MICHAEL CULLEN didn’t mean to call John Key a rich prick. At least, not out loud. “That was an interjection I never meant to be heard by anybody, not even those around me,” says the former deputy prime minister. “It was under voice,” he explains, mouthing and whispering the infamous words again to show how it happened.
Just like when Steve Maharey said “fuck you” to Jonathan Coleman and Ruth Dyson referred to Katherine Rich as a stupid tart. Also there was no whispering when Cullen called Key a scumbag, so I think we should be careful of rewriting history.
But Cullen was angry that day in Parliament, for family reasons. National leader Key had brought Cullen’s wife Anne Collins into the debate the previous night.
I generally agree that MPs families should be left out of politics. But there is an exception to that rule – when the family members willingly get involved in politics themselves.
I’ve looked at Hansard of that day, and the reference is merely to Anne Collins having supported Russel Fairbrother’s nomination in 2002, and Cullen signing Stuart Nash’s nomination papers in 2008. If you are actively involved in a political party, supporting various candidates, then you are in politics and it is not the same as a spouse who has no political involvement at all.
The politician finds it depressing that “everyone made a federal case” out of his blurt. He’s the father of Kiwisaver, the Cullen superannuation fund, of Working for Families and a return to egalitarianism in the age of excess, and all the media want to talk about is the “rich prick”! Cullen sighs in his blank office.
It was the quote that kept on giving. And the reason it did, was the inclusion of “rich”. If he just called him a prick it would have been forgotten. But by calling him a “rich prick” it implied being rich was a bad, nasty thing – like being a prick.
The government was sensitive to the charge that it was Nannyish, he says, but the rage over the light-bulb ban seemed “highly irrational”. The new bulbs were more efficient, less expensive and more environmentally desirable. But it didn’t think it could reverse the ban either. “When you’re a government that’s been there a long time, you keep doing u-turns and people start seeing you again as weak.”
This is one of the key mistakes third term Governments make. National did it with Punket in 1999, and Labour with various things in its third term. You convince yourself that “winning” and “not giving in” is more important than killing off an issue.
The anti-smacking bill was another strange case: even though National ended up voting for it, Labour got all the flak. Cullen says Labour could not have avoided the issue posed by green Sue Bradford’s bill. Section 59 of the Crimes Act had led to the acquittal of people who had made quite serious attacks on children. And it fitted Labour policy, so opposing the measure would make people say it had no principles.
But it was not a binary choice between the old law and Bradford’s proposal. The Borrows amendment would have stopped those acquittals but not criminalised parents who apply a light smack for correctional purposes.
Cullen still insists he could not have afforded big tax cuts in 2005 when he offered only the “chewing gum” cuts. Treasury was still forecasting disappearing surpluses.
“It’s a brave minister of finance who tells Treasury, `You’re wrong, I think we can spend it’, and then Treasury will produce numbers which will show you moving into significant deficit… I’d have been shot.”
Bullshit. Because he did exactly that in 2008. Even before the credit crisis, the tax cuts he announced were on a far far worst set of books than in 2005. The irony is tax cuts in 2005 would have been sustainable, but his 2008 tax cuts probably will not be.
The National-led government cut 70 staff from the Tertiary Education Commission. “The chances are this will lead to another blowout in low-quality education spending [such as the notorious “twilight golf” courses], which will cost far more than the bureaucrats.
These twilight golf courses occured under the TEC Labour set up. They had hundreds of staff and did nothing about them. WHen there were just 25 staff in the Ministry of Education, they had far better quality control than the montrosity created by Labour. Does Cullen really think twlight golf courses occured because there were too few TEC staff?
Cullen believes “only a tiny group of highly entrepreneurial people will make their way out of any situation, because they’ve got this enormous gift and it’s a lucky gift they’ve got”.
So sucess is all due to “luck” and a “gift”. Hard work, perseverance, education, training have nothing to do with it?
“It doesn’t matter that much how rich people get, provided they’re prepared to pay their taxes. What I always hate is when I hear the rich complaining they have to pay their taxes, that that is so unfair. I’ve always said, `Gosh, I was so pleased when I was deputy prime minister earning enough money to pay so much tax’.”
Dr Cullen has never worked in the private sector. When your income is due to your activites actually generating wealth, you do get upset as almost half of it disappears to Dr Cullen. When you have been on a state salary for 35 years or so, then of course you don’t mind paying tax.
On the PM: “[John] Key is a natural high pragmatist or low pragmatist. He wants to be prime minister, he wants to do things but he’s quite pragmatic about methods. Bill English is much harder-line.” So how come Labour painted Key as a neo-con wolf in sheep’s clothing? “I’d prefer not to go into that.”
This is quite extraordinary. Cullen basically admits that Labour’s negative campaign against Key was false, and they knew it was false, but they hoped the mud would stick. What else did Labour campaign on, knowing it was false?
On “We won, you lost, eat that!” No, he says, he never said that to National. “It’s a wonderful piece of historic myth.”
I think it was directed to business actually. Hansard for back then is not online, so hard to tell.