Former Labour Cabinet minister and fellow Dunedin MP Pete Hodgson pays tribute to the late Sir Michael Cullen.

Even when he was in full flight and at his most intellectually penetrating in some debate, Michael Cullen would trash himself with withering self-deprecation. It was as if he needed to return to reality. He couldn’t stand sophistry; his bullshit antennae were rather sensitive to it and he would check himself, and of course any other unfortunate who strayed.

When younger and unmellowed he would unleash with devastating spite, once challenging Dunedin’s tartan mafia to ‘get off their assets and start using their brainettes’. Then, some saw him as an arrogant ex-academic and there was a bit of truth in that. Certainly, his sharp wit was a formidable weapon, and he wielded it determinedly. But, like David Lange, he also used it as a cover for his ordinariness and his humility.

At heart, Michael was a poor boy made good. His parents and grandparents had seen most shocking poverty in the UK and he was touched by that all his life. He didn’t trade on it. But it drove him. He was scornful of evidence of entitlement in someone, and if he found a bit of it across the aisle he would name it. He was rarely angered but when he was it was always about the same thing; social injustice in some form or other.

If his background caused him to be fierce, it also caused him to think. He had a gorgeous brain. That got him a scholarship into Christs College and then on to academia, with an unusual mixture of mathematics and history in his education. These were the tools he brought to bear on the rich poor gap, on fairness in taxation, on security in old age, on the role of infrastructure in economic development, on the case for being a nation of better savers, and all the rest.

In my view he was the heart of centre-left thought in New Zealand for decades. In particular, he showed New Zealand the way out of the Rogernomics-Ruthenasia era of 84-93, though there were multiple bits of that time that he supported and did not reverse. Other aspects were binned at the earliest opportunity.

He and I knew each other well, and for pretty much all our adult lives, and we nearly always agreed. But we weren’t equals. He had a greater intellectual capacity than me – than any of us – and that meant he would take home a few problems, read and think, and come back on Monday with a rational way forward.

All politicians have regrets and I think Michael felt keenly his failure to build consensus for the foreshore and seabed issue. I don’t think any of us could have done better. Otherwise, he had good reason to feel a little bit smug. He completed our nation’s path from the profligacy of Muldoon to a country that can withstand a global financial crisis, a few earthquakes and a pandemic with relative ease. We are stronger and better as a nation because he was a fiscal conservative and a social progressive.

Michael was also a tad contradictory. Aloof yet engaging, serious but mischievous, publicly fiery and then privately tearful. He felt things deeply yet he would take the longer safer road to fixing them. He was a man who loved very dearly and cared very deeply. His family first; then all of us. 

Michael Cullen, former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, died on Thursday August 19, aged 76

Pete Hodgson is a former Labour MP and Cabinet minister

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