Hekia Parata's departure not John Key's only headache
OPINION: Hekia Parata's decision to step down at the next election sent almost as many shock waves through her caucus as it did the media.
Parata has at times been a polarising and divisive figurehead for the Government's education reforms.
But after a horror start - think back to the class sizes clanger, special education and the Christchurch schools shambles - Parata's legacy is as one of Key's more effective ministers, driving through a significant change agenda.
Her name was not among those being tossed around as a potential casualty of Key's looming reshuffle.
While the Novopay debacle also happened under her watch, responsibility for that will likely be sheeted home to another minister, Craig Foss, when Key reshuffles his cabinet early next year.
And while Key has been dropping some heavy hints about installing fresh faces in his cabinet, Parata was probably not among the faces he wanted to lose. It's the likes of Housing Minister Nick Smith who are under pressure to move on, though Smith apparently has a tin ear when it comes to suggestions he hang up his boots.
Parata's departure leaves Key with some headaches as he weighs up potentially his most important Cabinet reshuffle yet.
Parata ticked two important boxes as both a high profile woman and someone with significant standing in Maoridom.
Key's cabinet has a paucity of both.
But some of the weaker performers in his cabinet have been women, while those lining up for promotion on his backbench are mostly men.
That will constrain Key's ability for wholesale change in the Cabinet, though there will be some casualties, as Key seeks to stamp a fresh face on his third term Government in a bid to win a fourth term.
It helps that there have already been some retirements - long serving MPs Maurice Williamson and Lindsay Tisch have already put their hands up - with more announcements in the wings.
The decision Key must weigh up over Christmas is whether to use the reshuffle to install a fresh face in the education portfolio, or leave Parata there to see out the term.
Parata wants to stay, and Key might be tempted to leave her there given the recent shock announcement that associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye is battling breast cancer. Kaye is the obvious replacement but may not be ready to return in the New Year.
Meanwhile, the sector is already in upheaval with a search underway to replace education secretary Peter Hughes, who now heads the State Services Commission.
Putting two new hands in such a critical portfolio in an election year would be high risk. Key's other options would be a seasoned veteran like Paula Bennett, or the wild card option of asking Finance Minister Bill English to pick it up as an extra portfolio.
English is passionate about education and has the mana to drive through significant reform should the Government decide to make it an election year centre piece.
No wonder Key is leaving all his options open for now.