Former deputy PM Sir Michael Cullen dies after cancer battle

Source: 1News

Sir Michael Cullen has died after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. 

The former Labour deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister was the man behind KiwiSaver, the "Cullen" NZ Superannuation Fund and Working for Families. 

He died on Thursday night in Whakātane. He was 76.

A private family funeral service will take place as soon as that can occur, the Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard said.

There will also be a public Memorial Service, to be held in Tāneatua, in due course.

Sir Michael is survived by his wife Anne Collins, their four children and eight grandchildren.

He had announced in March 2020 that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern paid tribute. “Sir Michael 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. 

“He fought for social justice at every turn, understanding the need for balance and pragmatism at times, but always focused on the big picture and the long-term. 

“He was a great friend to me and to many of the Cabinet and Labour Caucus. We will miss him terribly, and we are sending all our love to Anne and his family. We are devastated, but know that our grief is only a fraction of that which they will feel at the loss of a husband and father."

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson also gave his reaction. “His contribution to New Zealand’s long-term economic prosperity and stability has been enormous," Robertson said.

"As the architect of KiwiSaver, the New Zealand Super Fund and Working For Families he has left behind an economically more secure country."

Political career

Sir Michael was born in 1945, first heading into Parliament in 1981 for the seat of St Kilda in Dunedin. 

He held the Deputy Prime Minister post under Helen Clark from 2002 to 2008 and was Finance Minister from 1999, until Labour lost the 2008 election to National's Sir John Key. 

During that time, KiwiSaver was launched.

In his recent interview with Q+A with Jack Tame, Sir Michael described the scheme as an "evolving thing in my mind". 

"The KiwiSaver is designed as a simple, low-cost scheme to improve the long-term savings habits of New Zealanders," he said.

He said he did not want a compulsory privately funded superannuation scheme, and thought, "what is the alternative that is short of that, but may get a very large number of people into saving for their retirement?"

"We may see a generation of people when they retire with a reasonably generous lump sum from Kiwisaver, that may be when they buy a house."

Sir Michael also led the tax working group in 2019,  recommending a comprehensive capital gains tax , changes to the bottom tax rate and reductions on KiwiSaver tax for lower earners.

During the June Q+A interview, Sir Michael told Tame he hoped he would live long enough to see the End of Life Choice Act  come into force  on November 7 this year.

"I'm a bit scared of the process of dying," he said. 

"It's the process of dying, not the thought of. There won't be me sitting here looking out at the dunes and looking across at (his wife) Anne and thinking how nice life can be.

"So, I sort of hope that I will get to the stage of surviving long enough that the somewhat-inadequate law that David Seymour managed to get through will be in force, so that if need be, I can ask one of my doctors for a nice little pill which I can keep by my side," Sir Michael said.  

"And if it gets too much, instead of just pushing madly at the morphine button, I can kiss Anne and take it."

In March 2020, Sir Michael  first announced he was battling Stage 4 small cell lung cancer , with multiple secondary cancers in his liver. 

He resigned from his role as the Chair of the Bay of Plenty District Health Board and as a member of the Lakes District Health Board.