Sir Cullen: Take the Gold Watch and Go

A small tale about how a campaign to save a post shop in an elite suburb revealed Sir Dr Michael Cullen's arrogant and destructive neo-liberal core

Sir Michael Cullen seems the plumpest sacred cow in the New Zealand Labour Party just at the moment. Today he will apparently be deeply involved in negotiations towards a governing coalition arrangement between New Zealand First and Labour. Cullen is celebrated for his stewardship of the economy as the Finance Minister of Helen Clark's Fifth Labour Government. He is said to be the chief mentor of Labour's proposed new Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. His return to active party involvement was much heralded at a special one-day conference held in July of 2016.

I was pleased Sir Cullen was in attendance that day, not because I wished to join the queue for a selfie or to thank him for his past service and achievements, but rather because I wished to confront him about his leadership as Chair of the Board of New Zealand Post.

As background, earlier that year, with the help and support of most of the active members of the Tāmaki Labour Electorate Committee, I'd launched a campaign to attempt to prevent the loss of the 104-year-old St Heliers Post Shop (and Kiwibank). This campaign brought us deep into Tāmaki's blue heart: our ground zero was the public space outside the St Heliers Library, the heart of St Heliers' charming village. There we collected the bulk of an eventual 2200 signatures on a paper petition opposing the closure. We collected 500 signatures in our first weekend alone, so I think it is fair to say that most residents supported this cause and had no quarrel with the Labour Party's involvement.

Residents queue to sign the Save Our St Heliers Post Shop petition at its January 23, 2016 debut

In fact, our local MP, the illustrious back-bencher Simon O'Connor, had written a letter to the Post CEO as late as September 2015 requesting reconsideration of the proposed closure, but after then must have received marching orders from his National overlords. By January he was doing PR heavy-lifting for Post, announcing via a post in Neighbourly the "good news" that the community wouldn't lose services because the stationary shop a few doors down would be providing (what has turned out to be only some of) them in lieu. Truly I had stepped into a leadership void on this matter, because entities like the St Heliers Business Association, the St Heliers/Glendowie Residents Association, and the Ōrākei Local Board were strangely mute. As we revved into action, two of these bodies actively resisted appeals to provide any backing or support whatsoever to our popular cause.

In the case of the residents association and all but one member of the local board, the resistance seemed to be directly correlated with the campaign's and my personal connection to Labour. I was personally taunted by a few people who harboured the mistaken view that I, a mere local Labour leader, could resolve the issue with a simple phone call to Michael Cullen.

The reality was that our dealings with all levels of NZ Post bureaucracy were met with stonewalling and arrogance. We started with Holden Hohaia, Post's then-Government and Community Relations Manager. Actually, he started with us, getting in touch with our sponsoring MP (Phil Twyford) within 48 hours of our Facebook group launch. Hohaia was much aggrieved that I'd categorised the transfer of the shop's "essential, walk-in services to a franchise business" as an "untested and risky strategy." Hohaia was to be the only New Zealand Post official to engage with our group in any meaningful way.

Within a block of Tāmaki Drive, fronting onto St Heliers Bay Road, the boarded-up remnant of one of St Heliers Village's two community hubs as it remained for more than a year following the post shop closure

Many residents told us they'd felt shut out of the decision process. The interval between the first announcement of the possible closure and the time the Take Note franchise was strenuously encouraged to pick up the services was so large that many of us had been lulled into complacency. It was hard to believe such a busy post shop wasn't economically viable, as Post was claiming. Although figures extracted under OIA revealed a gradual decline in patronage over the previous five years, by our calculations, even at its most recent low point, there would still have been nearly 97 customers entering the shop on average per hour.

Post refused to provide us with further details or calculations to back up their claim of non-viability, a claim which might not have been a hard sell in such a blue neighbourhood. To date the Ombudsman hasn't responded to our request to extract this information. Post refused to front up and explain their rationale to a well-attended community forum we arranged. They refused to allow me to present the petition in person, in dignity, to them in Wellington. So I can only speculate, but not state with metaphysical certitude, that the true cause of the St Heliers Post Shop's declining viability lay in an unpublicised asset sale which occurred shortly after National came into power. That sale saw Post go from being landlord to tenant in a bespoke building in St Heliers Village that has housed the same upstairs tenant, the Gellert Ivanson law firm, for over 15 years. I would categorise this sale as a bad business decision, and perhaps his willingness to acquiesce to such sales explains why the National Party was pleased to appoint Cullen to the board as deputy chair, elevating him to chair following the departure of Jim Bolger.

Back then, Cullen said, "The time has come for me to move on so as to make sure the space is available for my colleagues in the Labour Party to move forward," but clearly this is no longer his mantra.

I had tried to thoughtfully and respectfully engage Cullen and indeed the entire boards of both Post and Kiwibank well prior to the July Labour conference and indeed the scheduled June 23 closure. On March 1, I sent all of them, return receipt requested, a letter and 35 pages of attachments making the case that the decision to close our post shop represented a dereliction of Post's duty of care to our community. Four weeks later I was sent, via email, a dismissive and defensive letter from Post CEO Brian Roche, clearly intended to hose down the feisty lady from St Heliers.

Hence my long-deferred exchange with Cullen at the Labour Party conference evidently got a bit "intense", according to the observer who stood at my left side. Anahila Kanongata'a-Suisuiki captured our conversation in the lead photo for this piece.

The following Monday I categorised our encounter thus:

So this weekend I attended the Labour Party special conference in Wellington, where Michael Cullen, Chair of the Board of NZ Post, was also a participant. I took the opportunity to challenge him about presiding over a regime of assets sales and privatisations.

He disputed that they are privatising the service, since NZ Post still "gets the money". I mentioned that selling the building back in 2009 was a bad decision. I asked what recourse our community would have if Take Note decides it doesn't wish to continue providing Kiwibank services, if our village suffers and withers. He maintains that we'll all soon be doing our banking online anyway and that it is likely the big four won't even have branches in St Heliers in 10 years' time. He went on at length about the decline of snail mail; I parried that surely this was a change they could have seen coming and prepared for better, he disputed that. I told him I felt our community was disrespected and that NZ Post didn't engage with us. He disagreed. He said these changes are rolling out nationwide and that it's the wealthy communities that complain, that he would rather spend resources providing housing and health services. I said that people DO consider that post shops also provide essential services.

I was not impressed with his implication that I wouldn't prioritise housing and health over post shops because I live in a well-off area.

Moreover, I resent the assumption of scarcity that his thinking seems based on, as if we couldn't possibly muster the resources to provide housing, health care AND post shops. Surely we could if we had a fairer taxation system, went after multi-nationals, etc.

To finish that list from over a year ago, I would add a return to the principles of Keynesian economics, which stipulate that investment by the state and the state alone in the health, education, better living standards, and mobility of its citizens, even if doing so incurs debt in the short term, pays off downstream via that population's increased productivity and lessening need for ambulances at the bottom of cliffs.

So today I add my voice to what I desperately hope is a growing chorus of Labour party members, former leaders, and MPs who desperately wish the generational change of leadership promised by Jacinda Ardern because our neediest citizens desperately require our help and can wait no longer. Let us use New Zealand First as cover for shredding the foolish constraints of the Budget Responsibility Rules and let us invest whatever is needed to make our public housing and health, education, and transportation systems (and maybe even a community post shop or two) Savagely world-class and worthy of deep patriotic pride once again.

Savage generational change and vision OR same old boy neoliberal care-taking? So we wait.


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.