29 Aug 2021

Michael Cullen on caucus

From The House , 7:30 am on 29 August 2021

Back in May 2017 I interviewed Michael Cullen about the role of Leader of the House, a role he’d redefined for the MMP era.

As it happened I recorded Michael Cullen in the Labour Party Caucus Room. As Labour was in opposition it was the caucus room up on the third floor (traditionally the opposition floor) of Parliament House.

That room is now National Party territory, but in early 2017 it was decorated with photos of Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser and other labour luminaries. 

Being in the inner sanctum I couldn’t help but also ask about how caucus works - and his own experience of it. That part of the interview wasn’t broadcast - until now. 

Sir Michael Cullen poses in the Labour Caucus Room in front of a bookcase of Hansard's verbatim reports of Parliament.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Unity v Division

I mention the closed secrecy of a caucus, where much division and dissent may occur internally over an issue but MPs emerge unified. Michael Cullen pointed out that fractured caucuses do sometimes leak which raised an oddity of the public’s perception vs expectation of parties.

“On the one hand people keep saying: ‘You’re regimented. You’ll just do what your party tells you to do.’ …But on the other hand people punish political parties which are seen to be divided and arguing with each other; because people want to see a government which is stable. If a party looks unstable then people are much less likely to vote for it.”

Labour had recently demonstrated that for five years or, so he pointed out. This interview was in 2017 remember, still three months prior to Jacinda Ardern’s ascent to leadership on August 1st.

“So that stability is really important. It’s really important that debate occurs internally and then outside you maintain a common front.”

Michael Cullen notes that the common front can be a tough habit to break. 

“People still say to me ‘why did you support such-and-such in the 1980s?’ and I still find it very hard to say ‘well, actually I didn’t. I lost that argument’.” He laughs wryly at that.

“So you get up in Parliament and you support things that sometimes you had some quite strong doubts about. That is the nature of the discipline within a party-based political system.” 

The losers in an internal debate should be spared that indignity if possible though.

“You don’t ask the people who were in the minority to speak in the debate. That’s just sort of understood.” 

The 1980s caucus and cabinet

Occasionally though you have to front up even on the things you were against. “I remember, famously for me in the ‘87 cabinet when the flat-tax package was announced in late 1987 I initially wasn’t going to be on the stage. But a lot of it was to do with benefits and I said ‘I must be on the stage. I don’t agree with it [but]…’. (Common knowledge now, I strongly opposed it in cabinet.) ‘If I’m not on the stage then the media are going to instantly ask the question - why aren’t I there given that a big part of the package involves my [social welfare] portfolio.’ As it was there’s a famous photo of me looking extremely unhappy, but I was there.” He laughs at the memory.

“That’s what you do. You sign that pledge as a candidate. ‘If elected I will abide by the decisions of a duly constituted caucus’.”  pause  “Or you leave, you walk out. That’s your choice.”

I ask if he was ever tempted.

“Uhm, at the time of the flat tax package I really had to look at myself around staying in the cabinet, and I just got there. I was going through a reasonably traumatic period in my personal life. And, in the end I decided to hang in there, and I was glad I did because I was able to be part of eventually, steering Labour back to what I regard as a more orthodox social democratic position.”      

He agrees that if you do leave you potentially just strengthen the voting position of those you disagree with.  

“And you’ve lost any capacity to influence things in the future. It’s a conundrum at times. Seldom do the issues in New Zealand politics get to such a deep issue of principle but they do occur. And sometimes of course that’s an argument that occurs in the caucus, and debate emerges over time.” 

“As it was, in the end of course, key parts of that package didn’t proceed. David [Lange] might have mishandled the way in which that was unpicked, but nevertheless it was important it was unpicked.” 

Why parties at all? 

In response to people who call for a coalition of the most capable MPs rather than the discipline of parties, he points to the endless chaotic shamozzle that was New Zealand politics before political parties organised. 

“It didn’t really work. They found increasingly they needed to have some level of organisation and coherence about who was forming a government, and eventually modern political parties developed out of the lack of coherence.”

He notes that the party-based government has been mostly good, albeit with a few wobbles.  

“We have fundamentally had stable government. Sometimes the pendulum has swung too far as it did in the 70s, 80s, early 90s. Swung backwards and forwards, but for the last twenty years that’s been stable itself. There haven’t been huge shifts in changes of government. I mean significant changes, but not huge.”

The governments had also been quite stable internally “with the exception of the last year or so of the first term of MMP, after Jenny Shipley replaced Jim Bolger. That government became quite unstable of course.”

