Friday, May 1, 2009

Michael Cullen: Great finance minister or greatest finance minister?

With Michael Cullen losing the election and now leaving Parliament, the Herald can afford to take its foot off his throat for once. A relatively fawning article by Claire Trevett accompanied his valedictory speech but, even better, an opinion piece by one Jason Knauf put forward a rather revisionist account for his legacy.
[...] I believe it is a hard ask to point to another Western social democrat of his generation who has left a larger imprint on their domestic policy landscape.
And so on. On one level, it's a nice change from the demonic portrayal that accompanied the man in the mainstream media during his tenure as minister, but its view of Cullen as a cerebral dreamboat grates a bit as it continues. So thank goodness that today we have a corrective. Paul Moon, a "professor of history" at the University of Auckland University of Technology University (UAUTU) "questions a glowing assessment of the former finance minister."

One would hope that Michael Cullen's former speech-writer, Jason Knauf, sticks with his work in PR, for which he seems to have some modest talent, and never crosses the divide into serious history.

His unblushingly hagiographical ode in the Herald to the former Labour finance minister craves a corrective - however brief.

So what insights do we receive from the off-white tower on the other side of Wellesley St? Firstly, he gives a warning about learning from history:
It is true that Helen Clark's finance minister presided over one of the longest periods of sustained economic growth in the country's recent history but he deserves credit for this to the same extent that medieval feudal lords deserved credit for good harvests.

It was largely a set of circumstances well beyond Cullen's control that was responsible for New Zealand's decade of prosperity.
This is a good point, albeit one not to be expected from an academic historian - i.e. someone whose entire profession relies on committing the same fallacy. Having established that we should not make post-hoc rationalisations to try and explain historical events, he goes on to do just that.
However, what the finance minister did achieve was to increase the number of New Zealanders who became beneficiaries - possibly at the highest rate at any time since World War II. And instead of allowing the economy to flourish to its fullest extent, he choked it with unnecessarily high taxes.
So he's not responsible for the good stuff, but he is responsible for the bad stuff. Oh well. From there, Dr Moon takes off his historian hat and puts on his right-wing "Your Views" hat.
[...] Much of the additional revenue that Cullen exacted from New Zealanders was swallowed up and lost in the largesse of an already bloated civil service and on supporting the new categories of beneficiaries he introduced.

[...] That stationary position was due to his unyielding adherence to the ideology of the left - in particular, the sort of sentimental socialism which was joined at the hip with the type Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser would have identified with.

[...] Cullen's intellect has never been in question and he had an impressive and sometimes even entertaining array of put-downs. He and Clark were the powerful left and right jab (or should that be left and more left) of Labour's parliamentary party.
Ha, wait, is this guy a professor at AUTU or a visitor for the comedy festival? Anyway, not the greatest opinion piece in history (geddit?), but hardly the worst either. I guess my point is, after nine years of relentlessly negative coverage of Cullen from the Herald, surely the first piece, Mr Knauf's, was the corrective, rather than the Dr Moon's.


  1. You got a complimentary mention in the Listener letters page Jamesian! World domination is finally within your reach, no need to brush up the Russian to achieve it either :)

  2. Cullen was a poisonous, spiteful little toad of a man.

  3. I was thinking the same thing about Paul Moon - geez talk about making a mockery of himself. I could have got more intelligent insight from a kiwiblog comments thread than that dribble he spouted.

    If that was a stage 1 history essay I think it'd be a fail.

  4. Uh-oh Mr. James, that ubiquitous standard bearer of the right, Anonymous of Your Views (AoYV), has found you.

    Getting AoYV feeling sufficiently angry and threatened as to post redounds to your great credit sir.

  5. Paul Moon isn't a historian, he's a punchline.

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