Hekia Parata falls from grace

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 07:22 22/12/2012
HEKIA PARATA
KARL DRURY
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 own colleagues.

All the ingredients were there, including a rags-to- riches backstory, 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, 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, poisonous atmosphere within Parata's ministerial office, brought on by an increasingly demanding minister who was out of her depth.

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 Parata's office at the timing, just before Christmas.

But her handling of the resignation of Ministry of Education chief executive Lesley Longstone raises even more serious questions about 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 Longstone's case, it appears there were efforts to save the situation - there were plans to put more experience around the new chief executive, who arrived in the job straight from Britain.

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

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 was not prepared for the size of the backlash.

After Key was forced to step in and save the situation, the pressure on his minister grew. She was taking a hammering from the Opposition and teacher unions, and the mounting list of blunders over teacher payroll 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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It is a sign of her colleagues' increasing lack of confidence in Parata that she was instead packed off on holiday and told to lie low. Key also refused to front, suggesting he is still weighing options for a Cabinet reshuffle next month, and does not want to get backed into a corner over his support for Parata.

HEKIA PARATA

Born in 1958 to a Ngati Porou mother and Ngai Tahu father in rural Ruatoria, one of eight children.

EDUCATION CONNECTION

Her mother, Hiria, helped introduce Playcentre to the region and her father, Ron, was her high school teacher. Her sister Apryll has a senior role at the Ministry of Education, which sparked some initial disquiet.

LABOUR CONNECTION

Parata studied at Waikato University before becoming a public service high-flier. She worked in three Labour prime ministers' offices.

NATIONAL CONNECTION

She stood for National in 2002, recruited by Bill English, but briefly parted ways with National over its direction under Don Brash.

MARRIED TO WIRA GARDINER

She is married to Sir Wira Gardiner, the Government's go-to fix-it man.

- The Press

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