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Farewell Dr Michael Cullen

Written By: - Date published: 1:52 pm, August 20th, 2021 - 21 comments
Categories: david cunliffe, helen clark, labour - Tags: ,

Michael Cullen David Cunliffe

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.

21 comments on “Farewell Dr Michael Cullen ”

  1. Michael 1


  2. Patricia Bremner 2

    There are few Politicians who leave a resounding legacy. Thank you Michael. Proud to be associated with you through the Labour Party.

  3. georgecom 3

    I liked and respected Cullen. Sad to hear of his passing.

  4. Foreign waka 4

    He was my all time favorite Politician and a true treasure for NZ. His way of commenting with his sharp mind and yet in an inoffensive way was more an art than a skill that very few possess. Respect and condolences to his family.

  5. McFlock 5


  6. mickysavage 6

    Well said Ad. Apart from his huge intellect and his ability to explain simply very complex ideas I particularly liked his ability to not give a fuck and say what he thought.

  7. Treetop 7

    Everyone in parliament goes to the finance minister for money. Cullen was competent in the role of finance minister and I always respected him for that.

  8. vto 8

    good man michael cullen, and thanks

  9. RedLogix 9

    Great post Ad that does honour to a great man. I got to have a beer one on one with him once and much to his embarrassment I told him how much I appreciated what he had done for NZ. A little cringe-making in hindsight, but I'm still glad I did.

    And yes what a wicked, razor sharp wit the man had, some of his lines in the House absolutely carried the day.

  10. joe90 10

    Sir Geoffrey Palmer on Cullen.

    • Incognito 10.1

      Can anybody else see the image in joe90’s comment and is it just my browsers’ settings again?

      • solkta 10.1.1

        I see blurry text. Assume that is an image.

      • Andre 10.1.2

        No problem seeing the image.

        Firefox / Windows 10.

        edit: the text is slightly off, kinda like an old-skool fax.

        • Incognito

          Really strange, I went on another PC (Win10) and tried Firefox, Chrome, and Edge and only Chrome and Edge showed it, but Firefox did not!? Oh well …

  11. coreyjhumm 11

    To be perfectly honest about this man he was funny bright and the best neoliberal finance minister we've ever had. He did smooth the rough edges a little bit and his big legacies are watered down things Jim Anderton had to fight him tooth Nas nail for…

    His legacy is 9 surpluses. A watered down super and a neoliberal run kiwirail, the beginning of the housing crisis, leaving unemployed families off working for families and despite having the most prosperous economy since the end of ww2 not rolling a back the cuts that decimated vulnerable people in this country on welfare.

    He was who bill English wishes he was…

    Unfortunately our current finance minister sees Cullen as the all knowing all powerful guru …

    Life didn't get better for anyone growing up in poverty or who was disabled or on welfare back then just as it hasn't now.

    If smoothing out the edges are great left wing legacy projects…. The left in this country are DOA

    He wasn't a bad man. He was good at his job. He did some good things but he was no legendary iconic ground breaker that people are trying to make him into

    He was the best neoliberal minister of finance we've ever had


    • roblogic 11.1

      Agreed, Clark and Cullen crowed over surpluses generated by doubling of house prices, did nothing to restrain an obvious bubble, and didn't reverse the mother of all budgets, punishing the worst off

      Cullen was a good man with a big blind spot

  12. dottie 12

    I am reading Michael Cullen's memoir, Labour Saving, it is another gift to all of us and I am amazed when I think that he was suffering from lung cancer at this time.

    This epitomises this mans work ethic.

  13. SPC 13

    I wish Roger Douglas had brought in a CGT, rather than pose an alternative assets tax and then do nothing.

    At least Michael Cullen wishes he had seen Bill English coming and financed the NZSF with 1% from employees and 1% from employers, so we had contributions 2009-2018. And used the $2B freed up to build state houses 2002-2008.

    No one sees the field in front of them clearly enough at the time.

  14. Marcus Morris 14

    Not sure who Coreyjhumm is talking about but he is entitled to his point of view. A case of damming with faint praise. Michael was fighting for the security of superannuants throughout his parliamentary career and I seem to recall that at one point he urged a return to Labours 1974-5 compulsory scheme. Finally he was in a position to make a difference and Kiwi Saver was/is a decent compromise. Pensioners for decades to come will have much to thank Sir Michael for. Hard to see how he could be defined as a neo-liberal. Can't wait to read his book.

  15. No politician is perfect, and some are beyond incompetent to self-serving and power-grasping, but MC was as good as you could hope for.

    His work is done, RIP.

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