Sir Michael Cullen
Official portrait of Cullen, 2008
16th Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
15 August 2002 – 19 November 2008
Prime MinisterHelen Clark
Preceded byJim Anderton
Succeeded byBill English
40th Minister of Finance
In office
10 December 1999 – 19 November 2008
Prime MinisterHelen Clark
Preceded byBill Birch
Succeeded byBill English
26th Minister of Revenue
In office
10 December 1999 – 17 October 2005
Prime MinisterHelen Clark
Preceded byBill Birch
Succeeded byPeter Dunne
4th Treasurer of New Zealand
In office
10 December 1999 – 15 August 2002
Prime MinisterHelen Clark
Preceded byBill English
Succeeded byPosition Abolished
13th Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
In office
11 June 1996 – 11 November 2008
LeaderHelen Clark
Preceded byDavid Caygill
Succeeded byAnnette King
18th Minister for Social Welfare
In office
24 August 1987 – 2 November 1990
Prime MinisterDavid Lange
Geoffrey Palmer
Mike Moore
Preceded byAnn Hercus
Succeeded byJenny Shipley
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Labour party list
In office
27 November 1999 – 30 April 2009
Succeeded byDamien O'Connor[n 1]
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for St Kilda
Dunedin South (1996–1999)
In office
28 November 1981 – 27 November 1999
Preceded byBill Fraser
Succeeded byDavid Benson-Pope
Personal details
Born(1945-02-05)5 February 1945
London, England
Died19 August 2021(2021-08-19) (aged 76)
Whakatāne, New Zealand
Political partyLabour
Rowena Joy Knight
(m. 1967; div. 1989)
(m. 1989)
Academic background
Alma materUniversity of Canterbury (BA & MA)
University of Edinburgh (PhD)
ThesisSocial statistics in Britain 1830–852 (1971)
Academic work
InstitutionsUniversity of Otago

Sir Michael John Cullen KNZM (5 February 1945 – 19 August 2021) was a New Zealand politician. He served as the 16th deputy prime minister of New Zealand, also as the minister of Finance, minister of Tertiary Education, and attorney-general. He was the deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1996 until November 2008, when he resigned following a defeat in the general election. He resigned from Parliament in April 2009, to become the deputy chairman of New Zealand Post from 1 November 2009[1] and chairman from 1 November 2010 until leaving the role in 2016. On 6 March 2020 he announced that he had resigned from the Lakes and Bay of Plenty district health boards, respectively. At the same time he also announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 small-cell lung cancer, which had also spread to his liver.[2]

Early life and education

Cullen was born in Enfield in north London on 5 February 1945,[3] the son of Ivy May Cullen (née Taylor) and John Joseph Thomas Cullen.[4] His father was a spectacle frame maker and his mother was a secretary.[5]

He attended West Green and later North Harringay schools (both in Harringay) the latter of which was close to his maternal grandparents house. When his paternal grandmother died in 1953 his family received a modest inheritance and considered moving to a better house elsewhere in London before instead deciding to move to New Zealand.[6]

The family emigrated from Tottenham to New Zealand in 1955, where friends gave him the nick-name "Pom", and Cullen attended secondary school on a scholarship at Christ's College in Christchurch. He went on to study history at the University of Canterbury, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965, and a Master of Arts in 1968.[4] His masters thesis was titled Poverty in London, 1885-95.[7]

Receiving a Commonwealth Scholarship he then gained a PhD in social and economic history from the University of Edinburgh.[8] He was the first person in his family to attend university.[5] From 1971 to 1981 he was a lecturer at the University of Otago, with a term as a visiting fellow at the Australian National University from 1975 to 1976.[9] One of his students was future MP Michael Laws, whom he called a "very bright student, but you knew there was something not quite right, even then."[5]

Whilst Cullen was researching his thesis on poverty in the late 19th century in London he discovered that the street in which his maternal grandparents grew up was famed for semi-criminal activities. They proceeded to become "working class respectables" and then his father became a semi-skilled tradesman.[5]

Cullen became a naturalised New Zealand citizen in 1975.[3]

