Barry Soper: Cullen skilled at shifting money around


In the lead up to the 1999 election he was a lonesome figure, but a determined one, standing on the side of the road talking to no one except passing traffic.

But his message day after day was consistent: Kiwis were paying higher interest rates than their cuzzies across the ditch, even though they were dealing with the same banks. The People's Bank, the Bank of New Zealand, the last big one we owned, had been flogged off to one of the big four Aussie institutions seven years earlier.

Jim Anderton megaphoned the traffic flow until he was hoarse, telling them above the engine roar that we needed a bank of our own. Clearly he struck a chord, with that election delivering him ten MPs, double the number Winston Peters was able to muster, which put him in the box seat of forming the Government with Labour.

The next battle was to convince Labour of the need for a bank. Their Finance Minister Michael Cullen wasn't at all keen.

Listening to the Anderton monotone, which is usually delivered without a breath, has you reaching for the Mogadon. That was obviously the state Annette King found herself in, as we were reminded in Anderton's valedictory speech, when after a three-hour tirade from the Alliance leader, she told Cullen that Jim had beaten back every argument they'd put up against the bank and declared: "For God's sake, give him the bloody bank."

Cullen was forced into submission, "Oh alright then," he said and Kiwibank was born with Anderton becoming the first of its now million customers.

That was 14 years ago and the mother ship NZ Post has since become a casualty of technology, but the bank needs a cash injection to compete with the big boys.

The father of the Cullen fund, Michael, has for some time been the head of NZ Post, and therefore the bank's chairman as well, an institution he's clearly warmed to with all his personal money now being directed through it.

Cullen's always been good at shifting money around without necessarily having to spend it, so what better way to finance the bank than through his fund buying a slice of it, along with the ACC investment fund. Together they're worth $60 billion, so the $495 million they've earmarked to buy 45 per cent of Kiwibank is small change.

READ MORE: Fran O'Sullivan: NZ Post a brilliant Wellington deal

It may be something of a money go round, with the bank staying in the Government's hands, but with the investment funds doing what they should be doing more of anyway, investing in a Kiwi company.

But who would have thought the fund Cullen founded for our retirement would have, at his behest, been buying into a billion dollar bank he didn't want a bar of?

Jim Anderton can afford to have a wry smile on his face.


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