Tuesday 24 August 2021

Sir Michael Cullen: 1945-2021

Labour Saver? Thanks to Michael Cullen’s clever alchemy, the base metals of neoliberalism could be transmuted into the glittering gold of “modernisation”; and the grim squares of betrayal transformed into happy circles of fulfilment.

SIR MICHAEL CULLEN’S DEATH leaves Helen Clark as the sole remaining adult in Labour’s room. While he lived, Cullen’s influence on the present government was considerable. He was one of the few Boomers this Gen-X government listened to with genuine respect. Was that because Cullen took care to reassure his protégé, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, that the Labour-led Government’s economic settings were more-or-less correct? Undoubtedly that helped, but so did Cullen’s formidable intellect, his sense of humour, and his undoubted possession of that increasingly rare commodity – political wisdom.

Cullen called his recently published memoir Labour Saving. The title is instructive. Like so many Labour Party members confronted with the unrelenting radicalism of “Rogernomics”, Cullen had to decide how best to preserve the political party responsible for improving the lives of so many New Zealanders. Unlike Jim Anderton and his followers, he was convinced that the humanitarian essence of the Labour Party could be safeguarded without jettisoning Roger Douglas’s neoliberal programme.

It was a conviction he shared with Helen Clark, and without it their formidable political partnership would have been impossible. It is no small part of his legacy that, alongside Clark, he was successful in convincing both Labour’s remaining members, and an increasing number of centre-left voters, that the “reforms of the 1980s” were compatible with Labour’s core values. What historians will be called upon to decide is whether Clark-Cullen’s social-democratic rhetoric was ultimately reflected in Clark-Cullen’s on-the-ground achievements.

What cannot be disputed is Cullen’s immense usefulness to the Lange-Douglas Government as the Rogernomics “revolution” was passing through its early critical phases. Nowhere was this usefulness more evident than in the internal party debate over the introduction of the all-important Goods and Services Tax. Without the revenue collected by GST, the dramatic cuts in personal income tax would not have been possible. These reductions were absolutely essential if Rogernomics was to be accepted and, more importantly, supported by the New Zealand middle-class.

It was Cullen’s job to defuse the widespread opposition to the clearly regressive GST that was growing within the Labour Party. He did this by moving an amendment to any remits opposing GST. The amendment appeared to endorse the opposition to GST unless the inevitable increase in the cost-of-living of low-paid workers imposed by GST was fully offset by income tax reductions.

The choice of Cullen as the promoter of this “No GST unless …” solution was extremely shrewd. Within the Labour Party, Cullen was widely credited as having liberal-left leanings. Prior to winning the St Kilda nomination in 1981, he had been an active member of the Castle Street Branch of the Labour Party. Founded by the late Austin Mitchell, Castle Street, like Auckland’s Princes Street, was seen as a haven for university-based radicals. If Cullen was convinced that the regressive effects of GST could be offset by tax-cuts, then Labour traditionalists – as well as Labour “modernisers” – could vote in favour of Douglas’s “reform” with a clear conscience.

It was a template which would serve Cullen and the neoliberal Labour Party extremely well over the years that lay ahead. Decisions objectively inimical to the interests of low-paid workers and beneficiaries could be presented simply as new and better ways of achieving Labour’s traditional objectives. Thanks to Cullen’s clever alchemy, the base metals of neoliberalism could be transmuted into the glittering gold of “modernisation”; and the grim squares of betrayal transformed into happy circles of fulfilment.

The success of this strategy was compounded by the departure of the traditionalists’ leader, Jim Anderton, in 1989. With him went the party members who understood the true implications of the Rogernomics Revolution, and who possessed both the will and the wherewithal to oppose it openly in party forums. Though Anderton’s NewLabour Party – which in 1991 became the Alliance – harried Labour relentlessly throughout the 1990s, it could not, in the end, compete with the immense power of the Labour “brand”. As a former lecturer in social and economic history, Cullen rightly wagered that the doggedly loyal working-class voters who re-elected him to Parliament every three years would never abandon the party of Michael Joseph Savage.

Cullen also understood what so many of Anderton’s Alliance voters did not. That in the 15 years since the election of the Fourth Labour Government in 1984, neoliberalism had so firmly embedded itself in New Zealand’s key economic and administrative institutions that it could only be dislodged by an upheaval of revolutionary force. Neither Clark and Cullen were revolutionaries, which is why, when confronted with an employer class spooked by the genuinely social-democratic policies of the Alliance (Labour’s coalition partner between 1999 and 2002) they capitulated without a fight.

Stared down by the A-team of Auckland employers gathered in the Cathedral Room of the exclusive Auckland Club on 24 May 2000, Cullen blinked. The following day, speaking to yet another group of angry employers, Labour’s Finance Minister purred: “We want to be a government that moves forward with business, not one that watches indifferently from the side-lines.”

Sobered by what soon came to be known as “The Winter of Discontent”, Cullen proved as good as his word. The big reforms that constitute his political legacy: The Superannuation Fund; Working For Families; KiwiSaver; far from being the solid social-democratic victories Labour presents them as, were actually a sequence of inadequate workarounds for the problems created by neoliberal policies Cullen now knew better than ever not to challenge.

