Dr Michael Cullen has died, and with him goes a real standard-bearer for Labour for three decades.
He died of lung cancer.
I heartily recommend everyone read his autobiography Labour Saving which came out earlier this year.
To me the cover title is accurate, because in no small measure he saved the Labour Party from death.
Characteristically, it focuses a lot more on the big policy battles than it does on the personalities and hurly-burly of political life.
Much more important than saving the Labour Party, he delivered very long lasting changes to the financial wellbeing of New Zealand.
He came from pretty humble origins in England, rising from Otago academic life to become one of the Dunedin Members of Parliament in the Bill Rowling and then tumultuous Lange years.
Starting off as member for St Kilda and then Dunedin South, he was an MP from 1981 to 2009. A fair old stretch.
It’s not that easy to get into the political mindset New Zealand was in from the Muldoon years to the Lange era, but it was extraordinarily weird and disorienting.
From the late 1970s we went through some of the most brutal, grandiose and wasteful state directed development under Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, and within a society rent with massive growth in ideological foment through new kinds of feminism, conservation and ecology, anti-racist movements, anti-colonial movements, anti-nuclear and anti war protests, and then from all of that to within a few further years hard edged public commercialisation and monetarism – it was an extraordinary time to see whole new kinds of political thought evolve within New Zealand.
Going from the authoritarian economic controls of Muldoon to the ideological voodoo economics of Roger Douglas and his Treasury coterie must have been bewildering.
Here’s another summary.
In 1987 in the second term of Lange, Dr Cullen was appointed by Lange to Minister of Social Welfare, ostensibly to shore up Lange in Cabinet against Roger Douglas and that side of politics (many of whom went on to form the Act Party). But it was personally difficult with his father shortly dying after a long and painful illness, his first marriage ending and his dog dying, prompting him to consider resigning: “I seriously considered quitting from Cabinet, but the least I could do was stay there for Helen [Clark] and David [Lange] and make sure we don’t lose social policy to the Rogernomes who were driving so much of the policy.”
But what he will be remembered for by most New Zealanders is for a few key moves that have already withstood the test of time:
With Jim Anderton he formed (after some hesitation) Kiwibank. Granted, it’s never really flourished against the big four Australian banks. Indeed it has needed pretty heavy reinvestment to do any kind of expansion, so it got that from public pension funds. But for those like myself who reserve a nationalist twinkle in their eye when they generate a new loan or mortgage, it’s been so good to have the option of a proper New Zealand bank after the utter foolishness of the Bolger National government to require all our smaller local banks to be thrown to the international wolves. Only TSB Bank still stands proudly local from that era.
He formed the New Zealand Superannuation Fund. Dr Cullen pulls no punches in his biography about how stupid it was of National not to continue to fund this when they came into office in late 2008. NZSuper Fund now supports a huge range of local businesses and major local infrastructure. It remains one of the highest-performing superannuation funds in the world. It’s made perpetual superannuation pretty much untouchable in New Zealand politics.
In 2005 he introduced Working for Families. This has supported huge numbers of families across New Zealand. Perhaps it is a policy setting and subsidy level that we take somewhat for granted now. But what he was doing wasredistributing tax take to people with children and give them more options in their lives.
In 2007 he brought in Kiwisaver, which sought to address the real lack of savings that New Zealand had – and still has. However now that 14 years have passed, for those who have a reasonable earning life and can live longer than 65 when the individualised fund can be accessed, it’s a reasonable-sized financial cushion to fall on. Every employer has to offer it, you get $1,000 just for signing up, and it’s enabled several million New Zealanders to invest collectively in many local and international businesses, with a risk profile you can choose.
It was not until the last term of the Clark government that he finally acceded to rising star John Key egging on the public to demand tax cuts, that he finally did so. They weren’t huge. He reduced the company tax from 33% to 30% and introduced a 15% research and development tax credit. He also made the Kiwisaver scheme a bit more flexible for first home buyers and other small carveouts. He did further smaller tax cuts in his 2008 budget, but it was as he phrased it, “Time for someone else at bat”, and National romped in.
He generated a kind of certainty to the business and media commentariat that completely dissolved any remaining notion that Labour could not manage the economy. The economy, until his final year in power during the GFC, flourished. He tamed the ideologues in Treasury by refusing their own staff secondments and putting his own people to push back hard and ensure his big proposals were implemented. In his biography he named his own Parliamentary staff who served him well in this constant battle.
He bestowed to National and Labour governments that followed, a capacity from the state to intervene in the economy on a scale unseen since Muldoon, and to do so with a clear sighted sense of what a strong social democratic government could once more do. That’s another major (unheralded) ideological shift we owe him.
Being Minister of Finance for 9 years under the Helen Clark government was Dr Cullen’s professional highlight.
Everyone in Labour will have their own stories of him, but my highlight was at the party in Wellington after the 2002 win, and we were in a downtown room full of activists and all the media were gone, fairly late into the evening and a little shall we say relaxed, and Michael comes in commands the room, and then does a speech in which he mercilessly lampoons many of his own colleagues. From memory, Damien O’Connor was “one of those grunting Westport Okies with the vocal range of a brown bear who after we met the crowd and told them we were stopping Beech clear felling, rose as a grunting mass and chased me and the staff down with nailed clubs and fired torches”, Charles Chavel was “Tahiti’s mincing little preener who was leaping Beehive upward floor by floor and was only going to be stopped with a wall-length mirror”, David Cunliffe “was late because he couldn’t see a way to descend down through the clouds”, and Helen Clark would “do well as a replacement for Boris Karloff since her stare actually turns your blood to ice.” He went through about 12 of them like surgical steel, and we could not help but wee ourselves with happiness both that we had won and that there was a little safe space for activists to see our Labour people have the crap mocked out of themselves.
Leastways, that’s how I remember it.
Hopefully more stories like that come out in the wake. Should we get to have one under current circumstances.
The new Ardern government never really got him. They put him on the Tax Working Group and just trashed it out of sheer political anxiety. He did a few other public sector roles, but he just ran out of time.
Dr Michael Cullen is my favourite Minister in living memory.
Well done sir.