Thursday, March 16, 2006

Editorial: Cullen's spark goes missing

What has come over Michael Cullen? He has been in Parliament 24 years and in that time the country has come to know him as a bright spark on the Labour benches, an intelligent, thoughtful politician always ready with a witticism that invariably would be delivered with bubbling good cheer - almost David Lange without either the x-factor or the dark side.

Not any more. It has been the best part of a year since Dr Cullen sounded like his old self. His contributions to public debate have ceased to be clever. He offers standard, political, retorts, such as this week's comment on Conservation Minister Chris Carter's veto of the Whangamata marina ("National put that power in the Resource Management Act") and the threat to retaliate in kind to National MP Judith Collins' continuing attacks on Social Policy Minister David Benson-Pope.

When intimating this year that his much-criticised "chewing gum" changes to the tax thresholds might not now be possible, he observed, perversely and with a twist of petulance, that that might make his critics happy. He sounds tired and irritable - not occasionally, which would be understandable in his job, but constantly. If he is weary, he has every right to be. He has been the Government's leading workhorse. Every Government has one - a senior minister whose conspicuous competence, political judgment and organisational drive causes all sorts of tasks to tumble into his lap simply because the Prime Minister cannot do them all, or even most of them in any detail, and trusts no other minister to deal with them quite as well.

Sir William Birch was the workhorse in the previous Government, Sir Geoffrey Palmer in the one before that. Like them, Dr Cullen has not only held a big portfolio and co-ordinated the Government's legislative programme, but taken on major ad-hoc political tasks as need be. Dr Cullen has led the Government's response to everything from the Air New Zealand crisis to the foreshore and seabed controversy. He is, of course, leading the parliamentary defence of Mr Benson-Pope and this week, as always in Helen Clark's absence, he was Acting Prime Minister.

Six years of that workload would wear out most people. If Dr Cullen is not already contemplating retirement at the next election it would be remarkable. But this term has barely begun and Finance Minister is not a role in which anyone can ease up. Dr Cullen's greatest challenge may come in this term as the economy slows after six fairly fortunate years. He deserves a good share of the credit for that record. Though never an acolyte of the Douglas reforms, Dr Cullen has preserved their essentials. Long before he became Finance Minister he held the Labour Party to a firm monetary policy and once he took charge of the Treasury he maintained reasonably tight fiscal control.

If any single thing has sapped his good humour it was probably the expectation last year that he would relax fiscal policy with substantial tax cuts. He ought to have worked harder to dispel those expectations before the Budget. Afterwards his spirits fell as rapidly as National rose in opinion polls. He looked wan and sounded frustrated in exchanges with National's finance spokesman and rising star, John Key.

After the election the Prime Minister not only retained him in finance but gave him responsibility for tertiary education too. Plainly, she does not think he is burning out. She would be reluctant, in any case, to make a change as major as the Finance Minister, which can always unsettle a Government. And there is probably no reason for Dr Cullen to step down from that role. But he ought to lighten the rest of his load.

He might consider that this is a good time to relinquish the job of Deputy Prime Minister, not only for his own sake and his attention to the finance portfolio, but to allow the party to nominate a possible successor to Helen Clark. That could give both Dr Cullen and the entire Government a new lease of life.

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