Sir Michael Cullen is being remembered by his Northland colleagues as a man with an ”incredibly sharp intellect” who created a lasting legacy for all New Zealanders.
Sir Michael, who rose to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in Helen Clark’s fifth Labour Government, died on Thursday night in Whakatāne. He was 76.
In March last year he went public with a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer.
Kerikeri’s Dover Samuels, a former Labour Government Māori Affairs Minister, said he was deeply saddened by the news.
”Personally I think he was one of the most outstanding finance ministers this country ever had. It’s like the tōtara has fallen.”
Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen with Tai Tokerau MP Dover Samuels (left) and Māori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia at a hui over Foreshore and Seabed legislation in Whangārei in 2003. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Samuels said Sir Michael was a stabilising force at a time when the government faced formidable opposition.
”He kept the Labour waka heading in the appropriate direction despite the turbulence and the political winds blowing at that time.”
His mind was so sharp opposition MPs would sometimes withdraw their questions when he was standing in for the Prime Minister rather than be shown up or face his barbs.
”The Māori caucus didn’t agree with him all the time — many issues at the time were controversial — but I’ll remember him very fondly as a good friend, a good colleague, and a dedicated New Zealander.”
Labour Party candidate Shane Jones and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen tuck into a meal of fish and chips in Mangonui during the 2005 election campaign. Photo / Dean Purcell
Shane Jones, a former Labour minister who later migrated to NZ First, recalled Sir Michael’s ”incredibly sharp intellect and occasionally acidic tongue”.
His greatest legacy was arguably the superannuation fund which now bears his name but as Treaty Negotiations Minister he also made a significant contribution — not least of which was settling iwi claims over the Volcanic Plateau forest lands.
”That was a major feat. He set the pace that was picked up by [National’s Treaty Negotiations Minister] Chris Finlayson, and Chris took it to a whole new level.”
The longer Sir Michael stayed in politics the more he grew, Jones said.
”It was always a pleasure to host him in the regions because he had an encyclopedic mind about our economy. And he didn’t suffer fools, which was probably a handicap in politics.”
Treaty Settlements Minister Michael Cullen is greeted by seven-year-old MaryJane Paparoa at Kareponia Marae in 2008. Photo / Clive Crombie
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand was “richer, in every sense of the word, for Michael’s life”.
He fought for social justice at every turn and while he understood the need for pragmatism at times, he was always focused on the big picture.
Cullen’s old adversary Sir John Key said he had enormous respect for Sir Michael.
“He was academically brilliant and extremely funny even when much of the time I was the target of that humour. His legacy in the area of savings, both KiwiSaver and the Superfund, will be enduring.”
Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen and then Labour candidate Shane Jones in Kaitaia in 2005. Photo / Dean Purcell
Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff said Sir Michael had made Aotearoa a better place by leading the turnaround from a ”disastrous neo-liberal economic experiment” that had hurt many working New Zealanders.
The Cullen fund, which he designed to smooth out the costs of future state pensions, currently stands at $58 billion.
He also established KiwiSaver, which now has three million members, and introduced Working for Families.
More controversially, he led the Clark government’s response to the 2003 Court of Appeal decision on the foreshore and seabed.
He was also Social Welfare Minister in the fourth Labour Government which split over Roger Douglas’ reform agenda.
Sir Michael was knighted in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours.
– Additional reporting by NZ Herald.