Member of Parliament

New Zealand Parliament
Years Term Electorate List Party
1981–1984 40th St Kilda Labour
1984–1987 41st St Kilda Labour
1987–1990 42nd St Kilda Labour
1990–1993 43rd St Kilda Labour
1993–1996 44th St Kilda Labour
1996–1999 45th Dunedin South 2 Labour
1999–2002 46th List 2 Labour
2002–2005 47th List 2 Labour
2005–2008 48th List 2 Labour
2008–2009 49th List 2 Labour

Cullen joined the Labour Party in 1974, and served on the party's Executive and Council between 1976 and 1981. At the 1981 general election he was elected MP for the Dunedin electorate of St Kilda.[10] In 1983 he was appointed Labour's spokesperson for the environment.[11] In his first several years in parliament he had deliberately avoided his previous career focuses (of welfare and finance) to avoid being "pigeonholed" in those areas.[12]

Fourth Labour Government

Main article: Fourth Labour Government of New Zealand

When Labour entered government in 1984, Cullen became Senior Whip. Due to his knowledge of economics, Cullen became increasingly involved in the disputes surrounding the Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, who supported the liberalisation of trade and the sale of state assets plus deep tax cuts. These goals, which were against traditional Labour policies, angered both party members and the public. When the Prime Minister, David Lange, attempted to limit the influence Douglas had on the government's direction, Cullen became involved on Lange's side. After Labour's re-election in 1987, Cullen was made Associate Minister of Finance (an attempt by Lange to provide an anti-reform counterbalance to the radical Douglas) and Minister of Social Welfare.[13] There were two other associate finance ministers (David Butcher and Peter Neilson) both of whom were on side with Douglas' reforms so Cullen's ability to temper financial policies were minimal. Of the three he was the more senior and deputised for Douglas when he was unable to attend parliamentary sessions.[14]

He implemented the Puao-te-Ata-tu report which reorganised the administration of welfare provisions in relation to Māori and passed the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act.[15] Soon after Cullen had been elevated to Cabinet, his father died following a long and painful illness, his marriage ended, and his dog died prompting him to ponder resigning; "I seriously considered quitting from Cabinet, but the least I could do was stay there for Helen [Clark] and David [Lange] and make sure we didn't lose social policy to the Rogernomes who were driving so much of the policy."[5]

Eventually, Douglas was forced to resign, but a month later the political controversies around the dispute prompted the resignation of Lange himself. Douglas was succeeded as Finance Minister by David Caygill, one of his allies (albeit a considerably less radical one). Cullen was made Associate Minister of Health, in an attempt reduce the effect of reforms on that sector.[16]

In 1989 he married fellow Labour MP Anne Collins.[5]


When Labour lost the 1990 election – attributed to public anger at Douglas' reforms, and disarray within the Labour Party – Cullen returned to being Labour's spokesperson on social welfare.[17] The following year he replaced David Caygill as Shadow Minister of Finance, Cullen being seen as more fiscally moderate to help blunt the growth of the newly formed Alliance party (which was made up largely of Labour dissidents).[18] After Labour's narrow defeat at the 1993 election, Helen Clark won the leadership of the party. At the same time Cullen ran to replace her as deputy leader, but was defeated by Caygill by the narrow margin of 23 votes to 21.[19]

Before Labour's position in the polls improved, Cullen was also involved in an attempt to oust Clark as party leader, which was not successful. Soon after, when Caygill decided to retire from politics in 1996, Cullen took the deputy leader's post unopposed as well.[20] Cullen has claimed to be happy with his position as second, saying that in terms of personality, he is "a number two sort of person". Many commentators agree, believing that Cullen's strength lies more in administration than leadership.[5]

On 26 August 1999, Cullen was named by the Speaker Doug Kidd for saying that the National Member Max Bradford had lied, and that he was a "stooge" of the Employers Federation.[21]

Fifth Labour Government

Main article: Fifth Labour Government of New Zealand

Cullen in 2007

Prior to the 1999 New Zealand general election, Cullen and his family moved to Napier, prompting him to stand down as Labour's candidate in his Dunedin South electorate at the upcoming election as it would have been to difficult to have a family base in Napier, while also being in Dunedin for electorate business and Wellington for Parliamentary business. After Labour MP Geoff Braybrooke signaled his intention to retire in 1999, Cullen expressed interest in running for Braybrooke's Napier electorate seat, although after Braybrooke reversed his decision Cullen decided to contest the 1999 election as a list only candidate. As Deputy leader Cullen was guaranteed the number 2 placing on Labour's list and Labour's electoral victory in 1999 resulted in Cullen easily being returned to Parliament as a List MP and becoming Minister of Finance.