The Superannuation Fund (quickly dubbed the “Cullen Fund”) kept billions of dollars safely out of the hands of cash-starved ministries. This sequestering function was amply demonstrated by the speed with which the National Government suspended contributions to fund its GFC and Earthquake recovery projects. Working For Families, far from being “communism by stealth” acted as a giant wage subsidy for New Zealand employers. KiwiSaver, a privately run scheme, unguaranteed by the state, poured billions into the pockets of financial institutions. Social-democracy, at least as Mickey Savage and Norman Kirk understood it, had been murdered in the Cathedral Room.

With Cullen’s passing, the Labour Party has only Helen Clark to turn to for advice and consolation about the hard business of preaching Labour kindness while delivering neoliberal cruelty. Frustratingly for the present Labour Government, Clark is a much more protean figure than her former Finance Minister: less prone to staying put and saying only the right things.

Those who locate themselves on the centre-left will miss Michael Cullen. They’ll miss his prodigious intellect and his wickedly witty tongue. They’ll miss his wisdom. He has, however, left them with an enigma.

Who was he? This son of a London artisan who won a scholarship to the upper-class Christ’s College? This radical history lecturer who hung John Ball’s challenge to the English peasantry: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” on his office wall – and then went on to accept a knighthood? This “too clever by three-quarters” MP with a left-wing reputation – who was willing to sell Rogernomics to a confused and disoriented Labour Party? This Labour Finance Minister who left state housing underfunded and beneficiaries’ children unassisted by Working For Families?

Sir Christopher Wren, buried in the heart of his greatest architectural achievement, St Paul’s Cathedral, wrote his own epitaph: Si monumentum requiris circumspice “If you would see his monument, look around.” Looking around at the New Zealand he has left behind him, how should we sum up Sir Michael Cullen’s legacy? Who won? Who lost? And who will eat that shame?

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 23 August 2021.


The Barron said...

It is interesting that you reference the late Austin Mitchell in your post. In many ways Austin and Sir Michael shared many parallels, and died within days of each other. Both had to deal with a Parliamentary Labour Party that had moved from the roots.

Austin was shoulder-tapped to stand for the NZ Labour Party in Dunedin Central in 1963, but choose academia at the time. It is interesting to speculate how his undoubted skills would have complimented the Kirk lead Labour Party in both opposition and Government. Instead Austin lectured at both Otago and Canterbury, worked in both written and visual political media, before returning to Britain where he was elected to the Commons in 1977.

Cullen also worked at both Otago and Canterbury Universities, before entering the NZ Parliament in 1981.

When Austin stood in the Great Grimsby by-election in 1977 he was not expected to win, but his 500 vote victory upheld the Callaghan government. Through sheer personal commitment his majority was over 19,000 by 1992.

While Sir Michael had what was seen as a 'safe electorate', there is a tendency to forget Dunedin voted progressive in general elections, but conservative in local body. His hard working electorate office took nothing for granted.

Both were known for their humour, although a contrast in types. Cullen known for acidic performance in the debating chamber Austin for wit that was always good natured, but never hid what could be a cutting intellectual analysis. I was privileged to accompany Austin to a Channel 4 humourous look that the election. Included on the show was Ben Elton, possibly the most prominent political satirist of the day, yet was star-struck with Austin.

His use of humour in politics was absolute, once changing his name to Austin Haddock to highlight the plight of the Grimsby fishermen. It is hard to imagine Sir Michael ever being Michael Hillside Railway Workshop.

It was the respective Labour Governments steps to the right that makes the comparison interesting. Having been opposition whip, Austin seemed destined for a cabinet post, but on the death of John Smith he was one of a minority of Labour MPs that wished for a contested leadership rather than the expected Tony Blair anointment. His close friend Brian Gould stood and lost. Austin and the Blair led party never gelled.

In his Guardian Obituary -
Boisterously critical of most Labour leaders – Blair “seduced by wealth – wanted to be Robin to Bush’s Batman”, Ed Miliband “I won’t say freak, I’d better say geek” – he nevertheless supported Brown for the leadership before deciding he was “noble … but a clumsy man with a special kind of ineptness”.

The Barron said...

Cullen rode the edges of Douglas' reforms. Committed to parts, he mitigated other parts. When the leadership changed to Helen Clark, he accommodated his politics to the new direction. When Jim Anderton demanded Kiwi Bank, Cullen opposed then embraced. Critics may suggest that neo-liberalism was embraced then opposed. That is not to suggest that Cullen was hypocritical, rather he had things he wished to deliver and would adapt to whatever system could deliver.

To return to Austin's Guardian obituary -
He maintained that he had started off as a Gaitskellite rightwinger in party terms, in favour of state intervention to promote equality, and found that as the party moved to the right under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, his unchanging position left him on the left wing.

A true Fabian, Mitchell believed in the incremental advance of socialism. In this, Helen Clark as Prime Minister had commonality. Few though could accuse Austin of ever straying from his commitment to Fabianism. In 2002 he returned to NZ, and with his wife Linda McDougall, reevaluated 1972's 'The Half Gallon Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise', in the much under-rated book and documentary "Pavlova Paradise - Revisited'. It remains one of the best analysis of the neo-liberal social and political impact on NZ.

