The smart alec of Kiwi politics is leaving the house. A relaxed and expansive Michael Cullen looks back on some highs and lows in his 27-year career. By Anthony Hubbard
MICHAEL CULLEN didn't mean to call John Key a rich prick. At least, not out loud. "That was an interjection I never meant to be heard by anybody, not even those around me," says the former deputy prime minister. "It was under voice," he explains, mouthing and whispering the infamous words again to show how it happened.
But Cullen was angry that day in Parliament, for family reasons. National leader Key had brought Cullen's wife Anne Collins into the debate the previous night, "and I wasn't in the House and I couldn't raise a point of order. He had traversed a fundamental line of parliamentary politics". What did Key say? "I don't care what it was he said," mutters Cullen.
The politician finds it depressing that "everyone made a federal case" out of his blurt. He's the father of Kiwisaver, the Cullen superannuation fund, of Working for Families and a return to egalitarianism in the age of excess, and all the media want to talk about is the "rich prick"! Cullen sighs in his blank office.
Still, he brought the trouble on himself. Cullen has studded his long career in politics with memorable one-liners, some witty, some waspish, but all the more memorable because wit is rare in New Zealand debates. Now he says he regrets some of the things he said. Sometimes he's felt bad, he says. Maybe even enough to apologise? "Let's wait and see."
Politics in any case is unfair and random, a war where quips, gaffes and idiot trivia can count for as much as major official victories. Take, for instance, the role of light-bulbs in the fall of the Labour-led government last year.
"That one actually caught us by surprise," he says. The government's ban on the old, eco-unfriendly incandescent light-bulbs "infuriated people and I think people felt we were bossing them around too much anyway and this was just another straw if you like. The fact that Europe and America and Australia had either done it already or decided to do it seemed to be completely irrelevant."
The government was sensitive to the charge that it was Nannyish, he says, but the rage over the light-bulb ban seemed "highly irrational". The new bulbs were more efficient, less expensive and more environmentally desirable. But it didn't think it could reverse the ban either. "When you're a government that's been there a long time, you keep doing u-turns and people start seeing you again as weak."
But by 2007, he says, people were looking for reasons to vote against the government. After all, Labour "only just won the 2005 election. We snuck home at the end largely with south and west Auckland votes and with a lot of strong union organisation in getting out the vote". National got a much more popular leader in John Key and "people thought, `Oh well, they've had their go, it's time for someone else to have a go'. That simple fairness principle."
The anti-smacking bill was another strange case: even though National ended up voting for it, Labour got all the flak. Cullen says Labour could not have avoided the issue posed by green Sue Bradford's bill. Section 59 of the Crimes Act had led to the acquittal of people who had made quite serious attacks on children. And it fitted Labour policy, so opposing the measure would make people say it had no principles.
"That was the kind of issue," says Cullen, "where you're hung for a sheep or a lamb whichever way you go."
Cullen still insists he could not have afforded big tax cuts in 2005 when he offered only the "chewing gum" cuts. Treasury was still forecasting disappearing surpluses.
"It's a brave minister of finance who tells Treasury, `You're wrong, I think we can spend it', and then Treasury will produce numbers which will show you moving into significant deficit... I'd have been shot."
National had attacked him for being Scrooge but their tax cuts were affordable only if they were prepared to slash government spending. "Well then, tell me where the main areas are [to cut]? So far it's only trivia that's been identified as areas to make savings." The National-led government cut 70 staff from the Tertiary Education Commission. "The chances are this will lead to another blowout in low-quality education spending [such as the notorious "twilight golf" courses], which will cost far more than the bureaucrats. The control was put in for a very real reason."
Cullen is proud of his major economic policies: Kiwisaver, the superannuation fund that bears his name, the Working for Families package. In a time where policy and the movement of the economy conspired to widen the economic gaps, he and the government sought to close them and bring families out of poverty.
He wrote the first draft of Labour's first speech from the throne in 2000, he says the one that promised to fight inequality. Closing the Gaps remained a central goal of the government's even when it ditched the phrase itself.
"We didn't believe that wealth is best created at the top and then trickles down. We believed that wealth is created by the efforts of everybody that participates in the economy and needed to have some fairness in distribution. In part this was because in a country like ours particularly you can't afford to have a large part of the population unable to contribute effectively because they've fallen out."
Cullen believes "only a tiny group of highly entrepreneurial people will make their way out of any situation, because they've got this enormous gift and it's a lucky gift they've got". Other people needed to have the comfort of a safety net if they were going to chance their arm in the economy.
"It doesn't matter that much how rich people get, provided they're prepared to pay their taxes. What I always hate is when I hear the rich complaining they have to pay their taxes, that that is so unfair. I've always said, `Gosh, I was so pleased when I was deputy prime minister earning enough money to pay so much tax'."
So here we are again, back to the rich. Cullen in his maiden speech famously had a crack at the wealthy benefactors of the elite school Christ's College, where he was a scholarship boy (he is English lower-middle class: his father was a spectacle maker).
"I'm 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 Hawke's Bay," the rooky MP roared. "I ripped them off for five years then, and I shall get stuck into them again in the next few years."
If this sounds like the original eat-the-rich declaration, Cullen's explanation perhaps throws a different light. It was his first speech in the house, he recalls, and "I'm as tight and as taut and as nervous as anything, and somebody interjects on me one minute into the speech, another fundamental principle of protocol, you don't interject during maiden speeches. And I lashed him one and I shouldn't have done it."
It's a curious thing, this. The smart alec of Kiwi politics, the man with the cruel, cool wit and his first famous barb turns out to be just an explosion of nerves.
But that's politics.
Wit and wisdom.-
On the wealth gap between NZ and Australia. "It's nothing to do with their intrinsic superiority or less regulation or whatever, it's because they've got this vast mineral wealth. We only succeed on the basis of what we're intelligent enough to create not like the Australians digging up their country because the world wants what they've got buried beneath it."
On the PM: "[John] Key is a natural high pragmatist or low pragmatist. He wants to be prime minister, he wants to do things but he's quite pragmatic about methods. Bill English is much harder-line." So how come Labour painted Key as a neo-con wolf in sheep's clothing? "I'd prefer not to go into that."
On the Nanny state and smacking. "Freedom is the right to be who you are provided it doesn't impinge upon the right of people to be who they are. That's not the right to beat up kids."
On "We won, you lost, eat that!" No, he says, he never said that to National. "It's a wonderful piece of historic myth."
On "Hansel and Gretel". Many people think National PM Robert Muldoon invented this label for his two diminutive free-market critics, Ruth Richardson and Simon Upton. "I'm afraid that was one of mine," says Cullen.
- This article first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times in April 2009
- Sunday Star Times
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