As Minister of Finance, Cullen delivered nine consecutive budget surpluses, the longest unbroken run by any finance minister since the 1940s.[22] After the government's defeat in 2008, his successor Bill English praised the Labour government, telling reporters that New Zealand was starting from a “reasonable position” due to Cullen's budgets “saving up for” a rainy day fund in dealing with the global financial crisis.[22]

After the 2002 election, the electoral support for Labour's junior coalition partner (the Progressive Party) was not sufficient to justify its leader holding the Deputy Prime Minister position, resulting in Michael Cullen replacing Jim Anderton as Deputy Prime Minister.[23]

In 2005 Helen Clark appointed Cullen to the post of Attorney-General following the election of Margaret Wilson as Speaker of the House. His appointment became controversial because of his non-legal background (only one other non-lawyer had previously held the post) and because of his previous criticisms of the judiciary, including of the Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias.[24][25] His term in the position ended following the 2005 general election. However, with the resignation of David Parker in March 2006, Cullen took over the position again.[26]

He had a reputation as one of the Labour Party's best parliamentary debaters, and is known for his sometimes "acerbic" sense of humour.[27]

Budget 2006

Main article: 2006 New Zealand budget

Cullen presented his seventh budget in 2006. Cullen's guiding principle was, he stated, "The fool who spends on the upturn will find himself broke on the downturn".[28]

Budget 2007

Main article: 2007 New Zealand budget

Labour's eighth budget in 2007 reduced company tax from 33% to 30%[29] and introduced a 15% research and development tax credit.[29] It also made a number of changes to the KiwiSaver scheme.[30]

Budget 2008

Main article: 2008 New Zealand budget

Cullen delivering the 2008 budget press conference

The New Zealand economy entered recession in December 2007.[31] Cullen's final budget was delivered in this context in May 2008; it reduced income tax on the first $9,500 earned from 15% to 12.5%,[32] and the company tax rate from 30% to 29%.[32]

Resignation and retirement from politics

The day after the defeat of Labour in the 2008 general elections and Helen Clark's resignation as party leader, Cullen announced his resignation as deputy leader of the Labour Party.[33] Phil Goff was elected the new leader and Annette King succeeded him as deputy leader. Goff appointed Cullen as Shadow Leader of the House and Spokesperson for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations.[34]

When he resigned from Parliament in 2009 he was replaced as an MP from the party list by Damien O'Connor.[35]

Political views

Cullen identified as a social democrat.[36]

In 2004 Cullen declared his support for the monarchy of New Zealand, describing himself as "a sort of token monarchist in the Cabinet these days".[37] However, in 2010 he repudiated that stance, taking the view that New Zealand should move towards a republic once the Queen's reign ends.[38]

Cullen voted in favour of the third reading of the Civil Union Bill 2004, which legalised civil unions in New Zealand.[39] In 2020 he declared his support for the End of Life Choice Bill.[40]

Despite his opposition to a capital gains tax during his term as finance minister on grounds that it was "political suicide", as the head of the Tax Working Group appointed by Jacinda Ardern, he recommended one in 2019. Cullen changed his views and saw the tax as necessary to reduce inequality in New Zealand.[22] Cullen was being paid more than $1000 a day as chairman of the Tax Working Group.[41]

Post politics

After leaving parliament, Cullen held a number of public roles, including serving on the Constitutional Advisory Panel,[42] the Tax Working Group[43] and chairing the boards of New Zealand Post[44] and the Earthquake Commission.[45] He was appointed to chair the Bay of Plenty District Health Board after the 2019 local elections.[46] He also joined the board of retirement insurance business Lifetime Income.[47]

In March 2020, Cullen stood down from most of his public roles after announcing that he had been diagnosed with stage IV small-cell lung cancer.[48] His memoir, Labour Saving, was published in June 2021.[49] He died of the illness in Whakatāne on 19 August 2021, aged 76.[50]

Honours and awards

Cullen's investiture as a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2012 by the governor-general, Sir Jerry Mateparae

In 1990, Cullen was awarded the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal.[51] On 16 December 2009, Cullen received an honorary LLD from the University of Otago in recognition of "his contributions as an Otago academic and as a respected and highly influential politician".[52]

In the 2012 Queen's Birthday and Diamond Jubilee Honours, Cullen was appointed Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.[53]


  1. ^ Normally, list MPs do not have individual predecessors or successors, but Cullen resigned during a sitting parliament and therefore was succeeded by O'Connor.


