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.
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.