Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Tide turns on National

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald

The tide has turned on National. The party's six-year period of basking in 50%+ public support is over. National's popularity is now seriously dented, and its grip on government is clearly challenged. Last night's TV3 opinion poll was a crucial one in confirming that the party has lost a fair chunk of support in recent weeks - see: TV3's Greens, Labour rise in latest poll. The poll shows that National has dropped four percentage points - the same as last week's TV One poll. More alarming for National, the TV3 poll records that as preferred PM, John Key drops to 40%, his lowest rating since becoming leader in 2006. What's more, the public's approval of Key's performance has dropped 4.5% - which adds up to an massive 20% drop from 75% to 55% in just seven months. Declines in leadership support are normally followed by further declines in party support. And for National this metric is incredibly important, because Key is their main asset. As John Hartevelt says, 'The political magic of Key's personal appeal is not so much National's trump card, as its only card... If his impact continues to decline, there's real trouble... the prime minister is far from a spent force yet, but when his well finally runs dry, National's will too' - see: Class-size fiasco drowns out royal slam dunk.

The class sizes fiasco has been the biggest botch-up that this Government has had over four years. John Armstrong ponders whether 'the furore over teacher-student ratios may be the thing that tips the balance against National following a trail of mishaps and calamities in the first half of this year'. He says that 'Even worse, perhaps, for National is that this episode will inevitably resurrect voters' doubts about whether the party can really be trusted at election time'.

Armstrong's column, Education weapon backfires on Nats is the best of the many post-mortems still being published on the class sizes fiasco. Armstrong says that this backdown is particularly significant because it weakens National's ability to campaign strongly on education going into the 2014 election campaign. Armstrong doesn't write Hekia Parata off completely, but says that this saga 'has brutally exposed her political shortcomings', and he criticizes her for 'spouting meaningless blather' and 'platitudes'.

The most in-depth class sizes post-mortem is from Audrey Young, who seeks to answer the question of: 'Why did the Government persist with its deeply unpopular plan to increase classroom sizes for so long?' with an investigation into what went on in the Beehive - see: A bad week for slow learners. This is nicely complemented by Fran O'Sullivan's Parata takes the fall for Treasury policy, which argues that 'Hekia Parata has been hung out to dry', not only by her Cabinet colleagues and the Minister of Finance, but also by Treasury (which drove this policy from the start).

Tim Watkin also attempts to understand how National could produce an 'F-grade performance on education and class sizes' - see: National forgets history lessons in class size debacle. Watkin puts forward a number of explanations, including: 'Is this a sign of hubris creeping into a second term government? A lack of attention to detail? A fatalistic attempt to make change now because they think a third term unlikely? Or just a wide-eyed hope they could sneak it through? Perhaps they're just too in thrall to Treasury'.

Other interesting items about the political management of the class size issue, include Matthew Hooton's Parata fiasco symptomatic of government arrogance, Marika Hill and Michelle Robinson's Class-size backdown 'to haunt National', Mark Blackham's Backdowns, and Russell Brown's Briefing, blaming, backing down.

In terms of the substance of the education policy issue, there's also plenty of quality debate going on. Of course, the so-called originator of the class size trade-off, Prof John Hattie, was on TVNZ's Q+A in the weekend criticising the Government for backing down on the policy - you can watch the 5-minute John Hattie interview, read the Transcript, or watch the Q+A Panel discussion on the class size backdown.

It is notable that Hattie actually disowns the whole 'trade-off' notion pushed by National, and in another very good and comprehensive article by Nicola Shepheard, stresses that it was a Treasury idea, and that 'he's never advocated for making classes bigger' - see: The school with 70 kids in the class. This article also includes the astute advice of another educationalist, Massey's Prof John O'Neill: 'If you wanted to improve the quality of learning you'd improve the quality of teaching first and then you'd increase class sizes, rather than expecting teachers to change their practices in more challenging environments'.

Much of the debate about improving educational achievement has actually been frustratingly narrow. Although framed within a false dichotomy of 'class size vs teacher quality', both proposed factors appear to be relatively insignificant in producing outcomes when you take into account 'out-of-school' influences. A strong argument can be made that it is social class not class sizes that matter the most and educationalist Prof John Clark has been making this point well recently, but seemingly to few ears. In a Dominion Post opinion piece last Thursday - Achievement inequality begins outside the education system (not online) - Clark says that 'Research studies point to the overwhelming influence of factors such as family poverty linked to children who, for example, are poorly fed, poorly clothed, poorly housed, medically ill, not supported by parents, are abused by others and so on'. Clark's more sociological understanding of educational problems and class sizes can also be seen in an earlier opinion piece, Treasury should not venture into schools, also worth reading.

Interestingly, Tim Watkin also points to the same under-appreciated 'social class' explanation in his blog post, National forgets history lessons in class size debacle. He says that 'what National has avoided in this argument - and the related debate about performance pay - is that there's another, even more significant factor which determines student achievement. What is it? It's called 'social class', ie what happens at home. If you really want to address that tail (which is closer to 15 percent than 20 percent, by OECD figures, and is said to be trending down), that's the place to start.... The simple facts is that schools and teachers ain't our biggest problem. If National's serious about that tail of under-achievement in our schools it has to get serious about child poverty'.

Other important or interesting political items today include:

* The Secret Diary Of ... Hekia Parata by Steve Braunias is a classic, not to be overlooked. Another satirist, Joshua Drummond also impresses with his take on political economy in the Waikato Times - see: Free-market soothsayers peddling snake oil.

*Who are the rising stars of the Labour Party? David Farrar gazes into his crystal ball to provide details of who will be influential in, not the next (6th) Labour Government, but The 7th Labour Government. A fascinating and informative read.

*The Greens are often calling for inquiries and resignations. But this time their point about ACC will resonate strongly - see: Greens call for ACC chair to be removed. This comes after last night's powerful 60 Minutes item on Bronwyn Pullar's side of the story - see Melanie Reid's Why didn't Bronwyn Pullar give the file back? and Teuila Fuatai's Secret Pullar tape shows she did not threaten ACC.

*Are we about to see a 'retirement backdown' from Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples? Audrey Young reports, Maori Party leaders revising plans to quit politics. Blogger Morgan Godfery provides a summary of the issues, saying that a backdown on their retirement plans is 'the party's only option' - see: Turia and Sharples reconsider retirement.

*Yet another 'backdown' is in progress in the restructure of Mfat - see Hank Schouten's MFat cost-cutting plan in a shambles.

*Colin Craig is determined to make his mark on the gay marriage debate, which will, no doubt, benefit his rising Conservative Party - see: TVNZ's Colin Craig: I would absolutely back gay marriage. You can also watch his 9-minute Q+A debate with Louise Wall and the subsequent 5-minute Q+A panel discussion.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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