At a time when both Australia and its neighbour New Zealand are run by conservative governments, it is important for social democrats in those countries to look at past social-democratic leaders for inspiration, not only in terms of what their parties have achieved in office, but also how they can build on those accomplishments in the future. This August marks the 40th anniversary of the passing of one of the great social reformers of postwar Australasia, the former prime minister of New Zealand Norman Kirk. Serving as prime minister from December 1972 up until his tragic death in August 1974, Norman Kirk and his New Zealand Labour Party carried out a wide-ranging programme of social reform that left its mark on New Zealand society.
Like his Australian counterpart Gough Whitlam, who became prime minister of Australia that same year, Kirk immediately set about implementing his party’s programme upon taking office. Social security benefits were increased and new social programmes were introduced, including a Christmas Bonus and telephone rental concessions for pensioners, and a statutory benefit for single parents. In health, free dental services were introduced for 16 and 17-year olds in 1973, while in the field of housing the construction of new homes was encouraged while appeal boards were established to arbitrate on rent increases. In addition, refinance second chance and home improvement loans were introduced to prevent sales of family homes or help people with dependents following break ups of marriages, and rates rebates were introduced for low-income homeowners to assist them with rate payments. For families, a fee subsidy for children and a capital-works subsidy for a number of non-profit child care centres were introduced.
In 1973, income exemptions were replaced by tax rebates in the income tax structure, on the grounds that they favoured recipients on low incomes. An author’s fund was established to provide writers with financial assistance, and measures were introduced to increase participation in sports. Workers benefited from an accident compensation scheme, a rise in the minimum wage, improved holiday entitlements, and the Industrial Relations Act of 1973 (which introduced, in their modern form, effective personal grievance provisions covering unfair dismissal). The Kirk Government also amended the equal pay legislation passed by the preceding conservative administration, changing the final implementation date from April 1978 to April 1977. Arguably inspired by the Israeli Kibbutzim, the “ohu” scheme was introduced for people who wished to establish alternative settlements or communities in rural areas. Conscription also came to an end, and safeguards concerning employment and entitlements were introduced for those serving in the military. Enrolment in pre-school education was also expanded, while Waitangi Day was turned into a public holiday.
The reform record of the Kirk Government is one that progressives in both New Zealand and abroad can look to for inspiration, demonstrating how a government guided by idealism and a strong sense of purpose can achieve much in the way of social-democratic reform. With a general election taking place in New Zealand this September, the best way for the New Zealand Labour Party to honour Norman Kirk’s legacy is to develop a comprehensive programme of reform that will not only win over the hearts and minds of the electorate, but do much to change New Zealand for the better in the years to come.