Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Rapier wit delivers final flourishes

You have to hand it to him - only Michael Cullen would use a synonym for indigestion so obscure it doesn't appear in the Pocket Oxford Dictionary.

He stood to make his farewell speech to Parliament yesterday after nearly 28 years, observing very few people got the chance to deliver what is in effect their own eulogy "or at least a progress report thereon".

Click here for the speech in full

He went on to say he was aware of the need to avoid testing the attention span of his fellow MPs while doing so.

"Most colleagues, especially the newer ones, probably have limited patience for an elderly gentleman engaging in extended verbal borborygmus."

He provides his own definition - a rumbling tummy - before embarking on his verdict of his time in Parliament since entering as MP for St Kilda in 1981.

There came his moments of pride: his part in rebuilding the Labour Party during the 1990s, his fiscal conservatism as minister of finance, Treaty settlements, his efforts to build up New Zealand's savings record through the Super Fund and KiwiSaver, and "a sharing of the fruits of growth" in Working for Families, changes to the tax structure and restoring the levels of superannuation.

But Dr Cullen also gave a critical appraisal of regrets, including the failure to stop "the philistine obscenity of the Clyde Dam", the lack of consensus on the foreshore and seabed issue, the difficulty of getting a simple response to the leaky homes issue, and "the failure to get the majority of the press gallery to understand fiscal policy".

There was some personal repentance. First of all, a subtle expression of regret for his description of the likes of John Key as "rich pricks" when he lists among his political philosophies "a hatred of poverty - not of wealth, to which, within reason, we can all aspire - but of poverty with its grinding degradation and fundamental unfairness".

The man known for his caustic retorts also extended a wider apology "to all those I unfairly or unnecessarily have been harsh to". It came with a good-natured "please note the qualifications in that sentence" added on, but the genuine intent with which the apology is meant soon followed:

"Sometimes a quick wit and a quick tongue can move too fast."

But Dr Cullen couldn't resist one more barb - and he reserved it for Sir Roger Douglas.

"[The 1980s economic reforms] 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 134kph."

The man who pulled the purse strings for the past nine years also couldn't quite resist giving his prescription for future economic wellbeing - a co-ordinated global tightening of regulation of finance markets and greater disclosure rules.

He also spoke of his passion for the parliamentary institution itself.

An expert on parliamentary proceedings and Labour's most potent weapon in the debating chamber, he said the joy of question time came from the testing of the mettle of politicians rather than the search for answers: "As I tell my colleagues, you ought to know the answer before you ask the question."

There was little chance of those colleagues becoming bored by this valedictory. But given his problem with borborygmus, it was somehow fitting that the last-ever point of order he took in the question time before delivering his valedictory was during a question about pies.

CULLENARY DELIGHTS

On being a new MP offering help to people in his former St Kilda electorate who had lost a loved one:
"One 83-year-old wrote thanking me for my offer of help but informing me she could still manage the garden herself. I suddenly had this awful vision of becoming the Lesser Spotted Mower of South Dunedin, a kind of political hire-a-hubby for thousands of widows."

On the political gamesmanship of Parliament's question time:
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 on a daily basis if he had been our Prime Minister. It would have taken many Grecians bearing many sorts of gifts to get him through the experience."

On MMP:
"We simply changed from a simple, straightforward boxing match to a tag wrestling match and sometimes people seemed to change their shorts between bells as they moved along."

On National appointing him to the NZ Post board:
"When I attacked National last year for swallowing so many dead rats, little did I think that some might see me as one of them."

On his wife Anne and Helen Clark:
"I have gone one better than the old saying about successful men: there has been one good woman behind me, but also another in front."

On the different outlooks of New Zealand and Australia:
"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 reforms of the 1980s:
"The urgent and necessary process of modernisation and reform lurched off into ideological excesses underpinned by the belief 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 an end in itself."

- NZ Herald

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