Editorial: Next time, please sack the Minister

LESLEY LONGSTONE: Former education boss.
LESLEY LONGSTONE: Former education boss.

Here's a thought for the prime minister as he contemplates the final act in Lesley Longstone's brief and disastrous tenure as head of the Ministry of Education.

The next time relations irrevocably break down between one of his ministers and a departmental head, sack the minister. It is cheaper to get rid of a minister than a chief executive.

The $425,000 paid to Ms Longstone to quietly leave the building last month was money that could have been used to keep open a Christchurch primary school, pay the salaries of half a dozen experienced teachers or even pay the education minister's own salary for two years. 

There are two schools of thought about Ms Longstone's departure.

One is that relations between her and the minister became so toxic that one of them had to go; the other is that she was paid to take the fall for the minister and the ministry's annus horribilis last year.

The actual reason is irrelevant.

At a time when government departments are being told to make do with funding levels that have barely changed for several years and public services are being squeezed, it is outrageous that almost half a million dollars of taxpayer money has been squandered to resolve a political problem.

It is unlikely that Ms Longstone can escape all blame for the breakdown in relations between her and Education Minister Hekia Parata, just as she cannot escape all responsibility for the ministry's abortive attempt to save money by increasing class sizes, the Novopay debacle and the insensitive manner in which Christchurch schools were informed of the Government's post-quake restructuring plans.

Even if she did not agree with the initiatives, she had a responsibility to ensure they were handled professionally. And, with the resources of the ministry at her disposal,  lack of familiarity with the New Zealand education sector should not have been an issue.

She had the ability to surround herself with staff who could  plug the gaps in her own knowledge. 

However, her abrupt departure just 15 months into a five-year contract is a blight on the reputations of Ms Parata, who somehow kept her job despite a history of churning through staff in her Beehive office, and State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie, who recruited Ms Longstone for the post and was unable to manage the tensions between her and the minister.

That  is not what the public expects of ministers or senior public servants. Many people experience difficulties, at times, with those they work with, those they work for and those who work for them.

Very few are able to resolve the issue by paying the other party to depart with someone else's money. Mr Rennie should have worked harder to repair relations between minister and chief executive and Mr Key should have helped him by informing Ms Parata that her job, as well as Ms Longstone's, was on the line.

Politicians and public servants should be as careful with taxpayer money as they are with their own. If Ms Parata and Mr Rennie had had to foot the bill for Ms Longstone's departure from their own salaries, she'd still be in the position.

And taxpayers would be $425,000 better off.

The Dominion Post