Simon Bridges reviews the memoir by former deputy prime minister Michael Cullen, who died in August 2021.

In England, the political class sometimes speak of “big beasts” – politicians at the very top such as a Michael Heseltine or a Gordon Brown, who have big names, even bigger brains and a philosophy that drives them and the country. A small nation like New Zealand doesn’t get or have room for many such beasts. But Sir Michael Cullen is one of the few. He had a very deep sway on our Parliament, economy, social and race relations as he strode the stage of Kiwi politics, and for near a decade jointly ruled the land with Helen Clark.

His new memoir Labour Saving reminds us that those who write the books control our history. But there’s very little from the right that’s ever written – whether by politicians, academics or journalists. Jim Bolger has a couple of books from sit-downs with him, but as Cullen wryly notes at one point, Jim isn’t actually a right winger and is more Green Party these days. Much has been published extolling the great deeds of our Labour-led governments. Frankly, John Key or Steven Joyce need to come off from the golf course or yoga mat and pen a warts and all tome on their government before they forget. I fear that if they don’t, the legacy from those three terms will not be remembered as well as it could be.

Cullen has done a great thing in writing Labour Saving. We should thank him for doing so. While I have bouquets for his significant effort, I also have real brickbats. First to the nice. This book has three qualities I very much admire. It is real and honest. It reads like him, so I can tell that he wrote it and means all he says in it. I feel certain that this is because, as he poignantly notes in his preface, he was conscious, given his lung cancer, of not knowing how much time he would have to write. A man in a hurry of sorts and possibly almost out of time, will be more real and tell his truth.

Second, the book is littered with his trademark wit and acidity and this is a good thing in such woke times. I liked his descriptions such as of Fonterra (“which to me still sounds like an imported used SUV”), and the infamous Nicky Hager/John Campbell Corngate saga (“as far as cover-ups go, this was about as convincing as an Italian beach bikini”). He’s more cutting about personalities. Richard Prebble was “a fearless debater in both caucus and Parliament, but I increasingly came to the conclusion that it was unwise to rely on the accuracy of much of the content of his speeches”. Mike Moore “positively crackled with ideas and enthusiasm, sometimes the latter outrunning the practicality of the former.”

It’s the ‘neo-classical’ Finance Ministers Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson that you can tell he really doesn’t like. He consistently goes at Douglas and puts Richardson as half of “the sisters Grimm” alongside Jenny Shipley. But he isn’t as good on those closer to him and from his time at the top, and also struggles with his characterisation of John Key. Just as some Nats struggle with Jacinda, Cullen knows he can’t exactly be nasty about Key because of his popularity. I  get the feeling he held back. If all political careers end in failure, for Cullen it was Key who proved a big part of the reason for his downfall.

The book weighs in at over 400 pages. It’s a brilliant historical record not just of the fifth Labour administration but of the quarter century or so before that under Muldoon, then Rogernomics, Ruthanasia, and the Bolger years. It tells the story from an ultimate insider’s perspective, but also with somewhat less partisanship and more impartially than I had expected from someone I’ve always – I think quite rightly – taken for a deeply tribal animal.

Labour Saving has a clinical academic quality. It will draw an audience limited to political junkies of the most serious kind and the wonkiest of policy wonks. Don’t buy it for your unpolitical father-in-law or cousin. The book often reads like a series of Cabinet papers strung together, with a text on parliamentary procedure chucked in to break things up. We are given many pages at a time that consider in detail Cabinet policy, then issues of standing orders, followed by more policy reforms, followed by, say, a consideration of the precise arguments made in a ‘Speech from the Throne’ delivered by the Governor General. Sentences like this one and indeed many pages like it are all too common:  “Once the urgent debate was over on 22 December, I moved that the Address-in-Reply be suspended, and then moved that urgency be accorded the introduction, first readings, and reference to select committees of the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill and the Accident Insurance (Transitional Provisions) Bill, government notice of motion No. 1, and the introduction and passing of the Taxation (Rate Increase) Bill….” I was a senior Minister and Leader of the House and even I have my limits. Tighter editing would have been a friend not a foe.

If I’d wanted a Cabinet paper or a standing orders report I would have requested it from archives. What I had hoped for from Cullen was personal insight of the kind only he, from his privileged vantage point as Clark’s Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, could give me. This would have taken a great history and made it a great memoir as well, but on this latter score it fails.

