The rise and fall of Hekia Parata

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 10:25 11/10/2012

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OPINION: Has a promising ministerial career ever gone off the rails quite as quickly and comprehensively as that of Education Minister Hekia Parata?

It's not as if Parata had a hard act to follow.

By general consent, Parata's predecessor (Anne Tolley) was one of the weakest performers during the first term of the John Key Government.

There was a widely-held perception Tolley wouldn't (or couldn't) listen to advice or engage with the sector because she lacked the confidence to carry her arguments.

Parata was expected to change all that.

Confidence has never been an issue for her.

In fact, Parata's success was so taken for granted that some commentators were already looking further ahead, and touting her as a genuine contender to replace John Key if and when Key tired of the top job.

Clearly, a lot of things have gone wrong with that scenario.

The first catastrophe, one so big that the image of the Government itself was briefly tarnished, came in the wake of a brutal Treasury proposal to allow class sizes to increase, in order to fund teacher training.

A more experienced minister might have seen this for what it was - a piece of ideological speculation concocted by intelligent people with no brains whatsoever.

Unfortunately for Parata, she embraced the idea.

All hell quickly broke loose, as parents around the country suddenly felt that their child's schooling was possibly under threat from a few mad scientists in Treasury, with Parata as their enabler.

It was then that the second chink in her political armour became apparent.

The problem is, Parata does not appear to have a reverse gear. Graceful concessions are not her forte.

Faced with political adversity, she drives onwards in a different direction, with the new route being rationalised by whatever string of platitudes seems available at the time.

The resultant loss of credibility has become a tactical liability for her.

Suddenly gun-shy of her capacity to carry an argument in public, Parata's next education portfolio debacle, the list of possible Christchurch school closures and amalgamations, was sprung on the public without warning.

In the aftermath of another explosion of public wrath, Parata had achieved the virtually impossible.

She caused the media and prime players in the education sector to wax nostalgic for the days of Anne Tolley.

Meanwhile, Tolley's National Standards policy is proving to be another poisoned legacy for Parata.

To be fair to Parata, the comparisons with her Cabinet colleague Tony Ryall's handling of the Health portfolio are somewhat unfair, as National-led governments have rarely been willing to take on the doctors and nurses in the same way that they have regularly tried to take on the teachers.

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The current problem for National is that inside the space of six months, it has lost almost all ability to convince voters that it has a credible and consistent vision for the education of their children.

One minute, teacher training is so crucial that class sizes will need to be expanded to find the money to fund it.

The next minute, with charter schools, people are going to be let loose in classrooms to teach our most at-risk kids, with no teacher training at all.

That isn't credible. Unfortunately for the Government, neither is its current Education Minister.

- The Wellingtonian

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