A former deputy prime minister and Labour Party stalwart known for his intellect and acerbic wit has passed away following a diagnosis of lung cancer last year

Former deputy prime minister and finance minister Sir Michael Cullen has died aged 76, with the Government hailing his public service as “one of the most significant contributions any politician has made in recent times”.

Cullen died on Thursday night in Whakatāne, having been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in March last year.

Speaker Trevor Mallard, acting as a spokesman for the Cullen family, said a private family funeral would take place as soon as possible (such services are prohibited under Alert Level 4) with a public memorial service to be held in the eastern Bay of Plenty settlement of Tāneatua in due course.

Cullen’s nearly 30-year career in Parliament began in 1981 and reached its pinnacle under the fifth Labour government, when he was named finance minister by Helen Clark despite having once been involved in an attempt to oust her as Labour leader.

In 2002, he replaced Jim Anderton as deputy prime minister, a position he held until Labour lost power at the 2008 election.

Following his departure from Parliament in 2009, Cullen was involved in Treaty of Waitangi settlement negotiations for Te Kotahitanga o Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāi Tūhoe, while he also chaired the Earthquake Commission and the Bay of Plenty and Lakes district health boards, among other governance roles.

In the last term of Parliament, he chaired the Tax Working Group which recommended the Government implement a capital gains tax, only for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to rule out such a move while she led the country.

“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.”

In June, his autobiography Saving Labour was published, with National MP Simon Bridges describing the book in a review for Newsroom as “littered with his [Cullen’s] trademark wit and acidity”.

In a statement acknowledging Cullen’s death, Ardern said he 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. 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.”

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said Cullen had made an enormous contribution to New Zealand’s long-term economic prosperity and stability, citing his role as the architect of KiwiSaver, the New Zealand Super Fund and Working For Families.

“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.”

Robertson said Cullen was also known within Labour for his small acts of kindness, offering advice, insights and funny stories behind the scenes without any desire for publicity.

“I can recall a number of more recent Labour Party conferences where he would pop up to speak and introduce himself as  ‘a member of the Whakatāne Branch’ to make a wise and decisive intervention. He maintained his interest and commitment to the causes he believed in for his whole political life,” Robertson said.

Ministers of finance could be a help or hindrance to big policy moves, and Sir Michael Cullen fell in the first category, Helen Clark says. Photo: Supplied.

Cullen’s former boss and colleague Clark said the pair had known each other from the mid-1970s as young Labour Party activists, and described him as “an utterly dependable deputy prime minister and minister of finance”.

“One could throw any big and knotty policy challenge at him – there were many of those, and he would find a solution for it. Our government was indebted to his courage, determination, insights, and brilliance.”

While many had lauded Cullen’s work on big-picture initiatives like the Super Fund and Kiwisaver, Clark said his legacy extended well beyond that.

She mentioned his role in the establishment of interest-free student loans, 20 hours of free early childhood education, more affordable primary health care and the establishment of Kiwibank, as well as the buy-back of and investment in Air New Zealand and KiwiRail at a time when each was in dire straits.

“Ministers of finance can be a help or a hindrance to big policy moves – Michael was certainly the former. He always saw the big picture.”

Cullen came from humble beginnings which he had never forgotten, and should be remembered as a shy person who lived modestly and was humble about his achievements.

“When people remember Michael, they will remember the public face of a quick witted and clever man, capable of unleashing a sharp tongue, but fundamentally kind-hearted…

“The greatest tribute we can pay to Michael is that he made a difference for the better. If each of us did that, our world would be an immensely better place.”

National Party leader Judith Collins also paid tribute to Cullen, describing him as “a respected adversary and a man of absolute conviction”.

“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.” 

Cullen is survived by his wife Anne Collins, their four children (and partners), and eight grandchildren.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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