20 Aug 2021

Sir Michael Cullen remembered as one of NZ's most influential figures

6:50 pm on 20 August 2021

The death of Sir Michael Cullen has brought an outpouring of tributes, laments and remembrances from friends, colleagues and politicians of all stripes.

Sir Michael Cullen at the Tax Working Group announcement.

Sir Michael Cullen in 2019, announcing the findings of the government's Tax Working Group. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Sir Michael left politics in 2009 after a 30-year career, having been a Labour finance minister for nine years, deputy prime minister for six and a close confidant to Helen Clark.

He revealed a stage-four lung cancer diagnosis in March last year and stepped away from public service roles, having been told he may only have months to live.

A public memorial service will be held at Tāneatua in due course, and a private family funeral service will take place as soon as it can occur, with gatherings for funerals not permitted under alert level 4 restrictions.

'A thoroughly decent human being'

Speaking at the alert level update this afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Sir Michael was an incredible human.

"That in itself, he packed a lifetime of service into his years as a politician. But I will remember him as just being a thoroughly decent human being who I will miss, so, so much."

Grant Robertson also spoke about Sir Michael and said thoughts today were with Sir Michael's family and friends.

"We offer all of our aroha and support to them today."

He said Sir Michael was a member of the Labour party for much of his adult life and his life was an incredible one in support of social justice. He was with the party through thick and thin and stuck with the causes he believed in, Robertson said.

His legacy was extraordinary, he said.

"Most politicians if they could claim one of Michael's legacy achievements would declare themselves satisfied with their political career ... he's touched the lives of New Zealanders."

He said Sir Michael's work extended long beyond Parliament.

"One of the things that gave him the greatest joy in his post-politics life was his work with iwi around the country, in particular Tūhoe and Tūwharetoa."

He said Sir Michael saved a lot of his kindness for private moments, and was a source of support or advice for many at a personal level as well as a political level.

"I am going to miss my friend greatly. He was a massive influence on me.

"I've drawn a great deal of inspiration from his work but also from his support.

"I did ask him very soon after we were first putting my first budget together. He used some other words about how when you're new to a job like that not everything makes sense and you make the odd mistake but you'll come back from it pretty well. And he always made sure I didn't take myself too seriously."

He said he has kept the flower Sir Michael gave him to wear when he delivered his first Budget.

'He wanted to make a difference' - Helen Clark

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark worked with Sir Michael for 40 years and told RNZ his death was not unexpected but it was very very sad news.

"He was an utterly dependable deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. You could throw any big and knotty problem at him, he would find a solution for it," she said.

"My thoughts are with Anne Collins - Michael's partner - and his family. This is not unexpected but it leaves a huge gap in their lives, and a huge gap in our country's life given the very substantial contribution that he made.

"Without his courage, determination, insights - brilliance, really - we would not have been able to do many of the things that we were able to do as a government."

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 pensions costs in the future. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

She said he came from humble origins and was a big-picture thinker who wanted to make a difference, to better people's lives.

"He was deeply committed to making New Zealand a place that everyone could feel proud of and feel they had a stake in. A very committed social democrat - that comes through strongly in his book - I think that was what drove him.

"I think when we remember Michael we'll remember the public face which was the witty, the clever, the quick on his face in Parliament. We should also remember that he was a shy person, he lived a very modest lifestyle, actually quite a humble person and I think the greatest tribute we can make to him is that he made a difference for the better.

"If each of us did that, our world would be a better place."

Remembering the event when Sir Michael Cullen and others challenged her for the Labour leadership, Clark told Checkpoint it was not a disagreement over policy.

"It was really a question of whether I was ever going to be able to win an election and let's face it, the polling was pretty dire at the time.

"I hung on because I had more support than enemies in the Labour Party caucus and I had strong networks in the Labour Party."

After that Sir Michael never turned back on his loyalty, Clark said.

"He once said, of me, he said, 'I am the snow on which Helen's skis glide.'

"He was a deputy and deputies support the leader and support leaders to do well. That takes a lot of character."

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff entered Parliament with Sir Michael in 1981 and spent more than 30 years working with him, and said he was one of the sharpest minds there.

"It's really sad news ... his quick wit, he was a great debater," he said.

"He was consistent, he worked hard, he was on top of his portfolios - particularly the finance portfolio - and he was one of the strengths, I think, of the Clark Labour government."

The legacy of Sir Michael was fantastic and left New Zealand in great shape financially to be able to handle the global financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquake, Goff said.

"He was not only the minister of finance ... he was also a strategic leader and worked closely with Helen and the rest of us... If there was a problem and somebody needed to be pulled out of their normal portfolio responsibilities to focus on that problem and find a solution to it, Michael was the person that Helen would go to.

"As well as being remembered for those things I'm sure that he would have wanted to be remembered for the strong values that he held and his huge commitment to having a fair society."

Former Labour Minister Dover Samuels said Sir Michael acted as a bridge when those in Cabinet disagreed, particularly on Māori issues.

"First thing I've got to say to all his whānau, tino aroha, our hearts go out to them because he was an outstanding minister and a good friend.

"He was very very highly intellectual and he mixed it with a sense of humour and he came across as somebody that was so genuine that in fact we took him into our confidence. Most of the Māori ministers, they were not part of the innner circle, but Michael really was the bridge between us all that kept us together."

