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

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: National's super-smart step to the left

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Prime Minister John Key delivering his state of the nation speech. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Prime Minister John Key delivering his state of the nation speech. Photo / Sarah Ivey

John Key has once again shown himself to be the master pragmatist with an eye for winning votes, even if it requires moving to the left sometimes. The education reforms announced yesterday are a strategic masterstroke and position his National Government incredibly smartly for this year's election campaign, making National appear bold, fresh, and centrist. The new policy cleverly undercuts Labour's growing emphasis on increasing economic inequality, while also making up ground for some very poorly received reforms and mismanagement in the education portfolio.

For the best explanation of how smart this policy is for National's re-branding, see Vernon Small's PM Key launches raid behind enemy lines. He labels the new policy 'a cheeky foray into Labour's heartland' because it deals with traditional Labour concerns and directly seeks to appease problems many Labour voters have with the current government. Here's the key part: 'It was the latest example of National's election year plan to trash suggestions it is inflexible, doctrinaire or plum out of new ideas. Key to that are policies to address concerns, growing here and elsewhere in the developed world, that society is becoming more and more unequal in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. At the same time shoring up support in the low and middle-income mortgage belt, especially among women, is crucial to National holding its roughly 45 per cent poll rating'.

Tracy Watkins also says that Key's 'plan will resonate not just with National's core constituency but also with Labour's' - see: Key steal's Labour's thunder.

She astutely points out, 'That goes to the heart of the election-year theme that has been building a head of steam under Labour and the Greens that five years of National government has led to a more unequal society, a country of haves and have-nots. Education has been National's Achilles' heel in recent times while Labour has long viewed it as a strength'.

For a dissenting view on the tactical smarts displayed in yesterday's announcement, see Danyl Mclauchlan's Enemy action. He thinks that the policy won't win National any votes. But perhaps more interesting is Mclauchlan's observation about why all political parties are currently making education-related announcements: 'My pop-psychology explanation for this is that parents are in the process of returning to work, sending the kids back to school, resuming life-as-usual and working long hours, not seeing that much of their kids, feeling guilty about this and transmuting that into anxiety about school and teachers and 'doing the best for their children', and that political parties are picking up on that anxiety and preying on them like predators raiding herds of grazing animals at a water-hole'.

Praise for National's policy

Even political journalists and broadcasters are overtly praising the new policy - see Audrey Young's PM on to a winner with teacher rewards, Mike Hosking's Education policy overdue, but a great start, and Rachel Smalley's Children and education will be the winners.

Newspaper editorials have come out strongly in favour of the policy, while also making some astute observations - see the Herald's Govt achieves merit in new schools policy and the Dominion Post's Education proposals refreshing.

For the best overall coverage of the new policy and reaction to it, see Nicholas Jones' What lucrative new teaching roles mean for your child. And for some reactions picked up from the blogosphere, see Pete George's Teacher views on National's education proposals and for a visual version of reactions, see my blogpost, Cartoons about National's new education policy.

The varied response from the left

One of the reasons that National's policy is so clever is that it is very difficult to criticise. As the Herald rightly points out, 'How can you be highly critical of steps to lift schools' performance that have been recommended by the OECD's leading educationalist and are backed by a large body of international research? To do so risks implying that you are unconcerned if New Zealand slides further down' - see: Govt achieves merit in new schools policy.

And so, as many commentators have pointed out, Labour's response to the policy has been noticably muted - although David Cunliffe's line about Key's speech being a 'six page apology for Hekia Parata' was a strong soundbite, and possibly the best that could be said in the circumstances. The Greens, too, are having difficulty critiquing the policy, seemingly unsure whether to totally reject the ideas or just elements of them. Metiria Turei is leading the charge to say that National's new policy doesn't directly impact on inequality, which contributes to educational underachievement.

The education sector groups have responded mostly positively. The strongest criticisms have been from the NZEI, which has said that 'the Government might have also spent its money in areas such as special education and language development' - see Radio NZ's School groups welcome new leadership roles.

In the leftwing blogosphere, there was some condemnation. Analysis on The Standard denounced the policy as being 'about corporatising education, and increasing competition within the system: a system with extra layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy' - see: Spot the difference! Stating the nation. More sophisticated analysis arrived later in the blogpost Isolating change: the poverty of education.

For more reaction to the policy from all quarters, see my blogpost Top tweets about John Key's state of the nation speech. It seems that much of the twittersphere was unimpressed with the policy when it was announced, but more supportive voices eventually emerged.

For the strongest leftwing critique of the policy, see Gordon Campbell's
blogpost On Govt's plans for incentivising teachers. Also very good is Sam Durbin's blogpost John Key's Cynical Triangulation on Education Reform Should not be Supported by the Left. He argues that 'This is an adept piece of triangulation by Key. Paying teachers more is not traditional National party territory, and with this policy, he is taking aim squarely at Labour's strength - the teachers and their unions'.

