Helen Clark pays tribute to 'incredible, indispensable' Sir Michael Cullen

"Our lives are better because he was among us," she said.
"Our lives are better because he was among us," she said. Photo credit: Getty Images

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark has paid tribute to her friend and former colleague Sir Michael Cullen, who died on Thursday night after battling lung cancer.

The former Prime Minister described Sir Michael, who served as Deputy Prime Minister in Clark's fifth Labour Government from 2002 to 2008, as an "incredible colleague".

"He was indispensable to the success of our government, a big picture thinking person, clever, throughout my time as prime minister," Clark said.

People would remember the big policies that he introduced, she said. That included the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, KiwiSaver and the purchase back of KiwiRail and Air New Zealand.

"But he had input into every policy that we did, whether it was Working For Families or interest free loans for students. He was the Minister of Finance who made these things happen.

"He was just so important to everything that we did as a government."

There were also two sides to Sir Michael she said, with the public largely seeing the public face.

"He was witty, he was clever, quick on his feet and he could be quite acerbic. But in private he was quite a shy person. He lived a very modest lifestyle, and he was committed to doing the best he could for New Zealanders.

Clark said her happiest times with Sir Michael, who retired from Parliament in 2009, were during their time in Government after the hard days of being in opposition together.

"Overwhelmingly my memories are good ones, of a very dependable colleague who could be relied on to find solutions for the most difficult and wicked problems.

"And I think he goes with us all knowing that our lives are better because he was among us."

Sir Michael is survived by his wife Anne Collins, their four children and partners, and eight grandchildren.

A private family funeral service will take place as soon as possible with a public memorial service to be held in Tāneatua at a later date.