John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Don't blame Parata for this one

The test for Hekia Parata will be how she clears up the mess after the Phillipstown ruling. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The test for Hekia Parata will be how she clears up the mess after the Phillipstown ruling. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Forget the trite David versus Goliath comparisons. Ignore the "plucky little Christchurch school deals to uncaring Cabinet minister" train of thought. The post-earthquake argument about the future (or no future) of Phillipstown School is a lot more complicated than the way it has been so simplistically portrayed.

As lobbyist and political commentator Matthew Hooton has noted, it is not uncommon for Cabinet ministers to lose court battles, no matter how capable they are in the world of politics.

But in Hekia Parata's case, Justice John Fogarty's High Court ruling that her decision to merge Phillipstown with nearby Woolston school on the latter's site was unlawful and thus not valid was automatically deemed to be another black mark in an already besmirched copy book.

You could almost hear the sound of gathering horse hooves of a lynch mob. The Prime Minister slammed the door shut on that notion quick smart by declaring full confidence in his Minister of Education.

But respite was short. Parata can be guaranteed a grilling today from the Opposition when Parliament - a forum in which she sometimes shines but often struggles - resumes after a two-week recess.

Does Parata deserve to be pilloried after Phillipstown School's triumph in the courts? The answer - to echo Hooton - is that such a judgment could catch any minister out. The test will be how she now clears up the resulting mess.

Essentially, the judge found Parata and her officials had not done the consultations required before school mergers and closures to the extent demanded by the Education Act.

Some financial information had not been presented to the school's board of trustees as it should have been to enable the school to fully understand the minister's thinking - and thus be able to argue against it.

The judge concluded Parata had not consulted to the standard required by law - but that lapse had been inadvertent. The irony is that documents dealing with the quake city's "educational renewal" suggest there was more consultation than you could shake a stick at.

Affected schools, for example, were assigned a senior ministry official as a key contact point and given $5000 to fund consultation with their local communities.

National pulled out the stops for one simple reason: because the lead-up to earlier interim decisions on closures had been so badly bungled.

With nearly 10,000 empty desks in Christchurch classrooms, there were always going to be school closures. It became dog eat dog.

In its submission to the renewal exercise, Woolston School's board suggested the closure of Phillipstown. When that was confirmed, the board made it clear it wanted Phillipstown to play its part in ensuring that the merger - and its oblivion - was completed by January next year. So much for neighbourly solidarity.

- 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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