In terms of strategby, another leftwing blogger, Brennan McDonald, writes 'Well played by John Key though. Now David Cunliffe has to spend "more" on education. This means in the debate John Key can smash him with "we're spending more but keeping the budget in line, you're trying to bribe voters by promising something the government can't afford".' - see: Spending More Money On Education.

The big debate about inequality

Another reason that National's new education policy is so strategically smart is that it indirectly responds to growing concerns about economic inequality, which is set to be one of the big debates of this election year. Yesterday, John Key couched his reforms in an egalitarian context, and sold the outcomes as being focused on reducing inequality. As the Dominion Post has reported, 'Key is anxious to promote the scheme as an egalitarian attempt to help the poor. He has clearly seen that his government is vulnerable on this issue. In fact, there is mounting evidence of the social and economic costs of inequality, and the part it plays in our educational problems. So the prime minister is aiming at two birds with one stone, and he is rebranding himself at the same time' - see: Education proposals refreshing.

And of course, National is pushing its own narrative about Key himself moving from poverty to riches by way of quality education. And he's not the only one in National - see Hamish Rutherford's profile Sam Lotu-Iiga: From humble upbringing, a quick ascent.

For more today on the issue of economic inequality and it's growing salience in New Zealand, see Toby Manhire's Jetsetters ponder poverty gap over mulled wine, Barry Coates' Inequality a risk to human and economic progress, and Labour blogger Rob Salmond's The truth about the gap between the rich and the rest.

One of the main criticisms from some left politicians and activists has been that National's education reforms ignore the impact of economic inequality on educational achievement. National blogger David Farrar has some strong points to make in response to this in his blogpost, Educational Reaction. He says, 'this is an announcement on education, not welfare. Turei seems to say we should do nothing to improve the education system while some families are poorer than others. How depressing. I want to see more families doing better, but there is no magic wand. Getting people out of poverty is often a generational thing as you have to confront parenting skills, welfare dependency, employment, drug and alcohol issues, and oh yeah education. But let's deal with the big lie. I call it a lie, because the amount of research on what influences educational outcomes is massive. There have been over 50,000 studies. Over 800 meta-analysis done involving 200 million students. Professor John Hattie has done a meta meta analysis of all these studies and identified 138 factors that influence educational outcomes. Not one factor, but 138. Greens think there is just one. Now socio-economic status is important. It definitely is an influence. There have been 499 studies that looked at its effect. But is it the biggest influence. No. Is it second? No. Third? No. Top 10? Still no. Top 20? Still a no. It is No 32 and home environment by the way is No 31. So the next time the Greens say the key reason for educational decline is poverty or income inequality, don't beat around the bush. Call them a liar'.

Another leftwing blogger - and teacher - praises the new policy, and makes a plea against the inequality issues being used to criticise it, saying 'It is true that this policy announcement ignores what goes on outside the classroom, but this is an education policy not an outside the classroom policy. For that kind of policy there would need to be a different kind of government and I think that even with a new kind of government this policy could stand because it is an intelligent policy that has the potential for positive impacts in education' - see: John Key vs Education.

Is the policy leftwing or rightwing, or neither?

There is some ambiguity about the ideological nature of National's education policy. On the one hand it has a very cooperative and statist approach, on the other, it has elite elements and seeks to incentivise in a more traditional neoliberal way. Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton has tweeted to call it 'communism by stealth'. He's also written a strong critique of the policy on the NBR website - see: Key's bold step left (paywalled). Here's the key part of Hooton's beef with the policy: 'Key has revealed today that National no longer trusts parental choice and competition to deliver the best for all. Instead, his interfering "panels" and "executive principals" and "expert teachers" and "lead teachers" and "change principals" are the answer. It will all obviously fail. Still, it is brilliant politics'. Hooton generally laments the demise of the Tomorrow's Schools framework.

Of course, much of our education system remains very conservative. And National's charter schools project will balance out any steps to the left involved in this policy. For the latest on charter schools, see Nicholas Jones' Taxpayers fund charter school ads and Dylan Moran's Charter school focused on academia.

And it needs to be remembered that there are plenty of other barriers and problems with New Zealand's school system, such as the costs involved for parents. The latest survey suggest that 'For a child starting primary school this year, a state education is expected to cost $34,687, if they stay at school until year 13. That rises to $91,878 for a state-integrated education and $262,310 for a private education' - see Siobhan Downes' 'Free' education costs thousands. See also, TVNZ's High cost of 'free' education revealed in survey.

Of course yesterday's speech by John Key wasn't just about education, but the 'state of the nation'. For two alternative stocktakes on New Zealand's place in the world, see Andrew Chen's The (Actual) State of the Nation and Karl du Fresne's Listener feature, Our place in the world (paywalled).

Finally, the lightest angle on the John Key's state of the nation speech yesterday was not about the Prime Minister's performance, but that of a leading political journalist - see Stuff's Microphone catches bathroom moment and Ben Irwin's Gower's live loo stream.

- 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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