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.