Insider's view of Kirk's time in power

Christchurch journalist, and former ODT reporter and later arts editor of The Press, Chris Moore,...
Christchurch journalist, and former ODT reporter and later arts editor of The Press, Chris Moore, has some fascinating stories of his time in Norman Kirk's office in the early 1970s. PHOTO: PAUL GORMAN
We have something extra special for you today.

It's my pleasure to share an insider's view of Norman Kirk's prime ministership, written for us by Chris Moore, his assistant press secretary during the 1972-74 period.

Chris was arts editor at The Press for many years and was an ODT reporter from about 1967 to 1972. He is a good friend and a much-valued colleague, and one of the best writers I have worked with.

Whenever I would ask him about his time in Mr Kirk's office, Chris would invariably play it down. But I've been on at him for ages to find out more and here, finally, after all that nagging, are his recollections:

"Norman Kirk could be relaxed, funny and a marvellous conversationalist.

"Armed with a prodigious memory and a voracious lifelong appetite for books, his trips around New Zealand, especially when he travelled by car with his favourite government driver, became journeys through the country's, and his own, past.

Forty-five years ago today: The front page of the ODT on Friday June 29, 1973. It's good to see...
Forty-five years ago today: The front page of the ODT on Friday June 29, 1973. It's good to see the really big issue - the price of bottled beer - wasn't overshadowed by Prime Minister Norman Kirk's sending of the frigate Otago into France's Mururoa nuclear-testing zone. PHOTO: CHRISTINE O'CONNOR
"Kirk always sat in the front seat, from where he directed the driver down bumpy, dusty side roads to a place or location with a family or political connection.

"Much to the mounting despair of his private secretaries, pre-arranged timetables imploded as he reminisced or talked about places and people he knew.

"On one prime ministerial visit to Southland, a hall full of local dignitaries, and Labour Party officials and members, cooled their heels for several hours while the PM's limousine headed towards the Hokonui Hills and the site of a grandfather's (alleged) illicit whisky still. I'm not sure what excuses were offered later.

"Kirk's speeches, carefully crafted by departmental officials and his own speech writers, were usually greeted with dismissive grunts, muttered comments about bureaucratic waffle and exclamations of frustration.

"Drafts could be returned covered with rulings out, or semi-legible re-wording with instructions to start again. They could also be read minutes before delivery, silently folded, placed inside his suit pocket and forgotten as, equipped with the basic details and figures, he delivered an address which soared as he spoke directly to the people rather than the experts or lobbyists.

"He always had an unerring ability to touch on human issues and aspirations. Figures, statistics and the minutiae of government bored him or were tools to lay the foundations for what was, and remains, remarkable oratory.

"There were exceptions.

"One of his finest speeches, and certainly one of the most historically significant, was delivered from notes at Devonport when the government dispatched the frigate Otago to the French nuclear testing zone at Mururoa in protest against the continuing detonations.

"Kirk spoke with resounding power and passion about the importance of a small sovereign nation standing up to a major nuclear power and the establishment of a distinctive New Zealand identity.

"What was not known was that the speech prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs had been rewritten in a helicopter flying from Auckland Airport to Devonport, dictated through headphones to me (in the rear seat) by the prime minister (in the front seat).

A starling hanging out in Dorothy O'Donnell's garden, having scared away the silvereyes. PHOTO:...
A starling hanging out in Dorothy O'Donnell's garden, having scared away the silvereyes. PHOTO: DOROTHY O'DONNELL
"Handwritten in ballpoint and defying turbulence, the shaking of the aircraft and crackling communications, it was a miracle it was even legible. Needless to say, it was typed out later. When we landed, the media demanded copies.

"`Let the buggers do some work for a change and take notes,' Kirk whispered to me.

"Towards the end of his life, he showed signs of increasing paranoia, demanding evidence of what he believed were plots to topple him as prime minister.

Campaigners, journalists and the media, staff, Cabinet colleagues, all fell under the cloud of suspicion during those final months, when there was more than a hint of a Roman imperial tragedy at play.

"I last saw him in Wellington's Home of Compassion hospital, a few hours before his death.

"He had demanded a transcript of a radio talkback show, something which had to be smuggled into his room under the ever-vigilant eyes of his nurses. This was against the rules.

"I remember hiding the offending papers inside a copy of the Evening Post and arriving to find Kirk in a pair of striped pyjamas and propped up sleepily against the pillows.

"The Post was quickly and silently deposited on his bed, a silent conspiratorial glance exchanged before I fled."

An incredibly poignant moment, given what happened so soon after. Thanks Chris for surrendering those gems.

Incidentally, I read somewhere that Mr Kirk was watching a detective programme when he died that Saturday evening of August 31, 1974.

I was curious about that and checked it out in the dusty ODT file room yesterday. According to the television listings for that day, at 8.19pm Softly Softly Task Force was on, in colour. It was the final episode of the series, called "The Amateur", and scheduled to end at 9.18pm, when Newsbrief began.

The prime minister missed the end by about a quarter of an hour.

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