Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup – National’s super-smart step to the left

John Key has once again shown himself to be the master pragmatist with an eye for winning votes, even if it requires moving to the left sometimes. The education reforms announced yesterday are a strategic masterstroke and position his National Government incredibly smartly for this year’s election campaign, making National appear bold, fresh, and centrist. 

The new policy cleverly undercuts Labour’s growing emphasis on increasing economic inequality, while also making up ground for some very poorly received reforms and mismanagement in the education portfolio.

For the best explanation of how smart this policy is for National’s re-branding, see Vernon Small’s PM Key launches raid behind enemy lines. He labels the new policy ‘a cheeky foray into Labour's heartland’ because it deals with traditional Labour concerns and directly seeks to appease problems many Labour voters have with the current government. Here’s the key part: ‘It was the latest example of National's election year plan to trash suggestions it is inflexible, doctrinaire or plum out of new ideas.  Key to that are policies to address concerns, growing here and elsewhere in the developed world, that society is becoming more and more unequal in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.  At the same time shoring up support in the low and middle-income mortgage belt, especially among women, is crucial to National holding its roughly 45 per cent poll rating’.

Tracy Watkins also says that Key’s ‘plan will resonate not just with National's core constituency but also with Labour's’ – see: Key steal's Labour's thunder. She astutely points out, ‘That goes to the heart of the election-year theme that has been building a head of steam under Labour and the Greens that five years of National government has led to a more unequal society, a country of haves and have-nots.  Education has been National's Achilles' heel in recent times while Labour has long viewed it as a strength’.

For a dissenting view on the tactical smarts displayed in yesterday’s announcement, see Danyl Mclauchlan’s Enemy action. He thinks that the policy won’t win National any votes. But perhaps more interesting is Mclauchlan’s observation about why all political parties are currently making education-related announcements: ‘My pop-psychology explanation for this is that parents are in the process of returning to work, sending the kids back to school, resuming life-as-usual and working long hours, not seeing that much of their kids, feeling guilty about this and transmuting that into anxiety about school and teachers and ‘doing the best for their children’, and that political parties are picking up on that anxiety and preying on them like predators raiding herds of grazing animals at a water-hole’.

Praise for National’s policy

Even political journalists and broadcasters are overtly praising the new policy – see Audrey Young’s PM on to a winner with teacher rewards, Mike Hosking’s Education policy overdue, but a great start, and Rachel Smalley’s Children and education will be the winners.

Newspaper editorials have come out strongly in favour of the policy, while also making some astute observations – see the Herald’s Govt achieves merit in new schools policy and the Dominion Post’s Education proposals refreshing

For the best overall coverage of the new policy and reaction to it, see Nicholas Jones’ What lucrative new teaching roles mean for your child. And for some reactions picked up from the blogosphere, see Pete George’s Teacher views on National’s education proposals. And for cartoonists'  reactions, see my blogpost  Cartoons about National's new education policy

The varied response from the left

One of the reasons National’s policy is so clever is that it is very difficult to criticise. As the Herald rightly points out, ‘How can you be highly critical of steps to lift schools' performance that have been recommended by the OECD's leading educationalist and are backed by a large body of international research? To do so risks implying that you are unconcerned if New Zealand slides further down’ – see: Govt achieves merit in new schools policy

And so, as many commentators have pointed out, Labour’s response to the policy has been noticably muted - although David Cunliffe’s line about Key’s speech being a ‘six page apology for Hekia Parata’ was a strong soundbite, and possibly the best that could be said in the circumstances. The Greens, too, are having difficulty critiquing the policy, seemingly unsure whether to totally reject the ideas or just elements of them. Metiria Turei is leading the charge to say that National’s new policy doesn’t directly impact on inequality, which contributes to educational underachievement. 

The education sector groups have responded mostly positively. The strongest criticisms have been from the NZEI, which has said that ‘the Government might have also spent its money in areas such as special education and language development’ – see Radio NZ’s School groups welcome new leadership roles.

In the leftwing blogosphere, there was some condemnation. Analysis on The Standard denounced the policy as being ‘about corporatising education, and increasing competition within the system: a system with extra layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy’ – see: Spot the difference! Stating the nation. More sophisticated analysis arrived later in the blogpost Isolating change: the poverty of education.

