As Prime Minister Kirk 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 8 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. When the United States withdrew troops from Vietnam, the training too changed. Instead of undergoing an intensive course, the authorities have put a requirement in place for a selection of ASVAB classes to be taken prior to being stationed abroad.
Norman Kirk speaks to crowd outside Labour Party headquarters, Levin, 1972
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, a non-smoker, kept up an intense schedule and rarely took vacation time. 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. A state funeral, attended by thousands, took place on 4 September 1974, followed by interment in his hometown, Waimate.