OPINION: After announcing the closure or merger of 19 Christchurch schools yesterday, the already unpopular Education Minister Hekia Parata is certain to plumb new depths of public antipathy.
A TVNZ/Colmar Brunton poll found almost 60 per cent of people believe Prime Minister John Key made the wrong decision in keeping Parata on in the education portfolio after his Cabinet reshuffle last month - and that survey was done before yesterday's announcement. But Key is standing by Parata, telling TVNZ that "she got some pretty bad press last year". That's an understatement.
There was an embarrassing backdown over classroom sizes, a breakdown in her relationship with Education Secretary Lesley Longstone which saw her leave the ministry, and the ongoing Novopay debacle.
Parata is clearly out of her depth in a key portfolio for the Government, and the fact she retained her ministerial warrant while Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson and Housing Minister Phil Heatley were culled surprised many pundits. It probably shouldn't have.
Key is personally invested in Parata, and showing her the door would come with a political cost to him. He elevated her to the Cabinet table from relatively obscurity and has a stake in her success.
And unlike Wilkinson and Heatley, Parata has been in the job less than 18 months after spending no time on the Opposition benches, so Key will be hoping the worst is behind her. If it's not, the ruthlessness the prime minister showed in casting two loyal ministers aside will surely visit Parata.
She has been a walking disaster zone for the Government, and any genuine potential she has as a minister will be entirely eclipsed if she doesn't have a better year in 2013.
The reaction to yesterday's school closures announcement will be Parata's first major hurdle. While she can justifiably argue that the Government has listened to community concerns and closed or merged fewer schools than originally planned, she will still be associated with images of crying kids and furious parents.
If the Government's achievements in education continue to be drowned out by the bad news and PR blunders, it won't be long before Parata joins those condemned schools on the scrapheap.
One more thing:
Students are starting to pour into town for the year, and it's great to have them back. They're a massive part of Palmerston North's identity (not to mention its economy) so we wish them all the best for their studies in 2013.
- © Fairfax NZ News