Cullen bows out with flair

Most Labour MPs are drones, apt to quickly put Alf to sleep in the House.

Michael Cullen was an exception (as was Richard Prebble, both in his Labour days and as ACT’s leader).

The nuggets from his valedictory speech have already been given an airing on radio and on other blogs. But they are worth repeating:

On the Finance portfolio:

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.

On Rogernomics:

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.

On his other portfolios:

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.

On law and order:

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

On Australia and Australians:

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.

On the women in his life:

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.

On his sharp tongue:

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.

Advice 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

But for some solid meat in Cullen’s valedectory speech, take a look at this rundown on Parliament, its procedures and how they have been changed since he first became an MP.

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.

Good stuff. He’ll be missed.

2 Responses to Cullen bows out with flair

  1. bustedblonde says:

    your trial membership to the VWRC has been suspended!

  2. Alf Grumble says:

    Sorry to hear you can’t stomach bon mots from the Left. Sorrier to hear I’ve lost my trial membership of the VWRC as a consequence. My weakness is I enjoy bon mots from anybody, and would even enjoy them if they came from Greenies (although Greenies are incapable of producing them, and if they did produce them, they would want to slap a carbon tax on them). But I digress. What if I were to arrange to send Cullen down to the first meeting of the United Nations Joint Food and Agriculture / International Atomic Energy Agency project in Christchurch? And what if I were to persuade the scientists there to demonstrate on him their technique of irradiating insects to render them infertile before releasing them into the environment? Numb his nuts, in other words. Would I then be redeemed and be permitted to rejoin the club?

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