that if this were really so, then the Nat govt would not have been wriggling like maggots on a cess pit about doing it themselves.

            Further, once again we owe it to our own people to do whatever we can to ascertain what happened to try and ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and just because these people may be workers covered in coal dust does not mean that they do not matter. They do.

            Would you dare to enter the market square and declare that the peasants up in the Hindu Kush, and our men entombed in Pike River do not matter ? If so, then go for it – and twit away or what ever else you do.

            • Your instant turning to ad-hominem attacks and pomposity is nasty, and an example of your character.

              See, anyone can throw an insult.

                • Amy Brooke of Nelson might be where Ada gets this querying ‘Jacinda naive’ perspective from.

                  But in saying that only TDB and TS readers care about Afghanistan and Pike River, Ada may be implying that only the intelligentsia have moral or social consciences, or that only fiscal related issues are worth consideration, so it’s hard to know who’s naive really.

    • Having seen the reaction to the death of Grace Millane, and the events that followed the Christchuch attacks, I think that there would be more than just some grief.

      The media would ensure a large public reaction. We would have our own Diana, our own JFK, our own moment in history. And people would want to be part of it. The critics would bite their tongues and not speak ill of the dead. At least, not in the mainstream.

      Then there would be the story of young, innocent Neve. Not a dry eye for any reporter covering that story.

      The service would be televised. Probably a New Zealand flag, thankfully not JK’s flag, draped over the casket. The cameras would find the poor child of the deceased. More tears.

      Paula Bennett would pose in front of the media with a bouquet of flowers. Bought with taxpayers’ money. And, hopefully, Elton John would not be invited.

      But, I might be wrong. In the same way I hope Mr Trotter’s premise is wrong.

      • “Norman Kirk died. He was no age at all, just 51, and although he died in hospital, hardly any New Zealanders were aware that his reasons for being there were likely to prove fatal.” According to Bob Harvey he was our own JFK. Assassinated!

        Jacinda’s coalition must have a few runs on the board by now but what are they? These great social works what ever they are need to be continually hammered into voters minds so come election time – we already know whats been done for us by a competent administration. And we will need to be dollars better off. Both the action and messaging need an upgrade.

  5. Interesting parallels you make between our current pm and the late Norman Kirk and yes both are probably appreciated more over seas than they are at home in NZ especially now where it seems buffoons are the order of the day to run a northern hemisphere country but the main difference is that Kirk was elected under a FPTP system and Jacinda under a MMP system therefore Kirk didn’t have to appease to to many numbnuts from within .

  6. Ugh….you’re comparing this govt to that of Norman Kirk? Really? Do you think Kirk’s Labour government would have passed the CP-TPP into law, commenced negotiations on the RCEP, continued to under fund healthcare, fail to provide adequate support for the poor, unemployed and homeless, first home buyers and on and on?

    Kirk and our best Australian PM Savage actually did things for the NZ people as true decent Socialists and that’s why they are fondly remembered to this day.

    • Yep.
      It’s a nice love letter to Jacinda this piece but the population isn’t that struck with her, she is charismatic and speaks kind words but as I’ve said before she’s our Obama- great words without action will ensure a political backlash.
      I’m no longer sure she’s genuine after watching her stuff interview on suicide “we’ve made a great start” much grimacing and nodding of head, floundering and knowing she was failing.
      There are only so many times you can deploy the drawn sympathetic smile and earnest nodding of the head before the magic wears off. Words. Lots of words.
      Trudeau is another poster child who turned in to a caricature of himself.
      Kirk did stuff.

      • It is the people with real problems (bad housing, poverty, disabilities) – the ones Labour is supposed to exist for – who will turn on her first, because she is failing them first and to the greatest degree.

        The last to fall out of love will be those who can afford a comfortable lifestyle without government help.

        • I don’t know Ada. I’m comfortable middle class myself with properties. Its been a long time since I was impressed with Labour and I know a lot of other middle class people who quickly moved from indifferent to angry. Their actions and inaction have not just impacted on the poor. Indeed its the middle class who often carry the burden of questionable decisions by government.

  7. According to someone in the National party, an MP no less but I never did catch their name, was being interviewed a scant few years ago by Kim Hill, I think?
    Norman Kirk was done in, so he said. But by whom? The most likely were the French for Norm sending a frigate to the Pacific Islands, I can’t remember which Islands to be exact. Probably Mururoa.
    Here’s a great interview between David Frost and Norman Kirk.
    @ CT? Comparing jacinda adern to Norman Kirk ? Really? Are you sure? Ok then. I’m not convinced but if you must. We all have our opinions. Some are wrong. Some are right.
    Norman Kirk was like the frigate he sent in. Too bold and too ahead of the times to be allowed to have presence. Therefore? You sink it. You sink it, then you weather out the consequences as best you can. Never mind though because what is done is done.
    The dirty, filthy, scum of the day, like the Pigster, would never allow a Norman Kirk undo his devious little scams or to derail the scams of others keeping The Pig company from within the shadows.
    Is that not correct Boys? How’s Switzerland these days, by the way? Still as economical with the truth as ever? SIR micky fay? You live there, right? What’s the weather like? As temperate as, say, a prison cell?

  8. Comparing this garbage fire government to Kirk is a very long bow to draw. The headline is click bait I was hoping the PM had gone.

