Michael Cullen 1945-2021 – He almost lived up to the dream


Michael Cullen taught me History at the University of Otago in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His lectures on the English Revolution were riveting. On the wall of his office he had tacked a huge Walter Crane poster showing a man digging and a woman spinning. Around the image trailed the words of John Ball, the defrocked priest whose impertinent theological and political question helped spark the Peasants Revolt of 1381: “When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

That was the Michael Cullen whose entry into Parliament I celebrated.

But then came Rogernomics, and Cullen trimmed his sails to the prevailing winds. He played a key role, as Whip, in getting GST through a succession of Labour regional conferences. Yes, he was formidably intelligent, and yes, his wit could lacerate the National Party like no other, but the reforms he will be remembered for: the Super Fund, KiwiSaver, Working For Families, were all inadequate workarounds that never seriously challenged the neoliberal orthodoxy which Cullen, in the end, accepted and consolidated. He fought KiwiBank to the bitter end, and refused to save public broadcasting.

The final betrayal, from the point of view of the student who had thrilled to his lectures on the Levellers, the Diggers and the Fifth Monarchy Men, was when the onetime radical history lecturer accepted a knighthood.

There have been many, many Labour MPs who were worse than Michael Cullen – much worse. But, equally, there were a number who were better. The tragedy, for me, is that Michael could have been one of them – but wasn’t.


  1. “was when the onetime radical history lecturer accepted a knighthood”
    YUP- part of a govt, 2nd in command, that scrapped the royal honours, and when they were re introduced by National and he was nominated for a knighthood grabbed it with both hands and insisted the title be used at all time….no one beats the left on hypocracy!

      • Im not saying its a right or left numbers game Sam, I was pointing out the sheer hypocracy of being a major leader in the govt that abolished them and then happily accepting one when on offer when they were reinstated. A person who held their beliefs strongly would have refused.

    • Oh? So you can identify the Left can you?
      Because the Left as we still, in terminal hope, think of Labour as being, is as Far Right of Right as it can get without intruding into a parallel Universe. AO/NZ’s Right began infecting Left from about the late 1930’s when Auckland money lenders and bankers coalesced into a gruesome stew of greedy, lazy, manipulators with an endless supply of free farmer earned foreign money pouring in.
      All the National party, culminating in the hugely profitable opportunities for swindling state assets of the 1980’s
      Now? Today? The Right have slithered under Labour’s skin as neoliberals and are in control.There is now no Left, left at all. Therefore @ Im Right, you win. You win the hungry children, you win the homeless, you win the foreign banks taking billions of AO/NZ dollars off-shore yearly, you win the chemically dependent agrarian primary industry, you win a disabled social infrastructure, you win genuine hardship amongst working class people who face daily struggles just to keep afloat and you win the corrupt MSM who keeps the Right’s lies afloat.
      You win @ Im Right. You’re a winner. The national party are winners, the LabourNats are winners! The banksters are winners! You’re all winners except 98% of AO/NZ’s population.
      Luckily, for fuckers like you, those 98% of the rest of us have yet to figure that out.

  2. Michael Cullen was the personification of the past 37 years of Labour, in both government and opposition: a nice chap who abandoned the welfare state to neoliberalism red in tooth and claw.

    • ‘Felt good’, assumed everyone else did. When the people are a matter of imagination in our leaders we are lost. The neoliberal 84ists had a bloody good time so much they wanted to insert their kids into that good time of Labour. When the last working class Labour MP was a baronet you have to wonder. Sir Basil Arthur.

      I’m welfare state middle class m’self, full disclosure. Fa’ dined out on his working class suburban upbringing as a teacher, grandda was a glovemaker who rose to foreman, his fa’ was a socialist unionist.

  3. Michael Cullen was one of the better guys over the past decades.

    He could have been exceptional but chose the neoliberal work a rounds too often, aka working for families now subsidies the low wage economy NZ, that was supposed to be John Keys vision, but seems to be turning into Labour’s.

    Kiwirail was a good idea, but they filled it with neoliberal management who drove it into the ground with poor decisions aka asbestos in the trains from China. Kiwirail should be doing domestic rail and freight at scale in the age of carbon credits, but seemingly Kiwirail did not present the case they needed to for government and public, and thus the trucking brigade have the government’s ear and massive funding instead.

    Super Fund was a good idea, but Natz fucked it up.

    I’m not against GST because we have such a cash economy and growing with illegal workers and products everywhere, that at least we get some taxes from business avoiding company and income taxes in most cases. In NZ, unlike OZ we don’t even measure and report properly large companies that fail to pay tax in NZ. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-13/one-third-of-australian-companies-paid-no-tax-ato/10614916?nw=0 b The only thing that made many companies pay back their wage subsidies was that it was a public register!!! Name and Shame is an effective strategy.

    Too many of the consultants, government and industry uses are Neoliberals of the worst sort, but they keep them on the boards and committees and management, but just add the ineffectual and seriously stupid woke to the mix who blather on about micro aggressions because they don’t have any real talent and are the Intellectual Yet Idiots of NZ (many without even the intellectual component) while the neoliberal machine rolls forward.

    As for Greens, sounds like they bullied out anybody who didn’t agree with them in the party a few years ago and now they are an empty, woke, ineffectual, waste of space who are a disgrace to the Green movement and integrity.

    Labour are mostly short of serious talent, naively believing and subsidising the worst of NZ industry who are laughing at them all the way to the bank. Labour need to get some really smart advice ASAP, because whoever is advising them is mostly leading a train wreck of neoliberal and woke policy, which is eroding their popularity.

  4. Cullen was responsible for allowing Moshe Ya’alon to continue to murder people rather than face a trial as a war criminal.
    The work that human rights lawyers in both Aotearoa and England did to try and bring the war criminal to trial was exemplary and the Judge took several days before making the decision that he could be arrested whilst in Aotearoa.
    The police contacted Cullen, Attorney General, who after getting advice from the Crown Law office had the possible arrest stayed. Crown law office considered the whole business in a couple of hours unlike the judge who spent several days.

    Gutless gutless gutless and more Palestinians murdered because of that gutlessness.

    n late 2006, while Ya’alon was in New Zealand on a private fund-raising trip for the Jewish National Fund, Auckland District Court judge Avinash Deobhakta issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged war crimes arising from his role in the 2002 assassination of Hamas commander Salah Shehade, who was killed in a targeted assassination, when an Israeli warplane bombed his home in Gaza City. About 14 Palestinian civilians were also killed in the airstrike. Deobhakta stated that New Zealand had an obligation to prosecute him under the Geneva Convention. Attorney-General Michael Cullen ordered a stay in the warrant after advice from the Crown Law office that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, and the warrant was cancelled after Ya’alon left New Zealand.

    • Trotter often spoke for demo-cracy. And, apparently that meant reality. The rich given more power have drawn us unnecessarily close to extinction.

  5. Yes agree John Chipper.
    Sir Michael Cullen outstrips all current Labour Government Ministers even though it’s an extremely low bar.

  6. Not having been handsomely paid from the public purse, nor knighted to boot, when Chris’s “time comes” there will no requirement for his achievements to be considered, but if there were, having told the truth about Michal Cullen might well feature among them.

  7. He was about as a social democrat of the old school about as far as one could be, without actually rejecting Monetarism.

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