For more reaction to the policy from all quarters, see my blogpost Top tweets about John Key’s state of the nation speech. It seems that much of the twittersphere was unimpressed with the policy when it was announced, but more supportive voices eventually emerged.

For the strongest leftwing critique of the policy, see Gordon Campbell’s blogpost On Govt’s plans for incentivising teachers. Also very good is Sam Durbin’s blogpost John Key’s Cynical Triangulation on Education Reform Should not be Supported by the Left. He argues that ‘This is an adept piece of triangulation by Key. Paying teachers more is not traditional National party territory, and with this policy, he is taking aim squarely at Labour’s strength – the teachers and their unions’.

In terms of strategby, another leftwing blogger, Brennan McDonald, writes ‘Well played by John Key though. Now David Cunliffe has to spend “more” on education. This means in the debate John Key can smash him with “we’re spending more but keeping the budget in line, you’re trying to bribe voters by promising something the government can’t afford”.’ – see: Spending More Money On Education.

The big debate about inequality 

Another reason that National’s new education policy is so strategically smart is that it indirectly responds to growing concerns about economic inequality, which is set to be one of the big debates of this election year. Yesterday, John Key couched his reforms in an egalitarian context, and sold the outcomes as being focused on reducing inequality. As the Dominion Post has reported, ‘Key is anxious to promote the scheme as an egalitarian attempt to help the poor. He has clearly seen that his government is vulnerable on this issue. In fact, there is mounting evidence of the social and economic costs of inequality, and the part it plays in our educational problems. So the prime minister is aiming at two birds with one stone, and he is rebranding himself at the same time’ – see: Education proposals refreshing

And of course, National is pushing its own narrative about Key himself moving from poverty to riches by way of quality education. And he’s not the only one in National – see Hamish Rutherford’s profile Sam Lotu-Iiga: From humble upbringing, a quick ascent

For more today on the issue of economic inequality and it’s growing salience in New Zealand, see Toby Manhire’s Jetsetters ponder poverty gap over mulled wine, Barry Coates’ Inequality a risk to human and economic progress, and Labour blogger Rob Salmond’s The truth about the gap between the rich and the rest.

One of the main criticisms from some left politicians and activists has been that National’s education reforms ignore the impact of economic inequality on educational achievement. National blogger David Farrar has some strong points to make in response to this in his blogpost, Educational Reaction. He says, ‘this is an announcement on education, not welfare. Turei seems to say we should do nothing to improve the education system while some families are poorer than others. How depressing. I want to see more families doing better, but there is no magic wand. Getting people out of poverty is often a generational thing as you have to confront parenting skills, welfare dependency, employment, drug and alcohol issues, and oh yeah education.  But let’s deal with the big lie. I call it a lie, because the amount of research on what influences educational outcomes is massive. There have been over 50,000 studies. Over 800 meta-analysis done involving 200 million students. Professor John Hattie has done a meta meta analysis of all these studies and identified 138 factors that influence educational outcomes. Not one factor, but 138. Greens think there is just one.  Now socio-economic status is important. It definitely is an influence. There have been 499 studies that looked at its effect. But is it the biggest influence. No. Is it second? No. Third? No. Top 10? Still no. Top 20? Still a no. It is No 32 and home environment by the way is No 31.  So the next time the Greens say the key reason for educational decline is poverty or income inequality, don’t beat around the bush. Call them a liar’.

Another leftwing blogger – and teacher – praises the new policy, and makes a plea against the inequality issues being used to criticise it, saying ‘It is true that this policy announcement ignores what goes on outside the classroom, but this is an education policy not an outside the classroom policy.  For that kind of policy there would need to be a different kind of government and I think that even with a new kind of government this policy could stand because it is an intelligent policy that has the potential for positive impacts in education’ – see: John Key vs Education.

Is the policy leftwing or rightwing, or neither? 

