Editorial: Buck stops with minister

20:09, Dec 20 2012

Prime Minister John Key said he did not lose confidence in Education Minister Hekia Parata after the debacle over bigger class sizes, which culminated in the embarrassing decision to abandon the policy.

He had not pulled the rug from under her, he said - the decision had been hers. Despite the political damage caused by a highly unpopular policy, he was adamant: "Hekia Parata will be the education minister for this term."

But the portfolio has been plagued by troubles since, such as the inept consultations over school restructuring in Christchurch, unpopular school closures (deemed to have been unlawful in the case of Nelson's Salisbury School), and the Novopay system.

The administrative head of the ministry, Lesley Longstone, this week resigned, but she is widely regarded as a sacrificial lamb. The Government's political opponents are clamouring for the minister's head.

One good reason is that, as minister, Ms Parata is the public face of education and the buck should stop with her, regardless of her part in a sorry saga of misjudgment and mismanagement. "She is responsible for the litany of failings in education this year," as Labour MP Chris Hipkin put it, arguing that New Zealanders could have little confidence of better administration as long as she remains in the job.

It is instructive to note the confirmation from Iain Rennie, the State Services Commissioner, that strained relations between Ms Parata and her chief executive were largely to blame for Ms Longstone's resignation one year into a five-year contract. Taxpayers will have to stump up for a settlement likely to run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But Ms Longstone hasn't been alone in trying to develop a good working relationship with the minister. Her Beehive office has a high turnover of staff, reportedly including three private secretaries and an adviser, Correspondence School chief executive Mike Hollings, who left just two months into a two-year secondment.

Mr Key maintains his confidence in Ms Parata. But he maintained his support for ACT Party leader John Banks, too, through the local body election donations scandal. This attests either to a remarkable loyalty to his ministers or to an extraordinary inability to recognise the unacceptable.