The prime minister often invokes the former Labour leader and prime minister, Norman Kirk. Margaret Hayward, former parliamentary secretary to Kirk and author of Diary of The Kirk Years, compares their careers and their qualities.
On 8 April, I sent my first email to Prime Minister Ardern with the heading, “Norman Kirk couldn’t do it, but you have.” She had announced that her cabinet colleagues and public service chief executives had agreed to accept just 80% of their salaries to show solidarity with New Zealanders whose income was affected by Covid-19.
In it I recalled how in 1973, when the Higher Salaries Commission recommended an increase in MPs’ salaries, Norman Kirk urged his caucus to turn it down. When elected in late 1972 many people, especially in the regions, were doing it hard and he wanted to show solidarity with them. Soon, there was a line-up of MPs all telling him they could not cope without the raise. He listened, and there was no act of solidarity.
I was impressed that Ardern persuaded her Cabinet colleagues and chief executives to do so, if only for six months. But there were differences. Ardern asked only her Cabinet and departmental heads, closer to her and on higher salaries than MPs, to reduce their salaries. Kirk asked the whole of caucus, many of whom were new to parliament and had no close connection with him. MPs’ salaries then were then comparatively low, they would be losing income until the next review and there was no worldwide pandemic or lockdown.
Ardern has mentioned Kirk several times in her speeches, most recently in May when she quoted his comment that everyone needs “somewhere to live, someone to love and something to hope for”. And she regularly urges people to be kind to one another. Kirk didn’t mention kindness, but he was.
Although born 57 years apart, it was inequality and the lack of social justice that drove both into politics. Both had experiences of poverty that burnt deep. Kirk recalled during the depression that the father of a neighbouring family of 10 children was on the unemployment benefit. His wife would leave at 4am to scrub floors for a little extra money “but someone put her pot on”; she had to stop, and the family was deprived of his unemployment benefit. Then one daughter died of scarlet fever. There was no money for an undertaker or a coffin, so the family pulled boards off a wall of their house and made their own coffin. They managed “to get a car to take them to the cemetery, sitting with the coffin across their knees”.
At an early age Ardern, too, saw poverty in Murupara where her father was the police sergeant. In her maiden speech she said those memories were vivid. People had lost jobs because of privatisation of the forestry industry and the complete lack of central government support. “I knew there were suicides and that the girl that used to babysit me and my sister one day turned yellow with hepatitis and couldn’t visit us any more … My passion for social justice came from what I saw: my love of politics came when I realised it was the key to changing what I saw.”
Both came from families with strong religious backgrounds – and both had to break away to become truly themselves, although still retaining close family ties. But at Morrinsville College Ardern stood out. She led the campaign that resulted in girls being allowed to wear shorts instead of the regulation skirts and was elected student representative on the Board of Trustees. Practical, she could drive tractors before she drove cars and at 14 worked part-time in the local fish and chip shop. At University she had three gay flatmates and left the Mormon church because of its stance against homosexuality.
Later she travelled in the US and Europe and worked as a researcher in Tony Blair’s Cabinet office. In 2008 Ardern was elected president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, established to promote equal opportunity and political participation for youth worldwide. As president she travelled extensively before returning to New Zealand where she stood as Labour’s candidate for the safe National electorate of Waikato. She was unsuccessful but her high list placement ensured she became an MP.
Growing up through the depression Kirk said he was average at school (although he was an avid reader) and left aged 12 to bring the first earnings into the family in seven years: paid 2d an hour for cleaning roof guttering for a roof-painting firm. Later he joined the Railways Department, and following his marriage worked on the Devonport ferries and later in dairy factories in the Bay of Plenty. After he had built a house and settled his family in Kaiapoi he become politically active, reviving the Labour Party branch and becoming the youngest Mayor in New Zealand, dragging that factory town into the 20th century with modern sewage, drainage and roading.
Kirk became MP for Lyttelton in 1957 and leader of the Labour Party after nine years, though not prime minister until 1972. By contrast Ardern became a list MP in 2008, leader of the Labour Party after nine years and prime minister just seven weeks later. In those weeks, using her slogan “Let’s do this” and an attitude of “relentless positivity” she lifted the popularity of the party from around 20% to 37%, then negotiated support from the Green Party and a coalition agreement from New Zealand First to achieve a Labour-led government. The need to accommodate other parties and adopt some of their policies had been unnecessary in the 1970s when the political system was winner takes all.
