Norman Eric Kirk (6 January 1923 – 31 August 1974) was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1972 until his sudden death in 1974. He led the Parliamentary wing of the New Zealand Labour Party from 1965 to 1974. Kirk had a reputation as the most formidable debater of his time.
Kirk did not perform well at school, and left shortly before he turned thirteen. Despite this, however, he enjoyed reading, and often visited libraries. In particular, he enjoyed the study of history and geography - perhaps the source of his future interest in foreign affairs.
After leaving school, Kirk worked in a number of jobs, initially as an assistant roof-painter and later as a railway engineer. His health, however, deteriorated, and when the New Zealand Army called him up for military service in 1941 it found him medically unfit. After recovering somewhat, he returned to work, holding a number of different jobs.
In 1943, aged twenty, Kirk married Ruth Miller (born as Lucy Ruth Miller, but she goes by her middle name). They would eventually have three sons and two daughters. In 1975 Ruth Kirk was credited DBE becoming Dame Ruth Kirk.
As mayor, Kirk showed great creativity and implemented many changes. He surprised officials by studying issues intensely, often emerging with better knowledge of his options than the people functioning as his advisors.
Throughout his political career, Kirk promoted the welfare state, supporting government spending for housing, health, employment, and education. As such, Kirk often appeared as a champion for ordinary New Zealanders. His working-class background also gave him some advantage, as ordinary voters saw many other politicians as out-of-touch and aloof.
Gradually, Kirk began to rise through Labour's internal hierarchy, becoming vice-president of the Party in 1963 and president in 1964. At the end of 1965 he successfully challenged Arnold Nordmeyer for the parliamentary leadership.
Two subjects in particular caused comment. One: Kirk's strong protest against French nuclear-weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean, which led to his Government along with Australia taking France to the International Court of Justice in 1972, and him sending two New Zealand navy frigates, HMNZS Canterbury and Otago, into the test zone area at Mururoa atol in a symbolic act of protest in 1973. The other: his refusal to allow a visit by a South African rugby team, a decision he made because the apartheid régime in South Africa would not accept racial integration for that sport. He was also highly critical of US foreign policy, speaking before the United Nations of the US-led coup d'etat and massacres in Chile in 1973.
The Kirk government was also notable for a number of national identity building policies. The Kirk government began the tradition of New Zealand Day in 1973, and introduced legislation in 1974 to declare the Queen as Queen of New Zealand.
Kirk kept up an intense schedule, and rarely took vacation time. Perhaps as a result, his health began to decline once more. At the end of 1973, he developed heart problems, but recovered. Despite his illness, Kirk refused to reduce his workload by any significant degree. By August 1974, Kirk's situation had worsened, and he was finally persuaded to enter hospital. Three days later he died of heart problems, aged 51. A state funeral, attended by thousands, took place on 6 September 1974, followed by interment in his hometown, Waimate.
He was succeeded in the Sydenham electorate by his son John Kirk.