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The First Labour Party caucus post election. Journalists were invited in for a few quick snaps before the squeezed in MPs got down to business. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The caucus rooms 

The caucus rooms used by Labour and National (I haven’t seen the smaller party’s rooms) are big old corner suites in Parliament House. You could play a slightly cramped game of netball in them. This is not big enough for Labour’s current caucus (65 MPs is Parliament’s largest ever). It was plenty of room in 2017 when the caucus was half as large.

They are painted in the Edwardian colour palette that adorns the Parliament House interior, a ‘suspiciously-overripe shades-of-chicken-liver-paté’ scheme. In this large room rectangular space it gives the sense of being trapped inside a taupe and khaki wedding cake. 

The parties decorate their own caucus room walls with their own identity and history. For Labour that means portraits of party luminaries and a flag or two.

The room is furnished with a plain wooden table at the front, behind which are seats for the party leader, deputy, a whip or two and the caucus secretary (an MP elected to take minutes). 

Facing that table are rows of chairs for the rest of the MPs and any guests (like the party president).  

Michael Cullen reveals that for some reason Labour MPs never move where they sit. The first place you sit a the beginning of a parliament is where you stay until tis end “unless you end up at the top table”.

Also there is no ranking implicit in the seating layout. 

“It’s not like the top ones sit in the [first] row and it’s going back to the third formers at the back if you like. It’s quite higgledy-piggeldy. It’s always been like that.”

When Michael Cullen first joined the Labour caucus after the 1981 election it was in to the tumultuous last term of Muldoon’s National government. “Götterdämmerung if you’re a Wagner fan” he says with a guffaw. 

He sat in the back left of the caucus. A great place from which to watch and learn from the violent downfall and rebirth of the status quo. 

The seating re-orients from parliament to parliament to accommodate caucus. When we were chatting in early 2017 Labour need only fit 32 MPs in so the seats ran across the short run of the room (perhaps more rows make a room seem fuller). The current Labour caucus room tries and fails to fit in 65 MPs and the chairs run in rows along the length of the room instead, and then jam some extra in around the edges. 

So what happens?

Coming business and debates are outlined and discussed, ideas are floated and approved, often by consensus.

“Discussion, sometimes actual resolutions, votes… a lot of stuff requires formal voting, especially in government when you’re approving the introduction of bills for example. That’s a caucus vote.”

This is when backbench MPs get buy-in on the details of the government programme they will be debating. It’s also where they will sometimes argue something they will vote for later in the House. 

“In a government caucus.. things like appointments to [State Owned Enterprise] boards etcetera come for final approval.”

The party president has the right to attend and address caucus so they can bring messages to the MPs, say about the wider party view on their performance. 

“His or her duty in some cases is to bring to caucus the concerns of the party membership, saying: ‘You’re doing this [and] members seem to be very unhappy. An awful lot of messages are coming in to Fraser House saying ‘what’s going on here?’ And [they’re] tearing up their membership cards and handing back their life membership badges and all the rest of it’.”  

That sounds like shades of those meetings back in the 1980s perhaps.

Labour caucus 26 September 2017

A party leader's view of caucus in the caucus room, shot from behind the top table.  Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

Getting on in Caucus

I ask Michael Cullen whether MPs stake their ambition in the caucus room, make their name.  

“I think how you behave in this room, and your strength of capacity to sway arguments is quite important. It’s only one amongst many, many different aspects that determines the degree to which you are successful within the framework of a caucus.”

Sir Michael points out that the Labour caucus no longer directly elects their own leader, that’s a wider party process now (though the nearness of the election did mean they got to elect Jacinda Ardern without a public campaign and party vote). 

“The members of caucus determine who the members of cabinet are in the Labour Party. They vote for the cabinet if Labour’s leading the government.”

By contrast, in the National Party caucus the leader decides who will be in cabinet, though Michael notes that the National Party leader will “tend to give some pretty, often quite direct hints about what he or she wants. …[and] the leader will be listening to what the caucus is saying. They’ll be testing caucus opinion about who should be doing what.”  

He suspects the difference in outcome between the Labour and National approaches would amount to no more than “two, maybe three” different MPs in the resulting cabinet.

“The problem always is that you’ve got a lot more people who think they should be in the top jobs than there are top jobs, and there is often a lack of self awareness about people’s capacities, which is why it’s useful having a whole group of people making the decision.”

That way the leader can both leverage the wisdom of colleagues and also not take the blame from those more ambitious but less able.

An early occasion that Michael Cullen remembers arguing his case in caucus was for Labour to support the introduction of the Closer Economic Relations trade deal with Australia.

He thought it had advantages for his Dunedin electorate and argued strongly he says and, of course, it was a case he came out in the majority on.