  1. ^ "Cullen leaves politics for NZ Post role". The New Zealand Herald. 7 April 2009.
  2. ^ "Sir Michael Cullen announces lung cancer diagnosis". Stuff. 6 March 2020. Retrieved 19 April 2020.
  3. ^ a b "New Zealand naturalisations, 1843–1981". Operations. 2010. Retrieved 7 March 2020.
  4. ^ a b Lambert, Max, ed. (1991). Who's Who in New Zealand (12th ed.). Auckland: Reed. pp. 142–143. ISBN 0-7900-0130-6.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Bowron, Jane (16 June 1996). "Generations of gain for Cullen family". Sunday Star Times. p. C2.
  6. ^ Cullen 2021, pp. 12–13.
  7. ^ Cullen, Michael (1967). Poverty in London, 1885-95 (Masters thesis). UC Research Repository, University of Canterbury. doi:10.26021/4424. hdl:10092/12859.
  8. ^ Cullen, M. J. (1971). Social statistics in Britain 1830 – 1852 (PhD). University of Edinburgh. hdl:1842/16371.
  9. ^ "Hon Dr Michael Cullen". New Zealand Parliament. Archived from the original on 1 November 2007. Retrieved 5 December 2007.
  10. ^ Franks & McAloon 2016, pp. 196.
  11. ^ "Labour leader allocates responsibilities". The Press. 17 March 1983. p. 3.
  12. ^ Cullen 2021, p. 95.
  13. ^ Franks & McAloon 2016, pp. 219.
  14. ^ Cullen 2021, p. 94.
  15. ^ Cullen 2021, p. 96.
  16. ^ Bassett 2008, p. 411.
  17. ^ "All Labour's 29 MPs get areas of responsibility". Otago Daily Times. 28 November 1990. p. 4.
  18. ^ "Labour line-up". The New Zealand Herald. 6 December 1991. p. 5.
  19. ^ Herbert, Patricia (2 December 1993). "Clark moves to heal battle scars". The New Zealand Herald. p. 1.
  20. ^ Kirk, Jeremy (12 June 1996). "Clark secure as rebels pledge fealty; Cullen picked as Caygill quits". The Press.
  21. ^ Hansard. Vol. 579. New Zealand Parliament. 1999. p. 1077.
  22. ^ a b c "Michael Cullen: Puller of financial strings, and parliamentary comic-in-chief". Stuff. 21 August 2021. Retrieved 21 August 2021.
  23. ^ "Executive team of 28 in parliamentary lineup". Waikato Times. 15 August 2002. p. 2.
  24. ^ "Richard Worth: Cullen appointment degrades office of Attorney-General". The New Zealand Herald. 5 January 2005. ISSN 1170-0777. Retrieved 20 February 2018.
  25. ^ Noted. "Court marshal – The Listener". Noted. Retrieved 20 February 2018.
  26. ^ "Parker quits all Cabinet posts". The New Zealand Herald. 21 March 2006. Retrieved 22 June 2008.
  27. ^ "Helen Clark pays tribute to 'incredible, indispensable' Sir Michael Cullen". NewsHub. 20 August 2021. Retrieved 9 November 2021.
  28. ^ "Government announces $1.3b boost for transport". The New Zealand Herald. 18 May 2006. Retrieved 20 March 2015.
  29. ^ a b "Budget 2007 tax announcements". IRD. 17 May 2007. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  30. ^ "KiwiSaver Savers Fact Sheet Q&A" (PDF). IRD. 17 May 2007. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  31. ^ "How bad is the Current Recession? Labour Market Downturns since the 1960s". Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Archived from the original on 15 December 2014. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
  32. ^ a b "Budget 2008 – Tax Changes". 22 May 2008. Archived from the original on 25 March 2015. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  33. ^ "Cullen resigns after election defeat". The New Zealand Herald. 9 November 2008. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
  34. ^ "Labour's shadow Cabinet announced". 20 November 2008. Retrieved 21 August 2021.
