Saturday, December 4

Former Labor Deputy Prime Minister Sir Michael Cullen dies

Sir Michael Cullen, a former Labor Deputy Prime Minister and architect of a national pension fund and the popular KiwiSaver scheme, has died in Whakatāne at age 76.

Sir Michael John Cullen KNZM is a former New Zealand politician.  He served as Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, also Minister of Finance, Minister of Tertiary Education and Attorney General.

Sir Michael John Cullen created the NZ Super Fund to help with future pension costs.
Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

In March 2020, Sir Michael announced that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

As finance minister in the Labor government led by Helen Clark between 1999 and 2008, Sir Michael was a key figure in establishing KiwiSaver, the New Zealand Retirement Fund and Working for Families.

He served as an MP for St Kilda from 1981 to 1999 and then as a list MP before retiring from Parliament following the 2008 electoral defeat of the Labor Party.

In recent years, he has chaired the New Zealand Post, the Earthquake Commission and the Tax Task Force.

Known for his vociferous wit and formidable intellect, he was a dominant force in the center-left government led by Helen Clark between 1999 and 2008.

Born in London in 1945, Michael Cullen moved to Christchurch with his family when he was 10 years old and was educated at Christ’s College, where he was a fellow, and at the University of Canterbury. He studied mathematics for his first grade, going on to history for his master’s degree. Subsequently, he received a doctorate in economic history from the University of Edinburgh.

He joined the Labor Party in 1974 while teaching at the University of Otago and was elected to Parliament in 1981 as a member of St Kilda, holding the seat until 1999 when he became a list MP.

In his inaugural address, he told the House that he came from a tradition of radicalism concerned with human dignity and the liberation of the human spirit. He hated, he said, the arrogant tones of privilege and condescension. In an RNZ interview in 2009, he explained that while he had no problem with people being rich, they had to realize that they weren’t the only ones creating a nation’s wealth.

Sir Michael thrived on the cutting edge and thrust of parliamentary debate and quickly rose through the Labor ranks. He was appointed top whip in the 1984 Lange government, and was appointed to the Cabinet as Minister of Social Welfare in 1990.

When the government was divided over support for Sir Roger Douglas’s plans for further economic reforms, Sir Michael sided with Prime Minister David Lange.

After the defeat in 1990, he was appointed Finance Spokesperson for the Labor Party, a move that is seen as throwing away the unpopular market-led economy of the party’s former Finance Minister Roger Douglas, which Dr. Cullen believed was it had gone beyond the need to free the economy from excessive regulation.

In 1996, he was a key player in movements to overthrow Labor leader Helen Clark, but he pledged and accepted the post of deputy leader. It was a partnership that proved highly effective when Labor came to power in 1999 and he became Finance Minister, House Leader, and later Deputy Prime Minister.

In nine years in office, Cullen demonstrated masterful control and knowledge of Parliament and oversaw a shift to the center-left while maintaining a firm grip on spending and racking up financial surpluses. He played a key role in the return of Air New Zealand and the railways to public ownership, but saw his greatest achievements in politics as the Children, Youth and Their Families Act, the Working for Families tax relief scheme, the retirement and Kiwisaver.

In the latter part of the Clark administration, he assumed the position of Minister in charge of the Waitangi Treaty Negotiations. His obvious excitement over historical mistakes motivated his participation in the agreements made and when he retired from politics, his participation in Māoridom continued in his work for Tūwharetoa and Waikato-Tainui.

Labor was defeated in the 2008 elections and Michael Cullen quickly followed Helen Clark’s immediate resignation from the party leadership. His farewell address to the House was delivered in his usual style, with wit, but included an acknowledgment that sometimes a fast tongue can hurt.

When he retired, he became president of the New Zealand Post, at the time he was downsizing as mail volumes dropped dramatically.

In 2018, he chaired the Tax Working Group, which recommended a capital gains tax.

In his nearly 28 years in Parliament, Michael Cullen was an unabashed defender of the welfare state and its belief that economic and social policies must be guided by the ideals of security and opportunity for all.

He is survived by his second wife, Anne, and two children from his previous marriage.

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