Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Leap-frog minister in a class of her own

Hekia Parata looks likely to survive as Education Minister, but doubts are growing about her political judgment. Political editor Audrey Young reports

Detractors question whether Hekia Parata has more style than substance. Photo / NZ Herald
Detractors question whether Hekia Parata has more style than substance. Photo / NZ Herald

Several months ago, Education Minister Hekia Parata called a meeting in her office to discuss the vexed issue of Christchurch school restructuring.

Post Primary Teachers' Association president Robin Duff was among those invited to the evening meeting.

He was meeting Education Secretary Lesley Longstone that afternoon and asked if she was going to the minister's meeting.

Longstone knew nothing about it, Duff said yesterday, and she wasn't at the meeting.

"It was to me the first concrete signal a couple of months ago that maybe communication was breaking down somewhat."

There was also another sign that things were not right, in hindsight.

About a month ago, Parata asked Longstone's predecessor, Karen Sewell, to take a leading role as a liaison person between communities and the ministry.

She was also able to report directly to Parata for the next year.

It may have been a humiliating realisation for Longstone that it was the beginning of the end of her relationship with her minister.

The end of the end came this week with her resignation a year after her arrival from Britain to take over the job.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie said he and Longstone had begun talking about a month ago and decided two weeks ago that her departure would be for the best.

Both women are intelligent, headstrong and have clear ideas about what they want to achieve.

One insider has suggested that Parata came in with high expectations about how to lift student achievement, but an unrealistic view of what the Ministry of Education was capable of doing.

You could say she is high on idealism and aspiration and expectation and low on pragmatism.

Longstone, too, was not aware of the capabilities of the ministry.

There was apparently no single incident that broke the camel's back, no shouting or arguments.

But there was a huge impact from the class size debacle that followed this year's Budget, when the ministry did not spell out the effect of cuts on intermediate and technical teaching staff.

And that was compounded by the Christchurch restructuring process.

Both women being new in their jobs was clearly a major contributing factor in the breakdown.

Hekia Parata was never an opposition education spokeswoman, and has never spent a day in opposition.

She was elected in 2008 as a list MP, and after the departure of Pansy Wong, was promoted into the Cabinet in December 2010 with the undemanding portfolios of ethnic affairs and women's affairs.

The greater responsibility came when, as Associate Energy and Resources Minister, she took over the portfolio last year when Gerry Brownlee became Earthquake Recovery Minister.

Parata had come close to getting into Parliament in 2002 when she was on the list at No 15, ahead of several sitting National Party MPs.

Her husband, Sir Wira Gardiner, has had a long association with National as a former candidate and Maori vice-president.

As a public servant, Parata had worked for both red and blue Governments but 2002 was her first party-political move.

Bill English was leader with President Michelle Boag. They were on a mission to attract more Maori to the party in more than a token gesture.

English was and remains a powerful political patron to Parata, and the relationship is strengthened by his own interest in education.

When the caucus replaced him as leader with Don Brash, English offset the bitterness by throwing himself into the education portfolio.

Parata and Sir Wira, meanwhile, went into hibernation from politics in 2005 after the Orewa speech by the next leader, Don Brash, on special treatment for Maori.

Parata's father, Ron Parata, was principal at Ngata Memorial College in Ruatoria and she is the third of eight children. Her sister Nori is principal at Tolaga Bay Area School and her sister Apryll is a deputy secretary at the Ministry of Education.

She stood again in 2008 and within two years was in the Cabinet, leap-frogging ministers outside cabinet.

It has been a feature of her career in the public service - a high achiever in landing plum jobs but surrounded by debate about her achievements.

Subtlety and modesty have never been among Parata's strong suits and her propensity to leap-frog has always left detractors in her wake, questioning whether she is more style than substance.

Despite the earlier promotion to Cabinet, nothing could have prepared Parata for the demands and pressure of the education portfolio this term - implementing reforms focused on raising achievement under fiscal constraints with a new secretary of education and a difficult ministry, and not to mention the headwinds of powerful unions.

Duff says his own dealings with Parata have been fine. He travelled with her to an education conference in New York this year.

But asked what makes a good minister, he says a sound knowledge of the education system and where there is not a sound knowledge, the willingness to seek advice and find out.

"There's no crime in that - a preparedness to listen and consider all aspects of issues as they go through."

The sector also needed to have complete confidence that the minister was "on the side of education generally and working for young people and improving a system that needs development and improvement all the time - it never stops."

The other big requirement, he said, was to have "some sort of vision and a preparedness to take people on board, bring people forward together."

So how does Parata measure up to that criterion?

"Pretty badly all through, really."

What struck him most about the meeting that Longstone didn't know about was Parata's unwillingness to concede there were still big problems with the Christchurch plan.

"She was still adamant that what they had done was fine."

Parata spent the first half of November visiting 35 of the 37 schools proposed for closure as part of the education renewal plan.

It was necessary not only to restore community confidence in the process but to get to grips with the issues.

The visits followed some embarrassing moments in Question Time when she seemed unable to answer basic questions on Christchurch from Labour MP Chris Hipkins.

Speaker Lockwood Smith, a former Education Minister himself, allowed Hipkins to re-put the same question to her four or five times.

It transpired later that Parata had been under personal pressure with Sir Wira falling ill and being tested for pancreatic cancer - he was given the all-clear in late October.

She will be spending time with him and their two girls at home on the East Coast before getting back to work in Wellington well before the first cabinet meeting on January 23.

There will be plenty of speculation about whether she will keep education in the reshuffle due in February, following the election of the Speaker. Few people other than political opponents are calling for her head.

And the symbolism of John Key failing his highest ranking Maori MP when her major aim is to prevent Maori failure in education, is probably more than he is willing to face yet.

Highly respected Peter Hughes, formerly of the Ministry of Social Development is to be acting secretary, indicating that Parata will be given another chance to improve confidence in the sector.

Hughes is expected to identify problems in the ministry and address them, changing the culture if he has to. If Parata still has problems after that, then she will be blamed.

- NZ Herald

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