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Norman Eric Kirk

Norman Eric Kirk served as Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1972 until his sudden death in 1974. He was leader of the Labour Party. Kirk is often called the most formidable debater of his time. A commanding presence, Kirk was known for both his strength of personality and for his devotion to his work.

Norman Kirk was born on 6 January 1923 in Waimate, a town in New Zealand's Canterbury region. He was from a strongly working class background, and his household was unable to afford things such as daily newspapers or a radio.

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 was employed in a number of jobs, initially working as an assistant roof painter and later as a railway engineer. His health, however, deteriorated, and when he was called up for military service in 1941, he was found medically unfit. After recovering somewhat, he returned to work, holding a number of different jobs.

In 1943, aged twenty, Kirk married Lucy Ruth Miller. They would eventually have three sons and two daughters.

Also in 1943, Kirk joined the Labour Party's branch in Kaiapoi, where he and his wife had chosen to build a house. By 1951, Kirk was leader of the party's Hurunui electorate committee. In 1953, Kirk led Labour to a surprising victory in elections for Kaiapoi's local council, himself becoming the youngest mayor in the country.

As mayor, Kirk was highly active, implementing many changes. Kirk surprised officials by studying issues intensely, often emerging with better knowledge of his options than the people who were supposed to advise him.

In 1954, Kirk was the Labour candidate for the Hurunui parliamentary seat. While he increased Labour's share of the vote considerably, he did not win. In 1957, however, Kirk won the electorate of Lyttelton, reclaiming it for Labour after it had surprisingly been lost to the National Party in the previous elections.

Throughout his political career, Kirk promoted the welfare state, supporting government spending for housing, health, employment, and education. As such, Kirk was often seen as a champion for ordinary New Zealanders. His working class background also gave him some advantage, as many other politicians were seen as out of touch and aloof.

Gradually, Kirk began to rise through Labour's internal hierarchy, becoming vice-president in 1963 and president in 1964. At the end of 1965, he successfully challenged Arnold Nordmeyer for the parliamentary leadership.

Kirk remained Leader of the Opposition until 1972, when he defeated the government of Jack Marshall. As Prime Minister, Kirk was highly active, implementing a great number of new policies. In particular, the Kirk government was far more active than its predecessor in terms of foreign relations, with Kirk taking great trouble to expand New Zealand's links with Asia and Africa.

Two subjects in particular caused comment. One was Kirk's strong protesting of French nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean. The other was his refusal to allow a visit by a South African rugby team, a decision he made because the apartheid regime in South Africa would not accept racial integration for that sport.

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.

He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Bill Rowling.