The problems both prime ministers inherited, however, were similar. A severe housing deficit, hospitals needing upgrading, schools lacking facilities with teachers demonstrating, though there was less obvious child poverty in the early 1970s. Kirk had promised to get the last of New Zealand’s military in Vietnam home by Christmas. He did, and also ended compulsory military training. Environmental degradation, too, was an issue in the early 1970s and Kirk immediately arranged for the leaders of the Save Manapouri protests to choose who should be guardians of both Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau.
Forty-five years later, in her election campaign Ardern proclaimed that tackling New Zealand’s environment issues is her generation’s “nuclear moment” and in November 2019 the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act was passed, receiving cross-party support, with a Climate Change Institute established to further that work.
It was the unexpected, however, and their attitudes in dealing with it that has so far distinguished them as prime ministers. Almost immediately Kirk received a report previously available to the former prime minister, John Marshall, stating that the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in February 1974 was at risk. The African and Caribbean nations, and even Canada had privately stated they would boycott the games because of South Africa’s apartheid policies if the Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand went ahead. Kirk, who in 1957 had campaigned on “No Maoris, no Tour”, said if one were a dictator it would be very easily dealt with. But “we want to get the right decision by the right means, and that is a process needing democracy and persuasion”. Weeks of negotiations followed with Dannie Craven, President of the South African Rugby Union definite: “Nothing in this world will induce me to call off the Springbok tour or to ask for a postponement.” The New Zealand Rugby Union was equally obdurate and after almost two months of pressure from protesters on both sides Kirk called a press conference postponing the tour. Instead of criticism newspaper editorials responded with comments such as, “at least an example of coolness in a heated atmosphere has come right from the top”.
Then came the Silent Generation’s (those born before 1945) “nuclear moment”: opposing the French testing nuclear devices in the atmosphere at Mururoa Atoll and the consequent fallout causing deaths and birth defects on nearby Pacific Islands. A cabinet minister, Fraser Colman, was aboard as the frigate HMNS Otago sailed to Mururoa Atoll during the testing as “a silent accusing witness with the power to bring alive the conscience of the world”. It did. New Zealand and Australia took a case to the World Court but before judgement was made France agreed to cease atmospheric testing.
Many festering issues were addressed, from introducing a Waitangi Tribunal to redress Māori land confiscations to establishing Ohu (communes to provide alternative lifestyles) and implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendation of a Domestic Purposes Benefit. But Kirk had only 20 months as prime minister. In April 1974 he had a varicose vein operation resulting in the blood clot which eventually killed him on 31 August 1974, aged 51.
Kirk’s challenges pale when compared with the unforeseen crisis Ardern has faced in her first term as prime minister.
In March 2019, a terrorist attack by an Australian white supremacist on two Christchurch mosques left 51 dead and 49 injured. Ardern bridged the religious chasm when she said: “They are us.” In Dubai her image, wearing a hijab and hugging a Muslim woman was projected onto the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, beneath the word, Peace.
In December 2019, a further tragedy. While 47 people, mainly international tourists, were visiting the volcanic Whakaari/White Island it erupted, killing 21 and severely injuring the 26 survivors.
On 28 February the first case of Covid-19 was identified in New Zealand. Further cases caused a nationwide lockdown. The decision to televise daily updates with Ardern and the director-general of health kept people informed and engaged. And just to make sure all aspects were covered a media conference followed.
The media! The clamouring demands of the media would be the biggest change of all. Kirk had only to cope with cameras, the telephone, TV and radio; talkback radio was in its infancy. Ardern somehow manages all those, plus smartphones and selfies, Facebook and Instagram.
Kirk developed a rapport with most journalists; though their questions were tough and insightful, they were never rude or haranguing. That, nearly 50 years later, I find the attitudes of journalists towards the prime minister sometimes bordering on rudeness could possibly be blamed on deadline pressure. Nevertheless, Ardern is consistent. When elected she said her government would be “focused, empathetic and strong” and that is also her attitude towards the media.
Like Kirk in his lifetime, Arden is more honoured abroad. On 30 April, the Editorial Board of the New York Times beneath the heading “In a Crisis, True Leaders Stand Out”, began: “Leadership may be hard to define, but in times of crisis it is easy to identify … A masterclass on how to respond belongs to Jacinda Ardern the 39-year-old Prime Minister of New Zealand.”
There is still four months to the next general election. With three unforeseen crises in 12 months who can predict what will happen before then? One thing is certain. Frank Corner, that most astute and acerbic Secretary of Foreign Affairs, on Norman Kirk: “Occasionally a leader is so fashioned as to seek to draw out the positive, humane, even generous side of us.” Jacinda Ardern, too, has proved she is that kind of leader.
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