John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Total surrender inevitable on botched policy

Hekia Parata. Photo / Greg Bowker
Hekia Parata. Photo / Greg Bowker

No more compromises; just capitulation - complete and utter. Hekia Parata yesterday surrendered to the inevitable less than two days after saying she was not going to budge any further on the vexed question of teacher-pupil ratios.

Further compromise was never an option, however. It would not have silenced the education lobby groups. Those representatives of teachers, principals and boards of trustees would have continued to press for full reversal of the policy which would have seen many schools lose one or two teacher positions.

The lobby groups had the advantage of public opinion being overwhelmingly behind them - plus the knowledge this Government's resolve to stick with unpopular policies is often tissue-paper weak.

Parata's only option was to return to the status quo. She may have needed some persuasion by Cabinet colleagues to reach that position. But that was politically preferable to prolonging the agony for weeks.

National may even get some not inconsiderable credit for listening to the public and responding. So backdown was inevitable even if it meant backdown with a capital "B".

Parata will keep her job. But she will be on notice that National cannot afford another blunder of these proportions.

Equally as worrying for National as her performance is that the minor cuts in teacher numbers per school should have got such a "not in my backyard, nor out of my back pocket" response from the public.

The first real (and essentially modest) attempt to glean savings in Government spending in heartland National territory has been an unmitigated disaster.

That has serious implications. As the Treasury stressed in last month's Budget, Bill English's quest for surplus within the next three years is contingent on there being more and more fiscal restraint. That is because the Minister of Finance cannot rely on fluctuating growth forecasts producing sufficient tax revenue.

While middle New Zealand buys the idea of Budget surplus, it seems less keen to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it. English can only suck so much by way of savings out of the lower ends of the income scale without inflicting real pain.

Until now, however, the Minister of Finance has steered away from really taking the knife to things which make up what John Banks refers to as "middle-class welfare" - things like interest-free student loans and income assistance provided through the Working for Families programme.

The Government thought it could sell a small reduction in teacher positions in some schools on the basis that parents would accept the trade-off of better teachers. It thought wrong.

The big mistake was not to make the effort to sell the policy. Previous Governments which have made similar decisions about teacher staffing have ensured there is full information about which schools are winners and which are losers.

The lack of such information in Parata's pre-Budget announcement instead created an environment where every school and parent expected the worst.

By yesterday, Parata had dug a hole for herself so deep it threatened to come out under John Key's feet as he emerged from Buckingham Palace.

Under prime ministerial direction, Parata stopped digging. The only surprise is that the order did not come earlier.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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