What drives Hekia Parata?

Last updated 10:09 06/10/2012
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HONOURED: Hekia Parata meets with Philip Matthews at The Press.

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How did Hekia Parata go from future prime minister material to public enemy No 1? PHILIP MATTHEWS meets the divisive Minister of Education.

Unlike John Key, Hekia Parata can remember where she was and what side she was on in 1981. Back then, she was Trish Parata. Wikipedia records that Patricia Hekia Parata, to use her full name, was 22 that year. In 1980, she was a Waikato University arts student. She ran for president of the Waikato student union - and won.

Given that universities were hotbeds of anti-Springbok Tour activism, it seems fair to ask Parata which side she was on.

"I was adamantly opposed," she says. "I ran for president against two other guys. It was a really difficult campaign and part of mine was that I opposed the Springbok Tour. I was an active participant in the protests."

Yes, she was in Hamilton when the first test was famously stopped by protesters who invaded the pitch. She didn't get onto the field.

"I was slammed up against the concrete pillar of the fence that we had cut through to get in," she says. "In hindsight, I was glad. I was actually in plaster up to my hip. I had just had surgery on my leg from playing competitive netball and I wouldn't have been able to run. Which you needed to be able to do.

"That was a huge time of ferment. My flatmate got onto the field and was arrested."

Parata's account of this stirring history is the brightest moment in a 30-minute interview. Thirty-one years after those scenes in Hamilton, Parata is the divisive Minister of Education in a National Government and every day seems to bring worse news. She appears to have gone from future prime minister material to public enemy No 1.

Back in 2010, Press columnist Tahu Potiki picked Parata as a rising star. He noted her family connections, including her marriage to Sir Wira Gardiner, which means that Parata can call herself Lady Gardiner. Potiki wrote that "their company, Gardiner Parata, was at one time the foremost Maori consultancy in the country".

Potiki went on: "She has a huge work ethic and plenty of vim and subsequently she is respected by all who work with her, including senior leadership within the Labour Party."

At the time, Parata had been a list MP for just two years. But it was big news that she gave Kris Faafoi a run for his money during a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Mana. Commentators were impressed by some other history: when Don Brash took National in an anti-Maori direction as leader, Parata dared to speak against him in public.

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Before politics, Parata was a career public servant, working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry for the Environment, the Housing Corporation, Te Puni Kokiri, the State Services Commission and the New Zealand Embassy in Washington. She was once a Treaty and Maori Affairs adviser in David Lange's office. She was on the boards of New Zealand on Air and the Towards 2000 Taskforce.

When Pansy Wong resigned in 2010, Parata became a Cabinet minister in her first term. That is rapid promotion.

In 2011, she took over the education portfolio from the embattled Anne Tolley. What has gone wrong since? Is it simply that education is a political graveyard?

In June, the Government did a U-turn on unpopular plans to increase class sizes. This was seen as a serious blow against Parata as a minister.

Political commentator Gordon Campbell wrote that despite her alleged competence, Parata was failing to get runs on the board. Even the 'widely derided' Tolley got national standards through.

Columnist Matthew Hooton saw the class sizes 'fiasco' as a symptom of the John Key Government's arrogance.

But that was nothing compared to the upset over plans to merge or close 31 Christchurch schools. Parata gave a waffling answer about 'consultation' to questions in Parliament from Labour's Chris Hipkins.

An interview last weekend with Q and A's Shane Taurima was described as 'election-losing' by commentator Mike Williams. Fran O'Sullivan and Raymond Miller agreed. 'They have to back down on this one,' Miller added.

Yet it has also been said that to back down twice would be political suicide.

And then it got even worse for Parata. On Tuesday, TV3's Campbell Live reported on the significant errors in the Ministry of Education's data supporting school closures. Parata didn't appear and ministry chief executive Lesley Longstone took the grilling.

The next day, Parata addressed a conference of teachers in Wellington. Reports on both news networks described her as confrontational and arrogant. A political column by Fairfax's Vernon Small said that "Key ought to be regretting putting Hekia Parata - a jargon-fuelled and evasive communicator - into the education role".

By now there was a sense, on TV at least, that Parata-baiting had become sport.

The day after the conference in Wellington, Parata is in Christchurch. She has met the board of Mackenzie Residential School, opened a reading comprehension symposium at Canterbury University and seen Ngai Tahu. She has half an hour with The Press. Then she will meet with the education advisory group tackling 'education renewal' in Canterbury.

Is it a damage control meeting? "I would describe it more as continuing consultation.'

First, a personal response. Parata seems charming, reasonably friendly and unfazed about negative perceptions. But when talk turns to education, and she is on the record with media, you notice a kind of deadness in her eyes and a numbing tendency to talk in ministry jargon. If you were to draw up a Parata word cloud, 'challenge', 'opportunity' and 'education experience' would probably dominate.