  9. It’s not what JA has achieved while in Government that is the problem. It’s the list of extravagant election promises given to win the electorates hearts and mind, that were either cynical or extremely naive, that have seen her followers more than a little disillusioned.

  10. The increasingly, maybe always , safe for corporations, Bill Maher mentions George McGovern not as what might have been but as a warning for where going Left leads ; 45 years and more and no time allowing the people. How’s that worked out?

  11. Jacinda a moral giant? Whoa, let’s not get carried away. Giuseppe Garibaldi was a moral giant, Florence Nightingale was a moral giant, Te Whiti was a moral giant, and that deeply-flawed man Winston Churchill was briefly a moral giant in 1940. A moral giant requires (as well as courage) clear-eyed observation, plus the ability to work out what’s important, and what’s less important. I don’t think Jacinda has that clarity of mind or maturity at this stage. Jacinda’s judgement and decision-making hinge too much on emotion and ideology, and not enough on reason. This was apparent when she famously declared “I have three priorities: climate, inequality and women”. I can’t argue with the first two, but the third leaves me perplexed. I could have accepted “education” or “health” or maybe “Maori” – but “women”? It’s boys who are failing at school, and it’s men who are topping themselves at ever-increasing rates. Jacinda doesn’t seem to have noticed these and other damning stats, busy as she is getting more girls to play sport, getting more women onto sporting bodies, fretting over the so-called “gender pay gap”, and calling for a boot camp to get young Muslim women into politics. Jacinda’s third priority reflects a failure to question the feminist indoctrination she received courtesy of the NZ education system, and a disappointing selective blindness.

  12. I was only 11 when Kirk died but he made an impression on me. I kept the newspaper cuttings – still have them. Jacinda is not in the same league, and yes, it is a very different world we face.

  13. Born in 1969 i have no memory of Kirk only the legend.
    I remember the dominance and stranglehold of Muldoon and Rowling who was always portrayed by Muldoon as a ” shiver looking for a spine to run up “and was weak and ineffectual.

    It was the last of the discredited economic order that we were told had conveniently bankrupted the country and the free market much like the decent society and the brighter future would lead us too the promised land.

    Like a lot of us i am still waiting.

    Kirk could act too make things better but was helped by the economic framework then sympathetic and understanding of the needs of the average kiwi and not the shareholders of far away or local corporate’s who were too pillar and plunder gods own country without mercy after 1984.

    Adern is no Kirk who could dominate his government and its machinery to ensure his policies were carried out that he campaigned on in the watershed election of 1972.

    She may have good intentions but that is all she has got and the rhetoric only masks the evil that is the economic order that governs and controls her and her colleges.

    She will have small wins as much as her overlords allow but no more than that.

    She was compromised from the beginning and is only PM because of Winston Peters.

    This is a foreign alien country too the one of 45 years ago and the ” old ” NZ is fading from memory.

    Kirk and his gods own socialism is dead.

    We sold him out a long time ago with our rich mans revolution that has been voted for again and again for the last 35 years and no matter how much stardust she throws around it will never come close too Norm Kirk.

    • Born 3 years earlier Mosa I remember the last positive social-democrat, Kirk, versus a negative one, Muldoon. Over our 1974 August holidays at Ahipara on 90 Mile Beach, trying to sleep with the roaring surf, we heard on the radio my first political news, his death.

      Despite the many tears at the time, if we’d known the strength had gone out of demo-cracy we’d have cried a hundred times more. Better Rolls Royces should be key-scratched out of principle, as we did then, than the weakest suffer ‘out of principle’ as we’ve done the last 35 years.

  14. I think what Chris is saying is that Kirk died before the gloss had even started to wear off and had Jacinta died at the same point in her term, she would have been equally revered in the future. But Jacinta is still alive and the gloss is starting to wear off.
    His comment is timely. The left seem unaware that the electorate is not quite seeing Jacinta on an invincible pedestal anymore. And as in 74-75, they seem unaware of how the ethics of politics and electioneering is changing. Labour were unprepared for Muldoon’s new use of TV and his appealing to populist misconceptions (dancing Cossack adds etc) and had no way to counter this new style.
    In 2020 the new style will be Trump politics….. outlandish promises, blatant lies, personal attacks and libel, one-liners like ‘Crooked Hilary’ etc.
    Tamihere is trialing Trump politics in NZ right now and Goff seems to have no answers.
    If Tamihere wins Auckland there is a guarantee National will use the same formula.
    Is Labour and the left noticing ???

  15. chruskl – I missed this, “I have three priorities: climate, inequality and women”, but can see your concern.

    I don’t know who is writing Ardern’s speeches, but had she said.”I have three priorities: climate, equality and people,” I think it would have been a much more powerful statement.

    More so perhaps after a Nat govt which only cared about some people – this looks like more of the same thing, but with a gender divide this time rather than an income divide. I’m sick of gender divides and gender complexities, and having to Google to find out whether I am one of Louisa Wall’s “fucking terfs.”

    And after Bill English’s idiotically saying that our young men are useless druggies, it’s a shame to see them rendered invisible here. It didn’t have to be that way.

    I groaned at the boot camp for Islamic women. It may not necessarily be the most culturally appropriate way of getting Muslim women into politics anyway – community initiatives may work better – but my first reaction was what about all our young guys who are topping themselves.

    I don’t know how high PM Ardern’s pedestal is/was, but a lot of the pleasure at seeing her become PM was simply relief after the greedy grasping socially destructive years of the National Government.

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