Parata loses her poise under pressure

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2012
PUBLIC FACE OF BLUNDERS: Education Minister Hekia Parata.
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
PUBLIC FACE OF BLUNDERS: Education Minister Hekia Parata.

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When Hekia Parata was promoted to the education portfolio, she was pegged by some as a future leader, ruffling a few feathers among her colleagues.

All the ingredients were there - a rags to riches back story, professional success and powerful mentors, including Finance Minister Bill English and Prime Minister John Key, who saw in her an echo of his own rise to the top.

But she also had the all important X-factor - supreme self-assurance, an engaging personality and a guffawing laugh that could fill a room.

As blunders mounted one on top of the other in the education portfolio, however, Ms Parata's poise deserted her. Hard questions were met with obfuscation and, when under stress, she reached for the bureaucrat's trick of papering over the cracks with jargon.

The pressure began to tell in other, more personal, ways. Beehive insiders talk about a tense and poisonous atmosphere within her ministerial office, brought on by an increasingly demanding minister, who was out of her depth and casting around for others to blame.

She churned through several private secretaries and lost a senior adviser just two months into a two-year secondment.

Her senior private secretary - effectively her chief executive within the office - was let go in mid-December. There have been rumblings of disquiet from staff outside Ms Parata's office at the timing, just before Christmas.

But her handling of Ministry of Education chief executive Lesley Longstone's resignation raises even more serious questions about Ms Parata's judgment.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie made it clear that tensions between a minister and their chief executive were nothing new. But, as he pointedly noted, those tensions rarely become public.

In Ms Longstone's case, it appears there were efforts to save the situation - at one stage there were plans to put more experience around the new chief executive, who arrived in the job straight from Britain.

It was probably that lack of local institutional and political knowledge which meant she didn't see the class sizes debacle coming when Treasury sprung the proposal on her.

Ms Parata, meanwhile, was a new minister determined to make her mark and impose change. She backed herself to sell the controversial Budget measure to increase class sizes, but wasn't prepared for the size of the backlash.

After Mr Key was forced to step in and save the situation, the pressure grew. She was taking a hammering from the Opposition and teacher unions, and the mounting list of blunders over teacher pay roll problems and Christchurch school closures was painting a picture of incompetence. She is understood to have become increasingly hardline in her view that heads should roll.

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The likes of Cabinet hard woman Judith Collins would have fronted immediately and carried it off. But it is a sign of her colleagues' increasing lack of confidence in Ms Parata that she was instead packed off on holiday and told to lay low.

Mr Key also refused to front, suggesting he is still weighing up his options for a Cabinet reshuffle in January and does not want to get backed too far into a corner over his support for Ms Parata retaining the education portfolio.

- The Dominion Post

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