Could Austin politically have achieved more if he compromised the view of Labour forged in academic commitment to working class Dunedin? Could Michael have if he didn't?

Two totara fell at opposite ends of the earth. When trees fall during lock-down, they should still be heard.

Jens Meder said...

Yes, it was the reality of the post war "baby boom" that helped Sir Michael to raise enough political support to "resurrect" the universal Super Fund principle initiated by Mickey Savage, and defeat the short-sighted opposition to it, that it is not fair that we are therewith financing both our current and future NZ Super costs.

Well, the majority of taxpayers now are baby- boomers, and it is their NZ Super entitlement from age 65 which our contributions to the NZSF help to keep sustainable.

In view of the increasing proportion of our longer living descendants after the baby boomer bulge, now is the time to celebrate, respect and thank for Sir Michael's legacy by raising our contributions to the NZSF, and legislating it into a permanent institution -

and unconditionally grant the $1000.- KiwiSaver kick-start to all those who did not receive it from new-born babies to seniors who did not qualify for it - in the form of $1000.- KS ownership accounts with the NZ Super Fund.

That way - as collectively donated and already paid for - it would be a painless step towards a 100% ownership society

Bertie said...

I for one am glad that he's dead.

oneblokesview said...

Many of us old codgers reflect on the good old days.
When Butter was 2 shillings a pound and milk was 4pence a pint delivered to the house.
However those are "nice"" memories while we tap away on our high speed internet after watching life high definition television on huge thin screens. Watching events live from any place on earth.
Woops our personal communicators just buzzed, it the family on a video call from the countryside in Southern Germany. They are with a family who only speak German. No problem, they talk in to Google translate who in an instant talk to us in english.

Whats my point?
Chris, you need to stop trying to live in the past. Accept that the world has moved on.
Your beloved Labour party has morphed from the working class, to the class of elitist intellectuals.
Todays laborites have nothing in common with the blue collar workers of Michael Joseph Savage et al. (After school working in a fish and chip shop doesn't count as a blue collar worker)

The subject of your opinion piece epitomizes that, an ex University lecturer.

thesorrow&thepity said...

The guy was an arrogant prick, no loss

John Hurley said...

I thought the first two letters were very good - then i noticed they were written by the Baron who i usually give miss. Is that because politics is now all about culture and elitist?

I came across this in a post by KR Bolton about the Springbok tour:

This seldom-realized fact was stated plainly by PM Lange in a letter to this writer dated 18 June 1985:

‘I know that violations of human rights occur in many countries other than SA. And I share the concerns of New Zealanders of goodwill at that fact. But only SA, and no other country, has entrenched racism in its constitution and in the law of the land. Apartheid is a special challenge to NZ where we are trying to build a genuine multi-racial society’.

You won't find that fact mentioned in The Aotearoa History Show. It just becomes about changing source countries rather than a whole new demographic. Spoonley quoting Heeringa in Metro refers to it as a "social experiment".

I've just been watching a video of Simon During talking to Indian academics on Zoom about Edward Said and T. S Elliot (who I confused with George - the olympic weightlifter). Elliots literary criticisms were based on analysis of fact in heavy texts whereas Said is based on narrative (I need to go back over that) and the fact of the Western canon was imperialism. Therefore you don't get Jane Austin without slavery.

He continues with decolonisation. Decolonisation ended in a sense when Britain got rid of it's colonies but continues in another form such as (I forget his exact word but) gutting the Western canon. Is this why the National Library is getting rid of it's overseas books?
My point here is that we (the people) struggle to understand post colonialism. Don Brash doesn't understand it. Fortunately more and more people do as the excesses of the culture wars go too far. Michael Barnett and Justin Paris (Vodafone) don't care - as long as the common enemy (the nationalist) is kept at bay. Nationalism is bad for business - travel from HK into China and you see signs selling NZ real estate.

At this level of righteousness these things just carry on - the people don't understand; don't know what is best. Hence we had Maori language week and now it is 24/7 (whether in interferes with understanding or not). But these people live in Ivory Towers.

Once it was imperialism; now it is globalisation. The problem is we aren't seeing people moving freely we are seeing people migrate to a "shrinking pool of prime destination countries". Adjusting the narrative to suit everyone is like people moving into your house and having select pictures and trophies replaced with your court records.

That high-up righteous zone of the university is not the real world. It may seem like a neutral zone of post-ethnic cosmopolitanism but they aren't sitting on the ground and they don't recognize that orientalism is just ethnocentrism.

sumsuch said...

Point on.

Tears of blood in 'retrospect'. Not really, climate change was known in 1990. And we knew at the time the betrayal of the people.

He tried to overthrow Clarke prior to her election with dubious Rogernomes supporting.

Good shit about those times. How they betrayed these times. Why didn't I vote for Labour in those 3 elections?

sumsuch said...

Must say, you're brilliant about Cullen.

A column about Mike Moore might not be timely, but I'd appreciate it and so too the annals of reality.