Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk

A Mighty Totara
During the whole selection/election campaigns there were a number of books that came out which I'm now catching up on - apart from Dirty Politics (of course) at the top of the list was The Mighty Totara: The Life and Times of Norman Kirk by David Grant. I've just finished the book and I'm very impressed.

Coming from a fairly Labour oriented family on my fathers' side I know how venerated and fondly remembered Kirk is. Grant has gone beyond the veneration and myths and given a well balanced account of Kirk's life. Grant gives a fair assessment of the nature of New Zealand politics and doesn't stoop to simple charactarisations of anyone - including the Opposition, even noting the fact that Kirk was the only Labour leader Rob Muldoon said he respected, because of the poverty they both experienced growing up.

The overview of Kirk's life is very well set out and very well researched. The extensive references and footnotes (which are interesting reading themselves) are indicative of this.

Having said this though, a number of points about the book did disappoint me. The first was the fact that Grant left a lot of material about Kirk's private life - specifically his "unhappy marriage" - right up until the end. It is almost as if Grant is embarrassed to have it in the book. It is a shame that the impact of his frenetic workrate is only discussed whenever his health issues are mentioned.

The second point is broader, and my main criticism of the book. I've always been fascinated to know why it was Kirk took up the cause of an independent identity for New Zealand, accepting the geopolitical reality we were faced with in the early 70s with our relationship to the 'mother country'. (Fortunately Grant does note correctly that his view wasn't unique to Kirk, who worked in a bipartisan way while in opposition with Jack Marshall, who himself understood the implications of Britain's EEC membership). To my mind this was his greatest legacy, and certainly the longest lasting.

Kirk was someone who left school at age 12 to find work, and as Grant clearly sets out was always suspicious of anyone with a formal education. So it could not have been a philosophical position for him, but a practical one. There are some cues on this - in Margaret Hayward's book Diary of the Kirk Years (Hayward was Kirks private secretary) it's recalled that Kirk referred to the portraits of the Queen and Prince Phillip in the Prime Minister's office disparagingly and had them removed. Another book of Kirk's quotes mentions the need for New Zealand to re-orient away from trading with Britain towards Asia. I would've liked to have read more about why Kirk specifically took up this cause.

It was not as if - as Grant sets out - Kirk took a great interest in economics. It because clear in The Mighty Totara that this was a critical weakness for his government. Grant appears to lay the blame for Labour's defeat in 1975 largely on the economy. This was a product of Kirk's refusal to listen to his Minister of Finance, Bill Rowling, on the need to take actions to combat galloping inflation (one interesting tid-bit was that Rowling wanted to float the New Zealand Dollar after the end of the Bretton Woods system, something Kirk was dead against). Declining exports (due to our dependence on Britain) and oil shocks didn't help, and Kirk's governments responses (carless days, more public spending) were certainly the orthodox responses - which were of course carried on by the incoming government in 1975.

I'd actually go so far as to say you could make this book into a TV mini-series (New Zealand's answer to The Kennedys perhaps?). In tracking Kirk's life from his tough upbringing to his early start in the workforce, his hobbies (including shooting pigeons at parliament from his office!) and the development of his political career without leaving out the warts makes for compelling reading. I throughly recommend Grant's book to anyone interested in New Zealand politics and history.

Next up is Richard Seddon: King of God's Own by Tom Brooking.

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