  35. ^ New Zealand Parliament (5 May 2009). "List Member Vacancy". Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  36. ^ Cullen, Michael (10 December 2012). "The Political Economy of Long Term Fiscal planning from a Social Democratic Perspective" (PDF). Affording Our Future Conference. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  37. ^ Daily Hansard: Clerk of the House of Representatives. Clerk of the House of Representatives. 16 December 2004.
  38. ^ "Cullen: New Zealand should be republic". Herald on Sunday. The New Zealand Herald. 29 August 2010. Retrieved 29 August 2010.
  39. ^ "Civil Unions Act". New Zealand Parliamentary Conscience Votes Database. 2004. Archived from the original on 20 January 2019. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  40. ^ "Michael Cullen publicly backs End of Life Choice bill". RNZ. 28 August 2020. Retrieved 29 July 2021.
  41. ^ Rutherford, Hamish (14 March 2019). "Employment Minister says by charging $1000 a day, Sir Michael Cullen 'is doing us a favour'". Retrieved 15 March 2024.
  42. ^ "Constitutional Advisory Panel named". The Beehive. 5 August 2011. Retrieved 29 July 2021.
  43. ^ Pullar-Strecker, Tom (29 November 2019). "Smokers may catch a break as NZ First opposes last of 10 'automatic' tax hikes". Stuff. Retrieved 21 August 2021.
  44. ^ Trevett, Claire. "Look who's back: Sir Michael Cullen returns to duty with a warning for Grant Robertson". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 29 July 2021.
  45. ^ Young, Conan (13 November 2019). "Earthquake Commission says sorry for Canterbury earthquake claims failures". Radio New Zealand via Stuff. Retrieved 21 August 2021.
  46. ^ "Sir Michael Cullen to lead Bay of Plenty DHB". 7 December 2019. Retrieved 29 July 2021.
  47. ^ "Sir Michael Cullen joins Lifetime". Lifetime Income. 13 February 2017. Retrieved 21 August 2021.
  48. ^ "Sir Michael Cullen resigns from roles due to stage-four lung cancer". Radio New Zealand. 6 March 2020. Retrieved 7 March 2020.
  49. ^ "Points of Order: Sir Michael Cullen writes his book". Stuff. 11 June 2021. Retrieved 29 July 2021.
  50. ^ "Labour's Sir Michael Cullen dies at 76 after battle with lung cancer". The New Zealand Herald. 19 August 2021. Retrieved 20 August 2021.
  51. ^ Taylor, Alister; Coddington, Deborah (1994). Honoured by the Queen – New Zealand. Auckland: New Zealand Who's Who Aotearoa. pp. 112–113. ISBN 0-908578-34-2.
  52. ^ "Otago to confer honorary degrees on Michael Cullen, Trevor Scott". University of Otago. 9 December 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2009.
  53. ^ "The Queen's Birthday and Diamond Jubilee Honours List 2012". New Zealand Honours Lists. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Archived from the original on 4 June 2012. Retrieved 30 June 2012.

Works cited

New Zealand Parliament Preceded byBill Fraser Member of Parliament for St Kilda 1981–1996 Constituency abolished New constituency Member of Parliament for Dunedin South 1996–1999 Succeeded byDavid Benson-Pope Political offices Preceded byJim Anderton Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand 2002–2008 Succeeded byBill English Preceded byBill Birch Minister of Finance 1999–2008 Preceded byMargaret Wilson Attorney-General 2005 2006–2008 Succeeded byDavid Parker Preceded byDavid Parker Succeeded byChris Finlayson Preceded byAnn Hercus Minister for Social Welfare 1987–1990 Succeeded byJenny Shipley Party political offices Preceded byDavid Caygill Deputy Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party 1996–2008 Succeeded byAnnette King Preceded byJonathan Hunt Senior Whip of the Labour Party 1984–1987 Succeeded byMargaret Austin Honorary titles Preceded byHelen Clark Father of the House 2009 Succeeded byJim Anderton