Valedictory Speech of Hon. Dr Michael Cullen

Wednesday 29 April 2009, 10:34PM
By Dr Michael Cullen


Mr. Speaker,

In rising to give my valedictory speech I am immediately conscious of three things.

The first is that such a speech represents an opportunity denied to most mortals: that is, to deliver one’s own funeral oration, or, at least, a progress report thereon.

The second is that my maiden speech was unfortunately and unintentionally one of the most oft-quoted in the history of this institution, a fate I hope to avoid today.

The third is that most colleagues, especially the newer ones, probably have limited patience for an elderly gentleman engaging in extended verbal borborygmus.

I came to this place in 1981 a young senior lecturer in History, fresh from current battles over the Springbok tour and the proposed Aramoana aluminium smelter. It was an odd career choice for somebody who used to have a strong fear of flying and was ill at ease with strangers.

My family background was not untypical of many twentieth century stories. Three of my grandparents grew up in great poverty. My maternal grandparents were children in late nineteenth century London in an area classified in a contemporary social survey as “very poor, bordering on the semi-criminal”. My paternal grandmother was one of three daughters of a widowed charwoman in the days before the welfare state.

Only my paternal grandfather, dead well before I was born, was not from such a background, being one of a line of four tradesmen ending with my father, which had been preceded by generations of Somerset agricultural labourers.

On top of that background, particular circumstances contributed, I suspect, to my political philosophy. My mother was born ten days after the outbreak of World War One. My grandfather had been called up immediately as an army reservist. He was captured in the first battle fought by the British Expeditionary Force. For months my grandmother did not know whether he was dead or captured.

My own mother, the first in the family to go to secondary school, gave birth to me at home because she was suspected of having TB and was not allowed in hospital. Her fierce determination to see me succeed through education eventually led me here via thirteen years of scholarships and an academic career.

It is not surprising, then, that there have been three basic themes to my political philosophy.

The first is a profound belief in the essential equality of all human beings. It is an ideal found as far back in the English radical tradition that I claim as my heritage as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when John Ball asked “When Adam delved and Eve span who was then a gentleman?”.

The second is a hatred of poverty. Not of wealth, to which, within reason, we can all aspire, but of poverty with its grinding degradation and fundamental unfairness.

The third is that economic and social policy must be guided by the ideals of security and opportunity, the two sides of the coin of an enduring just society. To which we must now add the imperative of sustainability.

It was perhaps inevitable that I would gravitate towards the Labour Party. So when I was approached one Friday night in 1974 in the George Street Tavern by the late Professor Eric Herd to join I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no.

I became more active because of events in Australia as much as here. I was a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University on the fateful day the Whitlam government was dismissed. I well remember a colleague who was writing a thesis on the powers of the Australian Governor-General emerging into the corridor pale-faced exclaiming “ Jeez, I’ll have to rewrite that whole bloody chapter”.

So on coming back home I made the fateful decision to go to the AGM of the Castle St. branch, ended up on the committee, and from there on the path led towards becoming the candidate for St. Kilda in 1980.

Hence I arrived at this place in November 1981 with my basic philosophical baggage in tow and started to settle into the job. It is salutary to remind myself and all my colleagues that most of those who then dominated this place have long since been forgotten. The one obvious exception was a walking example of a Hobbesian state of nature whom many wish they could forget.

The entire assistance available to individual backbench MPs at that time was one half of a secretary. Initially that did not matter too much since Parliament did not actually meet until the following April.

So I busied myself as the MP for St Kilda with electorate work under the tutelage of my friend and colleague, Stan Rodger. Following his example I immediately began to send sympathy letters offering help to those who had suffered a bereavement. Death was the one aspect of electorate work where St Kilda was well above the national average.

One 83 year-old wrote thanking me for my offer of help but informing me that she could still manage the garden herself. I suddenly had this awful vision of becoming the lesser spotted mower of South Dunedin, a kind of political hire a hubby for thousands of widows.

Once Parliament finally met in April 1982 it then sat continuously until mid-December with no recess.

In that light I hope that one of my lasting contributions to this great institution has been to have played for 24 years a central role in the reform of its procedures, starting with my time as Senior Government Whip.

In 1982 the set piece debates of the Address-in-Reply, the Budget, and Estimates took a total of over ten weeks. Voting was done by way of long, tedious, time-wasting divisions in the lobbies. Oral questions were set down days in advance but many questions were not reached as Question Time was limited to 45 minutes. Urgency meant continuous sitting, 24 hours a day without a break.

