Education Minister Hekia Parata made a mess of managing a fundamental change of policy in her portfolio. The objective was uncomplicated: the Government wanted to find enough money for a highly commendable programme to raise the quality of school teaching. Doing this by changing staff ratios, thereby enlarging class sizes, would always be politically fraught. It was glaringly absent from National's 2011 election policy, undoubtedly because it would have been unacceptable to parents conditioned to believe smaller class sizes are better.
Trying to defend the policy change became much harder when we were reminded that Prime Minister John Key, in 2005, had told The Listener why he sent his children to private schools. It was for educational reasons, including smaller classes and better resources. If he favoured smaller classes for his own children, it was shameful he sanctioned bigger classes in schools to which most parents send their children.
The Government backed down. Ms Parata showed political pluck by announcing the u-turn and accepting responsibility. She acknowledged there were lessons to be learned. She did not blame the Education Ministry for the advice she had been given. She asserted the "buck stops with me".
This was as it should be and an exemplar for other ministers. Anne Tolley late last year declined to accept responsibility for misleading Parliament as Education Minister; she blamed officials for badly briefing her. Murray McCully more egregiously blamed officials for a cost-saving shambles in the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry.
Ms Parata's readiness to take the rap does not absolve Cabinet colleagues from their role. They share collective ministerial responsibility and Mr Key was reported to be standing by the policy as the right one (it amounted to no more than "a very modest alteration" of class sizes). His Government is capitulating to voters, therefore, even though it means reverting to a policy he regards as wrong.
Opposition politicians who are baying for Ms Parata's blood should capitulate, too. They have harried her and pressed her to reverse her position. She has done so. Ministers are unlikely to pay much heed to opponents in future if losing their jobs is included in the price to be paid for taking their advice.
- Waikato Times