While the jaw-droppingly inept back-down on class sizes is a humiliating defeat for the Education Minister, for the government it is all the more embarrassing for two reasons. First, coming as close as it did just a short week from the announcement of the policy in the budget, the fanfare of the zero budget has dimmed abruptly – tripped over by its own recklessness and providing evidence of the zero-ness of its architects. It’s extraordinary that the cabinet would sign off on it in the first place. Not to have expected the public backlash being as deep as it was shows just how out of touch this government has become. Given that John Key defended sending his own kids to private schools because they “have smaller classes...” (May 2005), it beggars belief that he would think other parents would not share the same concerns. The spin that class sizes had little to do with student success was not credibly believed by anyone other than a handful of pencil pushers in the ministry and obviously, the restricted intelligences convening around the cabinet table.
The second reason the back-track was so humbling was the sheer audaciousness with which Hekia Parata was forced to defend the policy. Something echoed by a currently overseas Key enjoying the hospitality of her Majesty’s jubilee celebrations. The U-turn was obviously a political decision with one eye on the polls, but what galls is that in announcing the reversal, Hekia Parata never once said she was ‘wrong”.
For his part, John Key said he still felt the proposed changes were right and the U-turn had only been caused by parents' negative perceptions of them. Parata went further when, during an interview with the ubiquitous Mark Sainsbury repeatedly asserted that the issue was a ‘distraction’. What she meant I suppose, was that the great unwashed, the public, were ‘distracting’ her and the government she is a part of, from what they obviously still feel is the right thing to do. And this begs a question: the essence of all leadership is to make the case for decisions being made before being implemented. So why wasn’t it? How could a Prime Minister who prides himself on being in touch be so out of it that he acceded to a policy that so obviously would divide the public? More importantly, if it’s the right thing to do, then why back down – unless, of course, the Key government is more concerned with the polls than policy? It wasn’t long ago that they derided Helen Clark’s government for doing just that as opposition? Perhaps they have grown accustomed to bigger offices and crown limousines and would do just about anything to keep them.
After only a week, Key accepted that his government had lost the public relations stoush over class sizes while still insisting there was nothing wrong with the policy. In the process he has undermined confidence in his minister who will now face an uphill battle to re-establish her credibility. Worse though, is the unravelling of trust and support that the government had built over the first term. The real point I believe, is that the public have now seen the sheer lack of backbone in a government that, in the absence of an admission that they were wrong, will sacrifice its principles for the sole purpose of trying to feed its hunger for poll success. The real question now is: will an emboldened public – fresh from its triumph over the government – now fight back over the discredited carbon taxes and the increasing obeisance to the maorification of our foreshore and seabed? In the short-term the only thing we can probably be certain of is that future policy will undergo even more scrutiny within focus groups and an increasing reliance on internal issue based polling. And we have to pay for it.
Marc Alexander, a former Member of Parliament and author, has a degree in Political Science and is a qualified Chef.
I agree with you Marc - it is the lack of commitment to principle which is the most disturbing. One shouldn't ignore the fact that it was a battle with the country's most powerful unions, but having said that the Minister was clearly unprepared. Whether that is because of arrogance or bad advice I'm not sure. Nevertheless, the budget surplus is in doubt and the argument that teaching quality is more important than class size lies in tatters.
I have several thoughts about this, Marc. First, it's a pleasure to read your blogposts. They are well-constructed, reasoned and articulately written.
Secondly, I disagree with you that this was a victory of the public over the government. The "public" was a blunt weapon manipulated and wielded by the education unions.
Thirdly, I wouldn't trust anyone in the Parliament to run the local parish cake stall. And we expect them to educate our children, manage our accident insurance and supply our power? If the current pack of semi-literate village idiots,cif whatever colour, isn't the best-ever argument for privatizing each and every aspect of every single endeavour and "service" provided by the government, I don't know what would be!
Fourthly, how is it that Hekia Parata still holds a ministerial warrant? Surely such incompetence requires a decent response?
It was not a failure to sell - it was a quality problem with the goods on sale. Peter Dunne judged the direction the wind was blowing early on. Maori Party ditto.
I believe Hekia Parata was set up by the Ministry and/or Bill English and/or Treasury. I believe she personally pulled the plug.
Even she must have realised that her defence of the policy was weasley week. You simply can't keep repeating the false logic - 20 per cent of kids are failing, therefore class sizes are too small. It just does not wash.
In contrast, Anne Tolley would have ploughed on relentlessly - look where that has got her!
You only have to ask a few teachers about their preference and outcomes of larger classes - responses would be overwhelming.
Having taught in a few rural schools where smaller class sizes are the norm, one can really get to grips with any problems students may have and have spare time to extend those that need it.
There is too much political interference in education which results in curriculum, policy and financial changes that waste time and cause unneeded delays in school continuity.
Many of those in the MOE (appropriate name!)are out of touch with requirements and day to day issues in schools.
Thank goodness someone saw the light! Next issue is League Tables!
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