Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Norman Kirk, Rugby Postponement and the Kirk Brand: Ken Ross Describes How the Labour Prime Minister Stared Down the 1973 Springboks

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Norman Kirk, Rugby Postponement and the Kirk Brand: Ken Ross Describes How the Labour Prime Minister Stared Down the 1973 Springboks

Article excerpt

Norman Kirk's requiring the New Zealand Rugby Football Union to 'conditionally postpone' the 1973 Springbok tour of New Zealand is the superlative example of Kirk's Ernest Bevin-style attributes. Ensuring that the whites-only Springboks did not visit New Zealand was the defining moment that began his year of global diplomacy. He set the standard for New Zealand as a good international citizen. Kirk's skills in the lead up to the 10 April letter to the Rugby Union was that prime minister at his finest, enabling a controversial decision to come to pass that allowed him to strive for his big picture aspirations beyond New Zealand.


'Naturally he [Kirk] was concerned about disorder and probable violence, and could see that if he stopped the tour he could lose the next election. But the tour did not fit with his view of what New Zealand should do in the world, and what its standing would be should it proceed, and that was his paramount motivation.' (Frank Corner, 1998) (1)

'we all realised that on matters of race, Kirk was the most radical in Caucus, bar none. He had contempt for anyone or any country that differentiated between men on the basis of their skin colour.' (Michael Bassett, 1976) (2)

From his first day as prime minister-elect the Springbok tour decision was an immediate priority for Norman Kirk. Corner is pitch perfect in saying that Kirk's big picture aspirations meant the decision, whatever it was, would deeply colour Kirk's prime ministerial global diplomacy.

Kirk was primarily a problem solver. He coupled that with a deep humanitarianism and a vision for New Zealand's best international standing, the Kirk Brand--a progressive small state, with a deep internationalism central to our national identity. (3) The success of the Springbok tour 'postponement' decision enabled Kirk to make a flying start to his global diplomacy.

Bassett's realisation came following an urgent Caucus meeting called on the evening of 15 February 1973, the new Parliament having formally opened earlier that day. The forthcoming Springbok tour was the Caucus' sole topic. The meeting had been forced by Bassett and several other brand-new MPs. Margaret Hayward records that they doubted Kirk's will to stop the tour, which provoked Kirk. (4) But Bassett and his Caucus colleagues became spectators as Kirk worked through the process of shutting down the tour. His performance in doing so highlights how at critical times it is a prime minister who is, by far, the most pervasive player in our major global diplomacy.

The new Labour MPs' initiative highlighted the wide gap between the prime minister and his parliamentary team. Even his long-time senior colleagues knew Kirk so little they lacked the confidence he would put a finish to the Springbok tour. Hayward encapsulates the key events that were to unfold as he did so, leaving others to connect the dots. (5) That is now possible. Of the many recollections published, those of the Reverend Bob Scott, Trevor Richards, Tom Newnham, Terry McLean, Alex Veysey, Ron Palenski, Frank Corner and Malcolm Templeton shed the most light.

Anti-apartheid credentials

Kirk was the first of New Zealand's post-1945 prime ministers to comprehend the 'winds of change' Harold Macmillan had acknowledged in February 1960 that were to engulf the global landscape as long as the apartheid regime was entrenched in South Africa.

Ahead of his prime ministership, Kirk had built up a substantial record for opposing the South African apartheid regime. He was one of the handful of Labour MPs who publicly supported the 'No Maori No Tour' opposition to the 1960 All Black tour of South Africa.

In the next twelve years Kirk made numerous representations to the South Africans, often petitioning their Wellington-based consul-general, protesting specific actions. Hayward records such an instance in 1971 when the Anglican dean of Johannesburg, Gonville Aubrey ffrench-Beytagh, was tried under the Terrorism Act and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. …

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