There is some ambiguity about the ideological nature of National’s education policy. On the one hand it has a very cooperative and statist approach, on the other, it has elite elements and seeks to incentivise in a more traditional neoliberal way. Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton has tweeted to call it ‘communism by stealth’. He’s also written a strong critique of the policy on the NBR website – see: Key’s bold step left (paywalled). Here’s the key part of Hooton’s beef with the policy: ‘Key has revealed today that National no longer trusts parental choice and competition to deliver the best for all. Instead, his interfering “panels” and “executive principals” and “expert teachers” and “lead teachers” and “change principals” are the answer. It will all obviously fail.  Still, it is brilliant politics’. Hooton generally laments the demise of the Tomorrow’s Schools framework. 

Of course, much of our education system remains very conservative. And National’s charter schools project will balance out any steps to the left involved in this policy. For the latest on charter schools, see Nicholas Jones’ Taxpayers fund charter school ads and Dylan Moran’s Charter school focused on academia

And it needs to be remembered that there are plenty of other barriers and problems with New Zealand’s school system, such as the costs involved for parents. The latest survey suggest that ‘For a child starting primary school this year, a state education is expected to cost $34,687, if they stay at school until year 13. That rises to $91,878 for a state-integrated education and $262,310 for a private education’ – see Siobhan Downes’ 'Free' education costs thousands. See also, TVNZ’s High cost of 'free' education revealed in survey

Of course yesterday’s speech by John Key wasn’t just about education, but the ‘state of the nation’. For two alternative stocktakes on New Zealand’s place in the world, see Andrew Chen’s The (Actual) State of the Nation and Karl du Fresne’s Listener feature, Our place in the world (paywalled).

Finally, the lightest angle on the John Key’s state of the nation speech yesterday was not about the Prime Minister’s performance, but that of a leading political journalist – see Stuff’s Microphone catches bathroom moment and Ben Irwin’s Gower's live loo stream.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Otago University.


Cpt747 said... Bill English are pursuing a political agenda that is secretive and frankly as Corrupt as ever...their coalition of right-of-centre hypocrites and racial determinists will continue to destroy our democratic country. We are under total control of their Tyrannical and Political ACT OF TREASON....History will Never forget..... A REVOLUTION is the only way forward...

Cpt747 said...

...absolutely...typical 'ploy' of 'ruling elite ' during the pre-election charade of lies.. the stupid low-life mainstream media follow along like a bunch of incestuousness..intellectual laziness and sheer ignorance. Party politics totally corrupts the democratic process with unelected MPs having power over decision-making and with parties claiming the necessity for trade-offs to 'excuse' routinely reneging on their pre-election did National's dishonourable abandoning of its pledge to abolish the Undemocratic and divisive Maori-only seats.....Democracy is gone from this country of New Zealand...Acts of Treason...require a REVOLUTION...

Brian said...

A word of Warning.
While I agree in essence with Cpt747 that our Parliamentary representatives have virtually abandoned the democratic process of governing.

But, and here's the "Rub" Revolution is the process of last resort.
Furthermore I would ask Cpt747 to reflect that even in the skeleton like military that we have left; Maori are a significant force in our Army, and "blood is thicker than water".

Let us be realistic, there is no point going for a Revolution if the forces against it are stronger than those for it. This is not 1776, or indeed 1792 communication alone, would in the first instance, defeat any such revolution. Well before it got off the ground let alone started!

A far better way is to use what Ireland used in the 19th century upon a certain Captain Boycott. CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
Refuse to fill in any bureaucratic forms until challenged by law to do so. ignore Government and L.G rules and regulations as much as possible, and promote non violent demonstrations and non co-operation as much as possible.

Cpt747 do you think we can rouse this stagnant, pleasure loving, apathetic, welfare dominated, and lazy population into such an action?

By the time our country realizes that its democratic freedoms have vanished, it will be far too late.
Totalitaria "The State is the Enemy" I Wishart.

Cpt747 said...

...thanks Brian...Revolution...was used in the hope that somewhere in New Zealand 'a voice ' such as yours would show up...New Zealanders of all political sides must realize that the fracturing of our society looms ,as its greatest internal threat . A Democracy has to be safeguarded within each generation or it is Lost.. as we now see it. As you suggest, alternatives in the form of 're -installing an 'Act Of Impeachment' and 'Civil Disobedience' action would be preferable to 'blood in the streets...' Wake up New Zealanders...we "Have a problem..."