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The house that Norm built: The influence of Norman Kirk

Philip Dobb bought Kirk’s old Kaiapoi house off a mate – they’d shaken on the deal at the pub – after helping to insulate and rewire it. “It would have been freezing back in the day.”  Photo/John Collie.

John Summers with Margaret Hayward’s book Diary of the Kirk Years.

Kirk’s early death in 1974, aged 51,  meant he has been alternately mythologised and forgotten, always talked of in terms of promise cut short. “We had so much hope when he came in,” an aunt told me, a statement that made me jealous. I’ve never felt that way about a politician, even the ones I’ve liked. Always, they’ve felt like managers more than leaders, with their talk of goals and aspirations. But it’s possible I wouldn’t have felt that way about Kirk, either. It’s the myth I’ve been chasing. Had I lived then, it’s just as likely I would have been impatient with his social conservatism – he was stubbornly against homosexual law reform – or frustrated by his blind spot for economics.

It’s said David Lange baulked at commemorating Kirk’s death in the 80s. By then, Kirk was already faintly fogeyish, carrying the taint of import licences and government ownership. And in John Key, we’ve since had another prime minister who overcame hardship; the former National leader was raised in a Christchurch state house.

In his case, though, those beginnings were always spoken of in contrast to his later success, as proof of how far he’d come – the state house a springboard for the man we saw: the millionaire, the businessman, the prime minister. The signs of Key’s common touch (the dad jokes, necking Steinlager at a barbecue) were the same classless japes you’d expect from a blokey chief executive or an accountant on holiday. He had transcended the state house, so much so that his government would have no qualms about selling it. Their focus was on business and the economy, and the rest of us were expected to jump aboard, to better ourselves as he had.

It’s now that we have a prime minister who, like me, was born after Kirk’s death, that Norm is being invoked again. Jacinda Ardern has a picture on her wall of him meeting her grandmother, and in the run-up to her prime ministership she spoke approvingly of his empathy, quoting his line that people don’t ask for much, just “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”. It’s been repeated a lot; Ardern herself gave it a thrashing on the campaign trail. But if you can hear past that, it remains a remarkable statement, humble in its vision and deeply rooted in Kirk’s own past, his need to house his family, his childhood poverty, and the loneliness that shadowed his life.

Hayward writes of him believing he was unloved, overlooked by his parents. His vision of government was one that made sure others didn’t experience the same. And now, as full-time jobs are shattered into contracts – or, most euphemistically, “gigs” – and land banking is common practice in the midst of a housing shortage, it is important to hear a politician acknowledge those basic needs again, even if it is with borrowed words. Kirk’s words, ones even he never lived up to: that resistance to homosexual law reform hardly fits with “someone to love”. But myths aren’t blueprints or maps. He’s been described as one of the biggest “what ifs” of New Zealand politics, a way of saying he never finished what he’d started, that he would have changed this country. Except I heard it differently, and perhaps Ardern does too, imagining he’d posed us a question, asking us to think about how our politics could be. What if governments never forgot the way the poorest of us lived, worked to make sure we all had those basic needs, held our values even as more powerful countries forgot theirs?

For all its faults, Kirk’s house didn’t do too badly in the Canterbury earthquakes. It was only a few hundred metres away from a red zone where almost a thousand homes were destroyed, but came through with only a few cracks. Philip Dobb told me he was able to fix them himself. Like most, he was unimpressed with EQC. The local paper came by to write a story on its survival, and the New Zealand Herald ran a short piece. Today, the house still stands. There are a few years left in those cinder blocks.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.