All these matters have been substantially reformed to provide a more rational system. Time-limited debates, party voting, meal and sleep breaks in urgency, and regular short recesses have all proved successful.

Question Time is much more immediate, timely, and flexible as well as dealing with all questions put down. Despite criticisms from some, it is, in my view, by far the most effective test of the mettle of ministers, and their opponents, of any Westminster-style parliament. Imagine, for example, how well George W. Bush would have survived Question Time if he had been our Prime Minister!

Such testing is the real purpose of Question Time – not to elicit a recitation of simple facts but to hold Ministers to account and to test their mettle. That is why it is easily the most popular part of the televised proceedings.

Indeed, I would go further. Much of Parliament is a form of theatre, a stage on which ideas and personalities contest for dominance. It is neither a simple legislative sausage machine, nor a company board, nor some kind of policy group-grope or, as we now call them, summits.

The vast majority of MPs come here to try to improve the lives of New Zealanders however much we may differ as to the means of so doing. Hence the most depressing comment about MPs that I can recall was when one senior Press Gallery member claimed the default position of politicians was to lie. One might easily respond that the default position of journalists is to misrepresent and to manipulate. Neither statement is a fair reflection of the truth.

What I would assert is that for all its faults, and the occasional silliness, the system works far better than any known alternative.

Mr. Speaker, I arrived in this place at a time when my party was divided, a division which in one form or another lasted through to 1996.

I came knowing I was the MP for St Kilda for one reason alone: I wore a Labour jersey. Since that time it has been my desire to help create a strong, modern, unified social democratic party wearing the proud old name of Labour.

That was not easy. In the 1980s the urgent and necessary process of modernisation and reform lurched off into ideological excesses underpinned by the belief that there was no gain without pain. That came to mean that pain must inevitably lead to gain and then to a kind of political sado-masochism in which pain almost seemed to become an end in itself.

It certainly caused me some small financial pain. The biggest speeding fine I ever got was driving back from Whakatane to Wellington in January 1990 when I heard on the news that Geoffrey Palmer was supposedly moving to reinstate Roger Douglas as Minister of Finance. I hit 134kmph before a firm but polite traffic cop restored me to my senses.

The persistent divisions, the consequent weakening of the Labour Party, and the introduction of MMP meant that in the early to mid-1990s it appeared far from impossible that we would cease to be the dominant voice of the centre-left in New Zealand.

The need to build a policy platform of a socially progressive, economically literate, fiscally conservative party was obvious. It could and should have been done in the 1980s. It was done under Helen Clark’s leadership and I am proud to have had some small role to play in that regard. That laid the basis for a long period in government.

The Fifth Labour Government succeeded in hauling the pendulum of economic debate back towards the centre. But there are still flaws inherited from an extreme free market view of the world that need to be addressed. In particular, the current crisis must lead to coordinated international reform of regulation of the financial sector. If not, the whole cycle will be repeated again, with even more disastrous consequences.

Mr Speaker, it has been said that there are two sorts of finance ministers: those who fail and those who get out just in time. Let me assure colleagues that I did not personally organise the world recession to avoid being categorised as one of the former.

During my stewardship, fiscal conservatism, accompanied by a consciously countercyclical management of the economy, was accompanied by crucial initiatives in tax reform, a long overdue addressing of our dismal savings record, the creation of the Super Fund, a much more pragmatic approach to supporting business, a massive increase in infrastructure spending, and a sharing of the fruits of growth, particularly through Working for Families, low unemployment, cheaper primary health care, and the restoration of the level of New Zealand Superannuation.

I am immensely proud that we were the first government for decades to reduce inequality in New Zealand. Consciously or unconsciously, all governments engage in social engineering; the real issue is whether the structures thus created are ethically sound.

I am particularly concerned that the current government still has not grasped the significance of the profound contribution that the growing gap between saving and borrowing economies has made to the present economic crisis. It is not all due to the incompetence, short-termism, and greed of the so-called banksters.

I am certainly convinced that a future government will have to rebuild KiwiSaver to play a bigger role in dealing with our imbalances. And the New Zealand Superannuation Fund must be continued as part of our long term fiscal strategy.

I am also fearful that the essence of the tertiary education reforms may be unwound. If they are, we will inevitably see a recurrence of the mushrooming of wasteful expenditure on low value courses. If the recession is causing a higher demand for training and education the answer is not to reinstate a drive to expensive competitive mediocrity and duplication.