He also praised Sir Michael's quick wit and skill in the debating chamber, saying he was the "armour plating" and "cutlass" of the Labour Cabinet.

"There were two of them - there were him and David Lange - and ... the opposition really were shaking in their boots when they got the opportunity to ask a question ... with his sharp wit and his sense of humour, I mean he brought the whole house down into laughter and he made some of these questions that were posed by the opposition that were so serious ... laughable.

"In response to Michael Cullen's response they even started to laugh at their own questions."

He said Sir Michael was Clark's greatest ally, and she would not have survived without someone like him by her side.

"I know that many tears have been flowing down amongst his ministerial colleagues both now and among his former colleagues. Ngā mihi atu kaea, we love you Michael and we also send our aroha to his family and everyone who was associated with Sir Michael Cullen. Noreira haere, haere, haere."

'Very good at taking the mickey out of people'

Clark's other deputy prime minister Winston Peters said Sir Michael was an excellent deputy PM and a very good finance minister.

"He had a clear vision of the management he wanted in the circumstances in which he's operating ... but overall, my memory of him is being a very witty, clever and articulate speaker.

"He was very good at taking the mickey out of people ... who needed the mickey taken out of them."

He said that quality of elocution meant Sir Michael suffered from the jealousy of colleagues from across the political spectrum, but he never had an exhibitionist element about him.

"He preferred to get on with the job and I saw him working with other finance ministers abroad - particularly Australia ... you could say despite the party he was in - because party politics is so divisive - that he is someone who won't let the side down."

He thought Sir Michael could have been even more effective, particularly with the Superannuation Fund, if other parliamentarians at the time had recognised the value of his input.

"When they came to power in 1999 there was the winter of discontent ... and a number of people arose up in opposition without giving the guy a chance."

Richard Prebble - who split from Labour in 1996 to join the new ACT Party, then led ACT in opposition to the fifth Labour government after the 1999 election - said Sir Michael was one of the few politicians whose reputation would increase with time.

"We all owe him a debt. Firstly, everyone who's got a KiwiSaver fund, Michael Cullen pushed that fund through and of course it's growing over time and with it his reputation."

He said he was highly committed to New Zealand and was prepared to make tough decisions.

"The thing about Michael is he's highly intelligent, he was also very witty. One of the qualities that he had I think is important in a politician is courage.

"When the foreshore and seabed controversy was on, he was one of the few ministers who was prepared to go out and speak to a few thousand angry Māori when the rest were hiding in the beehive."

'One of the most influential figures'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson said in a statement the government was mourning Sir Michael's death.

"New Zealand is so much the richer, in every sense of the word, for Michael's life. He gave his life to making this place better for everyone," Ardern said.

"He was a great friend to me and to many of the Cabinet and Labour caucus. We will miss him terribly, and we are sending all our love to Anne and his family."

"Sir Michael was one of the most influential figures in New Zealand politics over the last 40 years. Intelligent, funny and kind he left a significant legacy for the country."

Robertson said Sir Michael's contribution to New Zealand's long-term economic prosperity - as the architect of KiwiSaver, NZ Super Fund and Working for Families - was enormous.

"Each of these policies on their own would define a political career, but taken together they represent one of the most significant contributions any politician has made in recent times," he said, "For Michael they are only part of his extraordinary contribution to New Zealand."

He said he would also remember Sir Michael for small acts of kindness.

"He was always ready with a piece of advice, an insight or just a funny story. He also helped many Labour MPs out, often behind the scenes, and not wanting any publicity.

"He was loyal to the Labour Party, but also not afraid to voice his concerns."

'A respected adversary'

In a statement, National leader Judith Collins said Sir Michael was a consummate politician, a respected adversary and a man of absolute conviction.

"Most importantly, he was a man of uncommon and uncompromising principle," she said.

"When he retired from politics in 2009, such was our respect for him we called on his vast skills and knowledge to chair New Zealand Post and Kiwibank, as well as appointing him to lead a wide-ranging review of New Zealand's intelligence agencies.

"He will be remembered as one of our most effective ministers of finance, with a long-term view of what needed to be done to enhance to New Zealand's economic and social prosperity and stability. His passion was to make New Zealand a better place for everyone.

"Sir Michael's keen intellect, wit and vast expertise will be missed by us all, and our thoughts and condolences are with his family."

In a tweet, she said she was saddened to learn of his passing, and the party extended deepest condolences to his family while acknowledging his many years of service.

ACT leader David Seymour said Sir Michael was a "careful Finance Minister and quick-witted politician", and thanked him for advocacy on the End of Life Choice Bill.

In a tweet, Greens co-leader James Shaw said the party was greatly saddened, and Sir Michael had left an enduring legacy.

More twitter responses

Former Labour leader David Cunliffe:

National's Foreign Affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee:

Former National minister Steven Joyce:

Former United Future leader Peter Dunne:

Former MP for NZ First, Mauri Pacific and National Tau Henare:

Former Wellington mayor Justin Lester:

Musician and documentarian Moana Maniapoto:

Wellington lawyer and former journalist Linda Clark:

Poet and writer Bill Manhire:

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