Born in Waimate, a town in South Canterbury, New Zealand, Norman Kirk came from a poor background, and his household could not 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.
After leaving school, Kirk worked in a number of jobs, initially as an assistant roof-painter and later as a stationary engine driver, operating boilers in various factories. 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, Norman Kirk married Lucy Ruth Miller, known as Ruth, who was born in Taumarunui. The couple had three sons and two daughters. In 1975 Ruth Kirk was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).
In 1974, while her husband was Prime Minister, she became patron of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. She took part in anti-abortion protest marches in Wellington and Hamilton. She died on 20 March 2000, aged 77.
Also in 1943, Kirk joined the Labour Party's branch in Kaiapoi, where he and his wife had decided to build a house. Kirk bought a 1,261 m2 (13,570 sq ft) section at 12 Carew Street for just NZ£40 (compared to today's land valuation of NZ$126,000). Due to a shortage of funds and building materials following World War II, Kirk built the house himself entirely, right down to the casting of the bricks. The house still stands today, albeit with an extension at the back and a hipped corrugated iron roof to replace the original leak-susceptible flat malthoid roof.
In 1951, Kirk became Chairman of the party's Hurunui electorate committee. In 1953, Kirk led Labour to a surprising victory in elections for Kaiapoi's local council, and he became the youngest mayor in the country at age 30.
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. He resigned as mayor on 15 January 1958 and moved his family to Christchurch after being elected MP for the Lyttelton electorate.
In 1954, Kirk stood as the Labour candidate for the Hurunui seat. While he increased Labour's share of the vote considerably, he did not win. In 1957, however, Kirk won the Lyttelton electorate, reclaiming it for Labour after its surprise loss to the National Party in a previous election. In 1969 he transferred to the Sydenham seat which he held until his death.
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.
Kirk remained Leader of the Opposition until 1972, when Labour replaced the National government of Jack Marshall.
Soon after entering office, Kirk acquired a reputation as a reforming figure. The conservative Dominion newspaper bestowed its ‘Man of the Year’ prize on him for "outstanding personal potential for leadership". A few weeks later, on 6 February 1973, Kirk was photographed at a Waitangi Day event holding the hand of a small Māori boy. It seemed to symbolise a new era of racial partnership.
Kirk's Government set a frenetic pace implementing a great number of new policies. In particular the Kirk government had a far more active foreign policy than its predecessor, taking great trouble to expand New Zealand's links with Asia and Africa. Immediately after his election as Prime Minister, Kirk withdrew all New Zealand troops from Vietnam, ending that nation's eight-year involvement in the Vietnam War. Kirk will also be remembered for abolishing Compulsory Military Training in New Zealand and since then the New Zealand Defence Force has remained an all-volunteer professional force.
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 Atoll 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 involvement in the coup d'état 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 Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of New Zealand.
During his time as Prime Minister, Kirk kept up an intense schedule, refusing to reduce his workload by any significant degree and rarely taking time off (the Chatham Islands was his favourite retreat). Kirk ignored advice from several doctors and from Bob Tizard and Warren Freer to "take care of himself" and to reduce his heavy consumption of Coca-Cola and alcohol (beer, plus later whisky or gin), saying he would have a "short but happy life". Though a non-smoker, he had diabetes and dysentery.
By 1974 he had difficulty in breathing, eating and sleeping. In April he had an operation to remove varicose veins from both legs at once despite advice to have two operations. Doctors and colleagues were urging him to take time off; on 26 August Social Credit leader Bruce Beetham advised him to take a couple of months off to recover. His final public appearance was on 18 August to open St Peter's Catholic College in Palmerston North, when he stood in the rain for the whole ceremony, and he missed a proposed debate with Robert Muldoon before interviewer David Frost.
On 15 August 1974 he decided to take two days off, and on 26 August he decided to have six weeks of complete rest. He had been checked over by many doctors, and an examination by Professor Tom O’Donnell on 27 August confirmed that he had an enlarged heart gravely weakened by embolisms, and which was not pumping regularly enough to get sufficient oxygen into his bloodstream; one lung was two-thirds incapacitated by the clot; and his stomach was very sore as his liver was swollen with retained fluid. He went into the Home of Compassion Hospital, Island Bay, Wellington on 28 August. He was photographed going in the boilerhouse door to avoid the media at the front. He rang and reminisced with close colleagues, and his bed was covered with official papers. On Saturday 31 August he told his wife Ruth, who had been told of his serious situation and came to Wellington, "I am dying .. please don't tell anyone". Soon after 9 pm, while watching a police drama on television (Softly, Softly: Taskforce with Stratford Johns on TV One), he slowly slid from a sitting position. He died of a pulmonary embolism when a blood clot released from a vein into his heart cut off the blood flow and stopped the heart. O'Donnell signed his death certificate.
While colleagues had been urging him to take some time off, none were aware of the seriousness of his last illness. Bob Harvey, the Labour Party President, said that Kirk was "a robust man" with the "constitution of a horse". He proposed a Royal Commission to investigate rumours that he had been killed, perhaps with contact poison, by the CIA. This story returned during the 1999 visit of Bill Clinton to New Zealand.
After a lying-in-state in Parliament from Monday to Wednesday there was a large official funeral in St Paul's Cathedral, Wellington on Wednesday 4 September attended by Prince Charles and Gough Whitlam; then on Thursday 5 September another service, also inter-denominational, in the Christchurch Town Hall followed by a simple burial service in his hometown Waimate. He was buried near his mother's grave; the burial service was delayed as the RNZAF Hercules could not land at Waimate and the procession hurried by road to meet the daylight requirement for burials. Memorial services were held around New Zealand, and on 26 September in Westminster Abbey, London.
He was succeeded in the Sydenham electorate by his son John Kirk, who won the resulting by-election in November 1974.