We are talking exactly three weeks after the launch of the controversial Christchurch schools proposals. 'It's not unusual for there to be the first period of shock and anger and disagreement,' she says.

But hasn't this been unusually emotive? "In terms of the scale, yes. We're talking about an entire network that has had significant change. It is to be expected that people would react in all sorts of different ways."

Mostly they are reacting angrily and feeling they are not consulted. But Parata sees it differently.

"I've had people say to me the consultation is too long. I've had people say the consultation is too short. I've had people say the consultation is too specific or the consultation is too general. These are Christchurch people saying this. I'm not sure it's possible to offer a set of information that would satisfy everyone."

Some group will always feel disadvantaged, no matter what happens?

"That's the nature of humanity, actually," Parata replies. "It's not particular to this. And that's the nature of a democracy as well."

She did see the Campbell Live story. She will not talk about 'how Campbell Live showed it', but she says that her ministry tells her that the data has come from engineers and project managers, schools themselves, and ministry staff based in Christchurch. This is not Wellington getting it wrong, she says.

Ministry staff have since advised her that 'there are some errors but they are working to ensure they have the most up to date set of information'.

But the public don't see ministry staff; they see Hekia Parata. Does she feel that the opposition and anger has become personalised? There were reports of children holding up signs and making comments at protests that single her out as the villain.

'I feel that when people are uncertain or angry or emotional, they want to be able to identify where they should direct that. I'm the Minister of Education, that goes with my job.'

But she adds a caveat.

'There has to be some realism about what it is the minister does or doesn't do,' she says. 'I don't do the operational assessment of the geotechnical integrity of the land. I don't go and look at buildings and decide that this is more or less earthquake prone. I don't set up meetings and decide what hall they are going to be held in. My role is to receive the advice, the evidence, and question it, debate it, work with it and meet with the community.

'So I suppose with the criticisms that have been levelled over the launch, and over the subsequent few days, I think there are things that I'm accountable for but there are quite a lot [of things] that I am not."

She pauses and corrects herself. "I am accountable for it all but I don't choose that it will be at Lincoln Events Centre and these are the name tags that will be worn."

The name tags? Parata means the coloured tags that principals were given before being herded into different groups, depending on whether their schools were closing, merging or staying open. They, too, were the fault of her ministry.

"What I asked for was that I would have the opportunity to meet with the board chair and principal of the schools most directly affected. I wanted to meet with them on their own before meeting with the much larger group. I didn't decide on colour- coding and that's not something that I would be doing."

Looking back, was it a good idea? "Of course not and I've acknowledged that. I think it was very unfortunate."

What about these media reports of being confrontational and patronising at the teachers conference in Wellington? 'I don't agree with that characterisation at all,' Parata says.

'I have spent 10 months in this role going around the country, taking up almost every invitation I possibly could to talk to groups. I have given a different version of a similar speech at every one of them, which is that we are a top- performing education system but we have to keep working at it because, actually, other countries are challenging us and passing us.

'I've talked about the challenges within our system, what the research has said about what we need to do in schools. The comment I made [at the conference] about pronouncing kids' names properly was in the context of an ERO report where they identified what the three key challenges are, and the first is to be learner-centred and establish a relationship of respect with kids."

Hearing that we have a top- performing education system is refreshing. It can seem that so much of the current rhetoric around education suggests that our system is broken and needs fixing, whether by national standards, charter schools or increasing class sizes to fund teacher training. But actually, 'our overall performance is quite outstanding', as Wellington College headmaster Roger Moses wrote recently in the Dominion Post.

'I don't think we overlook that at all, and certainly in every speech I have ever given, the context is that we have a top- performing education system,' Parata says.

We come seventh in the world in the PISA (Programme for International Student Achievement) rankings that compare national performance in reading, science and maths. But Parata says that once you disaggregate the PISA scores, Pakeha students are second in the world and Maori are 34th and Pasifika are 44th.

She met with influential Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg this week. Can we learn from Finland?

She thinks we can learn from every country ahead of us on the PISA scale, including Finland and Asian countries like Singapore, Shanghai-China and Hong Kong- China. However, Finland and those Asian countries have completely different teaching styles. As Roger Moses wrote, the Asian style tends to be 'highly teacher-centred and pressure- cookered', and is 'the antithesis of the inquiry model promoted rigorously by the Education Ministry'.

Parata recalls that when one of her two daughters won a scholarship abroad she was amazed at how old-fashioned teaching styles are in some other countries. "We have much more texture and variation and dynamism in the way teachers deliver in New Zealand and a much more well-rounded curriculum," Parata says.

One has to ask: did she actually want this? As Lockwood Smith, Trevor Mallard, Merv Wellington and others have shown, the education portfolio has often been a hospital pass.

"I had been pretty strong in indicating I was keen to be considered for it,' Parata replies. 'I think that education is such a powerful transformational opportunity for individuals. I consider it an honour to be Minister of Education."

- The Press

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