Indeed, the current crisis provides the opportunity for a major push on skills, particularly to accelerate the implementation of the New Zealand Skills Strategy. This will do much more to increase future productivity than many other policies that have been put forward.

This crisis is also a chance to intensify investment in a greener economy, not wind back on it. Every day brings more evidence of the urgency of the task.

Apart from being Minister of Finance, Leader of the House, and Minister of Tertiary Education I have enjoyed other portfolios. It was great fun to be Attorney-General and to prove, going by many kind messages from senior members of the judiciary and the legal profession, that the Attorney does not have to be a lawyer any more than the Minister of Education has to be a teacher, the Minister of Health a doctor, or the Minister of Corrections a convict.

My year as Treaty Negotiations Minister was a wonderful experience which I hope has set the pace and tone for the future. I wish this and future governments well in dealing with Treaty issues and I look forward to further engagement in them.

No issue more profoundly goes to the heart of our nationhood. No Treaty settlement ever does or can fully right the historic wrongs. But it can provide the basis for acknowledging the past and providing a more secure basis on which to move forward.

The highlight of my time as Minister of Social Welfare was to rewrite a flawed Children and Young Persons Bill and to produce the 1989 Act which has stood the test of time in its basics and will continue to do so providing it is properly resourced.

Being acting Prime Minister on many occasions had its moments of drama as well as opportunities for pratfalls. My best was to refer on radio to the military leader of Fiji as “ Barmy Mariner”.

Any long political career will also have failures and low points and mine has been no exception. The failure to stop the philistine obscenity of the Clyde high dam, the lack of a consensus around the foreshore and seabed issue, the difficulty of getting a simple approach to the problem of leaky homes, and the failure to get the majority of the Press Gallery to understand fiscal policy were just four of many.

At a deeper level it is sad to see our continued national insecurity and self-doubt even before the economic crisis hit home. Anyone who visits Australia frequently will know how different the underlying mood is there, especially among the business community. An Aussie believes a little ripper is something good. We are just as likely to fear it might be the son of Jack, let in by mistake by Immigration.

We need to remind ourselves that over the last fifty years we have maintained a first world quality of life despite an international trading system massively biased against what we do best. That is a major achievement.

The ever-increasing trend towards a purely punitive approach to the problem of crime is a self-defeating journey that we continue to travel ignoring the fact it leads nowhere. On the other hand, the increasing litigiousness associated with so much of our lives must sooner or later prompt a radical rethink of our legal system. Probably the two issues are linked.

And there have been personal low points when I have turned to family, friends in the caucus, and others for help and received it.

But today I want to emphasise the many good things that I have been part of. Apart from the issues already mentioned, the end of the right to rape one’s wife, the end of the attempt to prevent gay people being themselves, the end of corporal punishment in schools, the greater openness about domestic violence and mental health issues, the increasing diversity, richness, and tolerance of our society are all to be celebrated.

New Zealand is, in fact, far less of a nanny state than it was in 1981 in terms of both social and economic freedoms. It takes a peculiarly warped sense of values to equate using an obsolete, inefficient light bulb to the right to be who you are.

Mr Speaker, I have so many people to thank that I dare not start a comprehensive list for fear of missing somebody out. So I would just wish to mention in particular two people: my friend and leader, Helen Clark, and my wife Anne. I have gone one better than the old saying about successful men: there’s been one good woman behind me but also another in front.

I leave now with a profound sense of gratitude at the chance to serve; a belief that my staunchly Labour grandfather would have been proud of me; and the hope that my grandchildren will be.

I wish you all well, especially my Labour colleagues who have been so loyal and so patient.

Politics is at times a rough and bruising business. I apologise to all those I unfairly or unnecessarily have been harsh to. And that also applies to those who are not in the Labour Party. Sometimes a quick wit and a quick tongue can move too fast.

To those in government – good luck but remember that some day the political wheel will turn again. And a genuine thank you for the NZPost appointment. When I attacked National last year for swallowing so many dead rats little did I think that some might see me as one of them!

To my Labour friends – good luck. Look forward to the day the political wheel will turn again – and make sure you give it a damn good shove in the meantime.

To the Greens – good luck. But loosen up a bit; saving the planet needs to sound less like punishment for our sins if it is going to succeed.

To all of you remember one thing – your job is to serve the people, not yourself. If you ever start to feel a sense of entitlement about being here look around these walls at the names there and understand what true sacrifice and service means.

So Mr Speaker, it’s already been goodbye from her and now it’s goodbye from me.

Kia u, Kia mäia, Kia manawanui.
E konei ra.