Review of Michael Cullen’s Autobiography

New Zealand International Review

November/December 2021 Vol 46, No 6 p.26-7.

LABOUR SAVING: A Memoir by Michael Cullen (Allen and Unwin, Auckland, 432pp, $50)

In the 40 years since Muldoon’s reign, the predominant form of national political leadership has been a dual premiership in which, broadly, the prime minister manages the politics and the co-premier manages policy. The second is often, but not always, the minister of finance and may, or not, be the deputy prime minister. When the two are both able and working together they form a powerful partnership.

The prime minister may have particular policy interests. Jim Bolger was deeply involved in the Treaty settlement process. John Key’s were less obvious. Helen Clark’s included foreign policy, women’s issues and the arts, as well as, particularly at the beginning, maintaining a tight control over her ministers. The exception was Michael Cullen, with whom she had been a junior minister in the disintegrating fourth Labour government (1984–90).

How these partnerships function is hardly recorded. How often did they meet informally, telephone, write or email? Were there trusted emissaries? There are the odd insights. The David Lange–Roger Douglas breakdown told us a lot about when it does not work. We know Bolger and Bill Birch and their families regularly went tramping together. Otherwise there is a virtual silence. Even the autobiographies and biographies tell us more about marriage partnerships.

Alas Cullen’s Labour Saving is reticent too. The best that one can infer is that he and Clark had a very strong trusting partnership. There is no hint they ever disagreed, let alone how they worked it through. Otherwise the book is as invaluable, reflective and revealing as any (auto)biography we have had from a retired minister of finance.

It was written in difficult circumstances. In March 2020, learning he had small-cell lung cancer, which was to kill him seventeen months later at the age of 76, Cullen ceased the active public life he pursued after his retirement from Parliament in 2009. He then discovered he had nothing much to do, a lacuna compounded by the Covid lockdown which followed soon after. So the trained historian turned to writing an autobiography.

Unfortunately, he did not have easy access to his papers, which are in the Hocken Library. Not only did he have to rely on his memory and what was available on the web, he was also conscious that he had a limited time for the writing. That means there are some gaps, as well as lapses of memory. I wanted much more on his role in the restructuring of the

governance of the environment by the fourth Labour government — in opposition he had been Labour’s spokesman for the environment. It is a success which needs to be better recorded; one is also curious to know how much influence an able backbencher can have.

Subject to these limitations, the biography is revealing about Cullen’s personal life and health and the issues which Labour faced in opposition and government. It also reveals a much more agreeable person than was his razor-sharp public image.

At the centre of the book, as indicated by its title, is how Labour recovered from its neo-liberalism of the 1980s. He does not say this boastfully, but as one of the few economically literate members of caucus, Cullen played the key role.

It is there in his policies, but it is also in his appointments. He describes how as minister of finance he turned down a proposal for the new governor of the Reserve Bank because the candidate ‘made even Brash slightly moist’ and then similarly for a proposed secretary of the Treasury because he had been at the centre of the neo-liberal revolution. (Wellington watchers will know of numerous such incidents. It is, however, unusual for a politician to go so explicitly on record.)

Even more fundamentally, he devotes a couple of pages to setting out his political philosophy (his personal philosophy is hinted in various places throughout the book). He is a pragmatic, modernising social democrat with a strong commitment to sustainable development (and a ‘muddy Keynesian’). Later he describes his thirteen months as minister for Treaty settlements as one of the most satisfying things he did. He settled the massive and complicated Treelords Deal; after Parliament, he acted as a negotiator for some iwi.

It is rare for a politician to set out their political philosophy so explicitly. Jack Marshall did, and recently Chris Finlayson has, more briefly, in He Kupu Taurangi: Treaty Settlements and the Future of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is more usual for New Zealand politicians’ memoirs to fudge philosophy in platitudes.

Cullen implemented his social democratic ambitions, nicely illustrated by Kiwisaver, the achievement which was highlighted when his death was announced. It is certainly popular and more tangible for the New Zealand populace than social

democracy. I mentioned Cullen to a nurse of Asian ethnicity. She became effusive because her family had used their Kiwisaver funds to purchase their home. I said I had a small role in its development — and I mean ‘small’. She thanked me three times.

There is irony in the fuller story. In the 1970s Labour looked at European social democrats for policy directions, out of which came the earnings-related contributory New Zealand Superannuation Scheme of 1974 introduced by the third Labour government (1972–75); Muldoon repealed it in 1976. The chief driver was Roger Douglas (although it was the Central European social democrat Henry Lang who had the genius to add it on top of what is today called New Zealand Superannuation — the flat-rate, taxation-funded, universal retirement pension). Douglas never revived his scheme when he returned to office in the fourth Labour government. In his 1993 Unfinished Business he proposed instead a scheme reflecting neo-liberal values, which was thoroughly trashed in a nationwide 1998 referendum. Kiwisaver implemented the social democrat policy.

While Cullen deserves to be remembered for the scheme, it was not his greatest achievement. Labour was devastated by the neo-liberal coup of the 1980s. It struggled to recover itself; how was it to apply the principles upon which it was founded to a modern economy and society? More than anyone else, Cullen by deed and now by this book showed the way. The Ardern–Robertson government and the Labour movement must be deeply grateful.