Prime Minister John Key's Minister of Education has been hapless, gauche and ill advised, if not incompetent. That's the public perception, after Hekia Parata's first year in the job was sullied by a slew of political embarrassments from class sizes to school closures and the Novopay fiasco. But a remarkably tolerant Mr Key is giving her a chance to show she is not as maladroit as the mayhem and miscues in recent months imply.
A new-year Cabinet reshuffle has been necessitated by the need to find a new Speaker to replace Lockwood Smith, who will become New Zealand's next High Commissioner in London. Teacher unions are demanding a new minister for their sector. They will be disappointed: Mr Key has declared he will be sticking with Ms Parata.
He has acknowledged she could have better handled National's controversial education changes but expects she will do a good job this year. This confidence can only be a matter of faith.
He points out, "she's done a lot of good things" and notes that closing schools in Christchurch was bound to be controversial, no matter who was communicating it. Indeed, it would have been controversial. It could have been better managed, too, and Mr Key can't be mindless of a mess of other matters, including a judge's ruling that Ms Parata's decision to close a residential girls' school in Nelson was unlawful.
More puzzling is his regard for Ms Parata's prowess as a communicator. He conceded there were times last year "when . . . she wasn't able to completely articulate exactly what we were doing in a coherent way and that caused some problems". In other words, she failed to communicate effectively. Yet Mr Key not only describes her as "a very effective communicator"; he rates her "one of the smoothest communicators we've actually had". His other ministers must be smarting with indignation.
Ms Parata's reputation has been further marred by her inclination to take refuge in silence and shy away from answering questions when explanations are called for. She failed to front when education secretary Lesley Longstone resigned just before Christmas, for example, but went on holiday.
Mr Key believes she can do better. His loyalty is commendable. But it's the public's judgment that counts - especially the judgment of parents.