Take Helen Clark for example. Given Cullen was originally on Mike Moore’s side when she was installed leader and only came over after that, I would have loved to know more about how they worked things out to become a very successful government in waiting and then actual government. I would also have loved to know more about what he and Helen were like behind closed doors. What was their working style together, their level of daily contact? Did they ever have breakfast together or go on personal holidays as families? In a 415-page book it all gets batted off in one sentence: upon becoming her deputy in 1996 so began a twelve and a half year partnership “of stability and mutual respect between Helen and me which saw us win three elections on the trot, something that Labour had not done since 1943.” That is literally all he says on their most consequential alliance.

I’m not asking for some gossipy nonsense or a kiss-and-tell. But this was one of the most successful political partnerships in New Zealand history and we get nothing on anything Cullen or Clark – nor on that wily old crocodile Winston Peters, who gifted them government in their last term of office. Ironically, Cullen is happy to comment on characters and conflict around the Lange/Douglas rift in the 1980s. He constantly rebuts Michael Bassett’s account laid out in Working with David. At that time Cullen was merely a junior bit player and what he thinks matters less there than it does later when he was integral. His absence of insight on key figures in Clark’s administration is exceptionally disappointing.

Sometimes, though, Cullen writes in personal detail.  We learn of his childhood, his affair and subsequent divorce, his depression, and other health battles he has faced. But whereas something such as the enactment of the Local Government Reform Act gets a number of pages, these significant personal matters get no examination. I would have loved to have learned the texture of his fear and how he harnessed it, the smell of the rooms and the like. They would have given the book more humanity.

Before I lose the three friends I have in the Labour movement, I will repeat my gratitude for this book overall as an honest, accurate work of history, despite its failings to inspect the more personal aspects of a serious New Zealand politician and his times. From this ‘memoir’ we see what a centre left politician in our country should look like. Cullen clearly clarified his ideological underpinnings during the Lange/Douglas years as he determined he was neither an untrammelled free marketer like Prebs or Douglas, nor a proponent of state socialism like Muldoon or Anderton at that time. Indeed, he comes across as very ambivalent about those years, deciding that much of what occurred was necessary as a corrective to Muldoon’s madness and yet also at times too fast and too much. He looked with envy at Hawke and Keating in Australia who much more closely hit the bullseye with their marriage of capitalism and social democratic reform.

In the end, Sir Michael strikes me as being in the tradition of most long-term Kiwi Finance Ministers in the modern era: Keynesian broadly speaking, and fiscally conservative. In this quality we Nats should recognise he left the books in pretty good shape for us as we grappled with the GFC on entering government in late 2008.

I agree with him and strongly so when he says: “In normal times, fiscal profligacy is, at base, an act of selfishness at the expense of future generations. It is the same attitude that has seen us pollute our rivers, overfish our seas, use up non-renewable resources, plunder our forests and generally behave in a fashion without thought for our own grandchildren and their grandchildren…My fiscal policies were, as far as possible, about looking to the long term, not spending up to the hilt in the good times. Rainy days do come, and are more likely in New Zealand than in many other countries.”

What I would say though, is as Cullen came to the end of his second term in finance, and certainly by his third, the ghost of tax cuts haunted him. Tax is a recurring theme in the book, but by the end of his time in government he was clearly looking for every reason he could find not to let people keep their money. He feels New Zealand was wrong in its hankering for tax relief by 2008, but he also quietly knows this and the Key factor cost him another go on the Treasury benches. I would say on tax cuts the Fifth Labour government presented a mirror image to the Key/English government on social spending. By their last terms, both let their inherent fiscal conservatism hold them back from loosening up the purse strings a little when Kiwis had had enough rectitude and wanted a dividend. Clark/Cullen should have moved on tax and Key/English on social spending.

One thing Cullen probably won’t accept is an important difference between Labour and National that is subtly seen in a read of his book (he could find some evidence on which to contradict me, such as his Fund and Kiwisaver, though they aren’t exactly engines of growth). Sir Michael demonstrates in his pages time and again his concern for social and racial equity and his desire to ensure his conception of fairness is upheld in social and racial legislation. He is very anxious to ensure the Kiwi cake is cut up equitably and fairly. What I didn’t see much of though was deep thinking about growth and a vision for New Zealand in say 2040. Again, to put this in hackneyed terms, there wasn’t an adequate focus on growing the cake in the way a National big beast would be focused. In this, the Tory in me says Michael focused on the fairness weeds at the expense of seeing a greater vision of trees.

Naturally I’m anxious that Sir Michael will use his famed acerbic wit in some right of reply on me. But I hope he sees my high praise for a man who led with wit and acuity, made history, and has then written about it, fairly and accurately, if not with enough personal insight for my liking. Political tragics, wonkish wonks, rush out and buy.

Labour Saving: A Memoir by Michael Cullen (Allen & Unwin, $49.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Leave a comment