ACT brand has been irredeemably damaged

RICHARD LONG
Last updated 05:00 07/08/2012

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Richard Long

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OPINION: Former ACT president Catherine Isaacs took the political gold at the weekend for making a sensible, coherent case for charter schools. But, alas, it is all too late to save her party.

Most would acknowledge that ACT, as a political force, is destined for the knacker's yard. Not just because of Epsom MP John Banks' inexcusable memory lapses over campaign donations in an earlier life, but for a catalogue of political bungling and incompetence going all the way back to Rodney Hide's campaign to drive out Richard Prebble, the best leader the party ever had.

It does not matter that the idea behind ACT, as a free-market ginger group, is needed just as much as it ever was. The mere mention of the party now brings groans and head-shaking.

The Nats dare not hand over Epsom again to John Banks or they will face an almighty party revolt. If he insists on standing next time, the Nats will have to contest the seat in earnest for electorate as well as party votes.

Some in ACT fondly imagine that "Banksie" could be persuaded to stand down so a highly rated ACT newcomer could replace him and lay the foundations for a true Liberal party. Again, too late. The brand has been irredeemably damaged. It's time for burial.

Charter schools, an ACT initiative, will live on, at least through a trial period, in spite of the vitriol that is being poured on the proposal from the teacher unions and the Left. The experiment, as the Left sees it, is variously aimed at destroying the state school system, breaking teacher unions, making evil capitalists rich and deliberately providing sub-grade education from sub-standard teachers.

The facts don't seem to match this alarming rhetoric. As Ms Isaacs explains it, the project is aimed at the 30 per cent of pupils who are failing in our current education system, a statistic which is desperately concerning to the communities and families affected. Interest in charter schools was coming from community organisations, iwi, Pasifika groups and churches.

As for claims that the idea had failed in America, Ms Isaacs points out there are 42 charter school models in the US alone, as well as others in Britain, Sweden and elsewhere. The best aspects had been incorporated into plans for the Kiwi model.

Waipareira Trust head and former Labour MP John Tamihere, appearing with Ms Isaacs on TV One's weekend current affairs discussion, said the education system was failing Maori pupils in particular.

Something had to be done to stop "the big brown wave" of failing kids emerging from our schools and it was better to spend money on charter schools than new jails, he suggested.

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In this Mr Tamihere is on the same wavelength as Finance Minister Bill English, who recently described prisons as a moral and fiscal failure.

Labour and the Greens are adamantly opposed, maintaining charter schools will undermine the state system and teaching standards. The suspicion is that both parties are in thrall to the teacher unions and dare not agree to try the experiment.

Prime Minister John Key, looking at the social, employment and criminal consequences of education failures, is prepared to give charter schools a trial, while adding that if they do not meet standards they will be shut down.

This is another example, like the Whanau Ora initiative, of Mr Key being prepared to take a gamble if it stands a chance of assisting the desperately needy. There will always be faults with Whanau Ora, and inevitably NZ First leader Winston Peters will expose them, but the project may also succeed in many ways.

Mr Peters would benefit to some extent from the annihilation of ACT, but maintains he will not coalesce with anyone. Accordingly the Nats need to steer the personable Conservative Party leader Colin Craig towards a safe seat somewhere, perhaps into the arms of the church-attending burghers of Auckland's North Shore.

A religious Right party may put the wind up some voters, but the alternative next time round will be a Labour-Greens-Hone Harawira coalition.

- The Dominion Post

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