Transformative: Jacinda Ardern’s role model Norman Kirk, Prime Minister from December 1972 until his death on August 31, 1974. (Photo Wikicommons)

Jacinda Ardern’s role model is Norman Kirk, who was New Zealand’s prime minister from 1972 until his death in 1974. But there are important differences between the two Labour leaders, as Matt McCarten writes.


We’re all basking in the positive vibes emanating from Jacinda in the wake of the election and the new polls. Well, maybe not everyone is basking. Judith, for instance, could be feeling just a bit sulky.

And there are more of us who should be feeling uneasy about the path that Labour, as a social democratic party, will be taking through this three-year term, and quite likely beyond.

The problem with social democratic parties around the world is that they’re timid. They avoid upsetting the ruling business elites. They focus on feel-good social justice issues and not nearly enough on economic justice.  

It’s a fact that institutions of the left are now run by the upper middle class. The Labour Party and the trade unions were once mass movements of the working class. Now they’re just shells of their former selves and are populated by professional apparatchiks. 

The working-class pioneers of the left had a dream for their kids. They built a welfare state that provided everyone with access to free education and public healthcare. Through their semi-socialist economic policies, they created meaningful jobs and homes for every family. 

The unforeseen consequence of this success is that the following generations became comfortably middle class and turned their attention to racism, sexism, sexuality, peace and environment. The political left abdicated the economic ground to the right. 

When the global right launched the neoliberal onslaught, the middle classes tut-tutted but were secretly delighted. The rich and powerful restructured society to steal from the poor, although they flicked some of the stolen loot to the middle classes to buy their complicity. 

In this country, the top tax rates were halved, regressive taxes replaced wealth taxes, and our public assets were sold to “mum and dad” investors. To incentivise the profit motive, public education and health services became fee-based. The state also got out of the housing market. 

Did I mention that this came courtesy of the fourth Labour government? That’s when David Lange became PM in 1984, and when Roger Douglas, a particularly powerful finance minister who went on to create the ACT party, introduced “Rogernomics”.

While Jacinda Ardern and her government may rail against this generational crime, they have no intention of reversing it. And they won’t tamper with the laws and rules that perpetuate this system of economic unfairness against working people in this country. Modern Labour has made peace with “turbo capitalism”.

In an excellent Guardian article last month, Bryce Edwards argued that the institutions of the left are run by the upper middle class. This has resulted in liberal social issues becoming a priority over economic needs. 

Looking at the social class of New Zealand politicians, Bryce points out that, while there are now record numbers of women, openly gay, Māori and Pasifika in parliament, this disguises the fact that the social class of our MPs no longer reflects the communities they represent. Nor their needs. Almost all of them are university graduates and are white-collar professionals or independent.

A new backbencher gets an annual salary package topping $200,000, which puts them in the top 2 percent of New Zealand income earners. Most are worth far more. And Bryce says this social divide affects their thinking and priorities. They reflect a middle-class agenda. 

This may explain our current housing mess. When an owner makes more money from an empty property than a worker can earn from a 60-hour week, then something is deeply wrong. The worker pays tax, the passive property owner pays none. 

The Salvation Army says 20,000 families are on the emergency housing list. There are 500,000 in unsuitable accommodation. At the same time, 200,000 residences nationwide are empty — 40,000 just in Auckland. 

Rents are skyrocketing and loans are getting cheaper. Who benefits from this system? Not the working class who are the renters. But those who have property portfolios do — and that includes a number of MPs.

Around the world, the politics of the right are fuelled by the alienated and angry working class. The liberal left is flummoxed by the rise of Trumpism and other far right movements. But this will happen here if inequality is allowed to continue. 

Jacinda Ardern is a decent person. Her leadership after the Christchurch massacre and during Covid-19 was outstanding. But eliminating poverty and inequity is something else. The PM says this is her priority and Norman Kirk is her role model. He’s mine too. 

Kirk became our prime minister in 1972 and died in office less than two years later. But he was a visionary, and he transformed our society and our place in the world. He faced greater odds domestically than Jacinda, who’s more popular than he ever was and has huge goodwill capital to use. 

I offer a contrast. When “Big Norm” was elected in December 1972, one of his first acts as prime minister was to give all beneficiaries a week’s bonus payment. He told them to give their kids a happy Christmas. Michael Joseph Savage (Labour’s first prime minister) did the same in 1935. 

Our current PM says child poverty is a central priority for her. But when she was asked what specifically she would do for beneficiaries, she said they’d already received $25 more a week in her first term. 

The Salvation Army says another $50 a week is needed just to get to the same income level after the 1991 benefit cuts inflicted by National’s Ruth Richardson and Jim Bolger. According to Jeremy Rose in a recent article, the Kirk government increased the unemployment benefit to $402 a week in today’s money, an increase of $58 a week. Comparing that to the Ardern government’s $25 tells you a lot.

This one example shows the political vision divide between the working-class left and the middle-class left. 

Norman Kirk was the last working-class leader of any major political party. He left school at 13. He was a self-taught tradie and worked as a roofer and a bricklayer. He also hung out at the local library. He built his family home by himself. It still stands today. By the age of 30, he was the mayor of Kaiapoi in Canterbury. 

Then, immediately he became prime minister, he withdrew New Zealand’s troops from Vietnam. Then he abolished compulsory conscription. He also cancelled the Springboks rugby tour. 

He also announced February 6 as our national day. Who will ever forget the iconic photo of him and a young Māori child walking hand in hand at the first Waitangi Day? His government followed that up by establishing the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975. 

And this was when white New Zealand ideology ruled openly. 

He launched a massive work and housing programme that literally created full employment. And students actually got paid to carry on to higher education. 

We remember David Lange’s nuclear ships ban. That was inspiring, but it was a passive act, whereas Norman Kirk went on the front foot and ordered two frigates to the Pacific to protest against French nuclear testing. 

Another memorable act was addressing the United Nations to publicly criticise the direct role of the US in the overthrow of the elected Chilean government. 

Is Jacinda willing to show the courage that he showed?

It’s clear already that she won’t be transformative — at least not unless she’s willing to use her political capital to solve our upcoming economic problems.

The prime minister has a clear choice. She becomes the champion of working people who have been left out, or she carries on protecting the privileges of the middle class. As the dilemma over housing tenants and owners shows, you can’t do both.


Matt McCarten (Ngāpuhi) is a unionist with a long involvement in politics, mainly as a political strategist and organiser with the Alliance and then the Labour Party, where he was formerly chief of staff. He’s based in Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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