Former Labour Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Sir Michael Cullen dies

Sir Michael Cullen, a former Deputy Prime Minister and a towering figure in the Labour Party, has died, aged 76.

He was first elected to Parliament in 1981 when Bill Rowling was Labour leader and Rob Muldoon was National Prime Minister, and he left politics in 2009 after three terms as Finance Minister in the Helen Clark-led Government.

Early in 2020, Cullen was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Cullen was fiercely intelligent and widely recognised as one of the best debaters Parliament has seen, with a cutting wit that occasionally got him into trouble.

But he always considered himself shy and introverted and enjoyed playing golf by himself.

He remained immersed in the Labour Party and a confidant to many past and present politicians, including current Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

In Cullen’s memoirs, Labour Saving (Allen and Unwin), Robertson said: “Few politicians have a greater impact on their country than Michael Cullen.”

“From a ringside seat in the brutal Rogernomics era to being the steward of some of our best financial results and the architect of some of our most enduring social security programmes, he has been there for almost 40 years of significant change.”

As well as having held Finance, Cullen held Tertiary Education and Treaty Negotiations and was Attorney-General in the Clark Government, and Social Welfare Minister in the Fourth Labour Government.

Helen Clark and Cullen were not close friends but they worked closely together as leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party and were both first elected in the same year.

It was a partnership of 12 years, that brought stability and ultimately success to the party after the tumultuous years over reforms of the Fourth Labour Government, which split the party.

Cullen was elected deputy Labour leader in Opposition in 1996. He had just been part of a delegation that tried to persuade Helen Clark to stand down as leader on the basis of dismal polling for both Labour and Clark. She refused.

It was not publicly stated at the time, but Cullen has said the only replacement to Clark, had she agreed, was former leader Mike Moore whom Cullen supported during the 1993 leadership coup.

According to Cullen’s memoirs, he believed the timing of Clark’s challenge had been wrong and she should have left it until the regular leadership vote, in the middle year.

Cullen wrote in his book that a year before the delegation to Clark, he himself had been approached in October 1995 – by colleague Jonathan Hunt – about the possibility of becoming leader if Helen Clark had been willing to step aside at that time.

“I indicated my willingness to be available but without real enthusiasm as I knew any meaningful private life would end at that point.”

However, once Cullen was part of the leadership team with Helen Clark, he remained loyal and never gave any indication he wanted the top job.

She entrusted the most difficult issues of Government to him, most notably grappling with the Court of Appeal’s 2003 decision on the Foreshore and Seabed, which led to the formation of the Maori Party.

Cullen was born in London in 1945 and his family emigrated in 1955, first to Palmerston North and then Christchurch. His father had been a spectacle-maker and his mother a clerical worker.

He won a scholarship to the private boys’ school Christ’s College in Christchurch – the point in his life he identified as having moved from the working class to the middle class.
He studied history at Canterbury University and then got a PhD from Edinburgh University before heading back to Dunedin.

Cullen joined the Labour Party in 1974 while he was a history lecturer at Otago University. When Bill Fraser announced his retirement as MP for St Kilda, Cullen was selected for the safe Labour seat, beating Fraser’s wife, Dorothy, for the nomination for the 1981 election.

When the David Lange-led Labour Party was elected to power in 1984, Cullen was made senior whip during which time internal division grew over the economic reforms of Finance Minister Roger Douglas and his supporters in caucus.

In its second term, Cullen was made Social Welfare Minister and oversaw a bill which introduced the family group conference to the heart of the state’s care and protection functions for young people.

Cullen was also made Associate Finance Minister by David Lange, as a check on Douglas. But the tensions between Douglas and Lange only grew.Lange sacked Douglas and later resigned himself when the caucus voted to reinstate Douglas to cabinet.

He held the St Kilda seat until 1996 when, with redrawn boundaries under MMP, he won Dunedin South. He went onto the party list in 1999 and since then, lived in Wellington, Napier and Port Ohope with his second wife, Anne Collins, a former Labour MP.

He and his first wife, Rowena, had two daughters, Louise and Imogen.

Much of Cullen’s political legacy is in the work he did on superannuation and retirement savings.

He set up the New Zealand Super Fund, an independently managed fund, designed to help meet the cost of the universal state pension as the number of elderly people increases. It is currently worth about $58 billion, although only Labour Governments have paid into it.

Cullen introduced Kiwisaver in the 2005 Budget, setting up individual savings accounts with a Government contribution for every working New Zealander, and it took effect in 2007. Later it was changed to provide for compulsory employer contributions as well.

He also introduced the Working for Families package in the 2004 Budget, a set of payments or tax credits for families with dependent children.

Cullen was deeply immersed in the workings and rules of Parliament itself as a former whip and then Leader of the House.

Some of the reforms he played a part in were ending the standard practice of tedious votes by individual MPs to votes being cast by party, ending continuous sittings of the House under urgency, and removing the time limit on Question Time which had meant many questions were not addressed.

He was occasionally riled during debates and once called National’s Don McKinnon a “born to rule prick” and John Key a “rich prick.”

In his maiden speech in 1982, Cullen responded to an interjection by National’s Paul East, with a quip about Christ’s College, which he said he has always regretted: “And to my old school, Christ’s College, I am proud of the fact that my secondary education was not paid for by the taxpayers of New Zealand but by the farmers of Canterbury and Hawkes Bay.I ripped them off for five years then, and I shall get stuck into them again in the next few years.”

Cullen left Parliament in April 2009 after the John Key-led National Government had been elected in 2008. He accepted a job as chairman of NZ Post, to follow on from former Prime Minister Jim Bolger.

He conducted a review of the intelligence and security agencies with Patsy Reddy before she became Governor-General.

And he chaired the Tax Working Group for the Jacinda Ardern-led Government last term. Having opposed a capital gains tax in office, he then supported a comprehensive capital gains tax but none was progressed by the Government. He also chaired the Earthquake Commission.

Cullen was also engaged by a number of iwi to work on Treaty of Waitangi negotiations from which, he said in Labour Saving, he derived an enormous satisfaction.

Cullen accepted a knighthood in 2012.He was a constitutional monarchist, believing that the current system served the country well enough.

He was also wary of activist judges and opposed any suggestion the courts should be given or claim the power to strike down legislation, believing it would politicise the courts as occurs in the United States.

In his valedictory speech in April 2009, he said there had been three basic themes to his political philosophy. The first was a profound belief in the essential equality of all human beings. The second was a hatred of poverty. The third was that economic and social policy had to be guided by the ideals of security and opportunity.

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