Sir Michael Cullen wasn’t scared of dying, he was scared of the process of dying.
I visited him a few weeks ago as he enjoyed a second wind, of sorts. An infection related to his cancer had caused a recent hospitalisation.
His book publicist had warned us he might not be strong enough for an interview. But Sir Michael had rallied.
He was back at his home on the beach and working up the strength to take a short stroll in the sand dunes with his wife.
I’ve always admired politicians who don’t aspire to the absolute top job. They’re more likely to be ambitious for New Zealand than predominantly ambitious for themselves.
You didn’t have to agree with his politics but I don’t think many would argue that Sir Michael wasn’t there for the right reasons. He was a policy wonk. A details man. He was impatient to affect change.
But becoming Prime Minister would have meant sacrificing important years with his family.
“I was very happy being Number Two,” he told me. “I didn’t want to lose Anne.”
Sir Michael considered himself a social democrat. He felt many of his Labour colleagues lost touch with their values in supporting the Rogernomics reforms.
As a Minister, he pursued policies through a principled, rational lens. Kiwisaver and the Superfund mean New Zealanders will directly benefit from his legacy for generations to come.
When I visited him at home, I asked Sir Michael about his role in the contentious Foreshore and Seabed legislation, for which he and Helen Clark have been bitterly criticised.
I was struck that after so many years, Cullen still argued the minutiae of the bill’s proposals. He felt his critics had been irrational. They were caught up on sentiment: Not enough detail, too much feel.
Perhaps the exchange revealed a flaw in Cullen’s politicking; explaining is losing. It may have been a quality that made him ultimately ill-suited to be leader, but an extremely effective 2ic.
Cullen left politics in 2005, but politics never left him. He read. He followed the news. He kept in close contact with his former colleagues.
He admired Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson and felt a deep loyalty to Labour, but never felt constrained by the party line.
He backed a Capital Gains Tax. He supported raising the age of superannuation. He thought Auckland’s proposed cycle bridge was a waste of time and money.
“The disadvantage of being an atheist is that if one is right about the lack of an afterlife, one will never know it," reads a line in Sir Michael’s recently published memoir.
"I’ve never seen the point of being an agnostic," he told me.
Even with a State Four diagnosis, he never strayed from deductive logic.
Sir Michael considered himself a man of evidence, not of faith.
During my visit, he spoke frankly about his illness. He told me about suffering panic attacks as his lungs filled with liquid. His father died of pneumonia. Sir Michael didn’t want to drown.
He spoke lovingly of his family, and regretted he wouldn’t have more time in their presence. But ultimately, he told me, he had accepted what comes next.
“There won’t be me sitting here, looking out at the dunes and looking across at Anne, and thinking how nice life can be,” he said.
“It will just be nothing. I won’t be there.”