Hekia Parata is a minister with much to prove

Last updated 05:00 19/01/2013

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OPINION: With the cold of Antarctica about to enfold him, John Key attempted this week to extinguish one of the hottest issues confronting him. Hekia Parata, he said, had his full confidence and she would keep her job in the coming Cabinet reshuffle.

Key's confidence in his Minister of Education is surprising, given her performance. Plans to increase class sizes, the reorganisation of Christchurch schools and the Novopay fiasco have all occurred under Parata's watch and each has performed badly in the court of public opinion. Moreover, most are not over and could run up to the next general election.

Charter schools, with their potential to fall under the control of assorted amateur enthusiasts, also has the potential to embarrass the Government.

The handling of proposals to close or merge dozens of Christchurch schools was hugely controversial last year. It faded to a degree after a campaign of reassurance and explanation from Parata, but will reignite as schools gates close. And despite the minister's charm offensive a bitter taste remained.

The Novopay system shows no sign of improving its arithmetic and needs much remedial work if teachers are to be paid on time and correctly. None of those issues is entirely the responsibility of Parata.

For instance, the contract with Novopay was signed before she was minister and the roll-out is the responsibility of her ministry. Christchurch schools have to be reformed because the earthquakes have changed educational catchments. But each of the issues has become an embarrassment for the Government.

Parata's miscalculation about their impact on public opinion and her consequent failure to advocate effectively for each policy from the outset has caused needless opposition.

Christchurch provides a good example of that. Whatever the minister's insistence that the announcement of closures and amalgamations was made only after wide consultation, the reality is that it came as a falling rock on to the quake-stressed heads of parents, pupils and teachers. Laudable as the aim for modern schools is, it was not accompanied by a campaign to convince citizens of its necessity and benefits. This was a political misstep.

Miscommunication is the word that best sums up the Christchurch failure, as it does each of Parata's mess-ups, yet it was her communication that most impressed Key. "Very effective," he called it. "One of the smoothest communicators we've actually had", even if "she wasn't able to completely articulate exactly what we were doing in a coherent way".

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This is another example of the prime minister's confusion about the meaning of words, and he was just back from an exhausting holiday and heading for a faint, so the comments might be quietly passed over were it not for his failure to grasp that Parata is damaging his Government.

A prime minister ready to acknowledge that prospect may already have been making plans to reposition the minister in a portfolio that was less demanding and to put a person into education who was capable of sorting out the problems.

Perhaps Key has been emboldened in his defence of Parata by his party line that she is receiving no more stick than any National Party minister of education, whose terms in office are always made a misery by leftie teachers. But history does not support that and, in any case, its reiteration does not shield the Government from Parata-caused blows.

The blows are telling, because education is of great importance to parents whatever their party preferences. That was shown in the matter of class sizes. The opposition to their enlargement was sufficient for the Government to back down after having made an insistent defence of their benign effects. Parata's continued tenure of education risks such wide-spectrum damage continuing.

Perhaps Key is also remaining loyal to Parata because she is a role model for Maori women and brings welcome diversity to the party's top ranks. Parata, indeed, should not be written off. She has talents to contribute to her party and the nation, but she has not yet demonstrated the consistent ability to preside over one of the main ministries of state.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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