Review: We Need to Talk About Norman: New Zealand’s Lost Leader

Reviewed by David Herkt

Author: Denis Welch. Reviewer: David Herkt.In We Need to Talk About Norman: New Zealand’s Lost Leader, Denis Welch focuses on the New Zealand Labour Party Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, who died in office in 1975. He ventures into this relatively recent history and finds new importance. In Welch’s version, Kirk is a gauge for our age.June 2023 release

Sometimes a book deals with the important signs of its times while ostensibly discussing another subject. Frequently this core message can be delivered through a public concern which has wider implications, at other times it is a person who has this unexpected relevance.

There are always politically, socially or culturally prominent people who embody a certain viewpoint or an action who have dropped from the forefront of public consciousness. Often, they are in need of rediscovery, explication and reinterpretation. In We Need to Talk About Norman: New Zealand’s Lost Leader, Denis Welch focuses on the New Zealand Labour Party Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, who died in office in 1975. He ventures into this relatively recent history and finds new importance. In Welch’s version, Kirk is a gauge for our age.

We Need to Talk About Norman is also a book written by a former New Zealand journalist who worked in London for The Times during Kirk’s period as the country’s leader. This gives Welch’s exploration a real sense of discovery, along with a degree of distance from his subject. It is a useful perspective.

Welch is a former deputy editor for the NZ Listener, has worked for RNZ’s Nine to Noon and stood twice for Parliament – for the Values and Green Parties. He has published a biography of Helen Clark. These various careers grant insights from both inside and outside the political arena, allowing him to write and pitch this exploration of Kirk’s life and meaning almost perfectly.

On one hand, We Need to Talk About Norman is a book for a general reader, offering insights into a past that has surprising relevance to contemporary society. For the specialist, on the other hand, Welch provides information gained from newly conducted interviews as well as access to unpublished archival material, like the complete diaries of Margaret Hayward, Kirk’s private secretary.

‘No other book like [her’s] has ever been written about a New Zealand Prime Minister or indeed any public figure in this country’s history,’ Welch writes of Hayward’s published Diary of the Kirk Years, and he explores the extremely interesting information that did not reach her final printed version.

Welch’s subtitle for the book New Zealand’s Lost Leader almost seems hyperbolically erroneous given Kirk’s one-time prominence in New Zealand thought and history. Yet it is true. Not only is Kirk no longer a background to our thoughts but he somehow belongs completely to the past. Kirk represents a different style of politician, even a different style of politics from the present. The spin-doctors, pollsters, strategists, and “brand-managers” of contemporary political life – as well as their four-word condensations of party-philosophy for media slogans – are an age away from Kirk’s hand’s-on vision, where he seemed to instinctively translate public concern into political action.

As was frequently said, even in a popular song of the time, Kirk was a man of the people. As Welch points out, he was also the last New Zealand Prime Minister to physically build his own house out of necessity. Kirk was essentially a self-educated man but he had read extremely widely through local library books. His background of poverty and blue-collar work, before he moved up through local council politics into Parliament, is a now a rare biography. Kirk also had a vision of what he expected both of himself and the nation that he led.

Physically, Kirk’s bulk and height was not in line with the way we now perceive a nation’s leader. This is not to say that he wasn’t able to mould himself to other’s expectations. He lost weight for the crucial 1972 election and began to appear statesmanlike. As Welch reveals he was also a man who seemed to know he did not have a long life ahead of him and had several publicly supressed health scares. These medical issues make Kirk’s achievements all the more remarkable.

We Need to Talk About Norman effectively communicates Kirk’s fight against his looming death during the entirety of his leadership. It is a story of stubborn courage which can at times appear quixotic and even counterproductive. Welch’s emphasis adds a new perspective. Kirk’s drove himself harder than he drove others. His overseas trips were conducted to a grueling schedule. Welch also points out, very usefully, just how Kirk focused on Asia where he was fulsomely welcomed and where he still remains New Zealand’s only leader to have visited some countries. Kirk created the future strategy which remains the basis for New Zealand’s contemporary international policy.

Kirk’s anti-nuclear stance was also the first time New Zealand had ventured onto a global stage by taking an oppositional standpoint to the traditional great powers. He sent a frigate to Mururoa Atoll with a Cabinet member on board to protest the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Welch does balance this radical political act with Kirk’s comparatively conservative and unexamined gender politics. As he writes, in many ways Kirk was ‘a progressive humanitarian with enlightened views about poverty, race, and…. social and economic well-being. In other ways he was reactionary and narrow-minded.’

Welch’s book is written in focused, titled, compact sections. This is a very useful structure. Kirk is viewed through a range of perspectives. Simultaneously Welch avoids a scatter-gun approach, with a deeply rooted underlying topical and biographical logic which unites the volume.

In an era of neo-liberalism, where nations are governed on the basis of financial balance-sheets, where a life without the rule of capital is nearly inconceivable, Welch’s broader perspectives are welcome. As George Santayana remarked, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ and one of Welch’s roles in We Need to Talk about Norman is to remind the present not only about the life of Norman Kirk but his perspectives, social circumstances and personal philosophy.

Now that the moral and social bankruptcy of contemporary neo-liberalism is beginning to be apparent to many, Welch’s We Need to Talk about Norman is a reminder of lost possibilities. Globalised consumer capitalism, where control of most of the world’s wealth seems to have devolved onto an ever-shrinking number of multi-national companies and billionaires, is not the only story. Welch focuses on the alternatives that Norman Kirk offered and still offers New Zealanders.

Reviewed by David Herkt