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Hekia Parata should’ve asked one simple question

Wednesday 6 Jun 2012 10:32 a.m.

Hekia Parata (Getty)

Hekia Parata (Getty)

By Political Editor Duncan Garner

I got home last night and my 12-year-old step daughter was waiting for me with a stern message: "We all hate John Key," she exclaimed.

Why, I said - pretending to be shocked by it all, but secretly knowing what she was about to say.

"Well, he's going to close our cooking and technology classes at our school. So we all hate him. And we're writing him letters - no one likes him at our school anymore," she said.

I won't name the school. But whether or not she's right, and whether or not this Government backpedals on its move to increase class sizes, the fallout is immense - and perception is reality - especially for the children and their mums and dads.

This change is seeping through the schools, to the teachers, to the kids, and they take that home to the parents - and parents vote.

It's a cock-up. Nothing else, nothing less.

And all because the Education Minister, Hekia Parata, didn't ask the right questions of the right people. Her eye was off the ball.

The Cabinet's collective eyes were off the ball.

John Key's move to save a paltry $43m by increasing class sizes in our intermediate schools has completely backfired.

It is a stuff-up of epic proportions - and all in the name of cost-cutting.

I have one question for Ms Parata - a question she should have asked the officials when this move was going through the Cabinet process.

It goes like this; who are the losers and winners from this change?

If the cuts amount to $43m of savings, who loses? Give me a list of the schools. She should have demanded the worst case scenario. It's a basic question.

She should have known that - because surely experienced ministers before her have asked that question when she was in her role as a senior public servant.

Now the fallout looks hard to arrest.

And it's given the teacher unions, who have been on the back foot with this Government, a chance to gain some kind of moral superiority.

They can reach out to parents once again - and say, this Government doesn't care - this Government got it wrong.

And it might be hard to argue with that. It also looks sneaky.

The Government did not promise this during the 2011 election campaign when they released their education policy in the final week. Nothing anywhere near it.

It also released post-election education pledges, and again none of this featured.

They misled parents. If they had been upfront about their intent, they would have lost votes. I have no doubt about it.

But they kept their intentions under wraps.

I have applauded Key and Bill English in the past for being different to past National Party ministers. They are less gung-ho. They know credibility is hard won and easily lost. They make incremental changes. They don't "think big".

Key talks about sticking to his promises and taking the public with him. And he largely has. But on this one - he promised nothing, did the opposite, and lost the people.

He and his Cabinet misjudged and mismanaged it.

And as chair of the Cabinet, Key probably has to take responsibility for that.

But he has been let down by his rising 'star' Parata.

She was promoted because she looked good and sounded better. She was a high achieving Maori woman in a party historically dominated by white men. What a coup. But over the past fortnight - it's counted for nothing.

She's looked poor and sounded even worse. She's sounded like a backpedalling public servant who is making it up on the hoof.

She and her Government went from claiming it's about quality not quantity, to saying no teachers would be lost, to saying seven teachers per school could be lost then saying no more than two will be lost. What a disaster.

And it's a disaster on Parata's watch. This will damage her prospects. And it's not over yet.

This Government is facing weeks and months of potential back downs over this. Key will have to return from Europe and cope with the fallout.

Teacher unions will not go away - this has revived them. This has pumped energy and oxygen into their cause.

The Prime Minister wanted a low-key two day Budget where the headlines disappeared quickly. He's failed on that front. Because he and his newly promoted Education Minister didn't do the due diligence.

No one asked the right questions.

Now the schools are fighting back.

The kids are angry. And the parents vote. They might even vote with their feet.

And that's a disaster for Key - all in the name of $43m of savings. The fallout isn't worth it.

Middle New Zealand is speaking out. Because Key, his Cabinet and especially his Education Minister didn't do their homework.

And for that I give them all a D minus. Epic fail.

And now the voters, the mums and dads they talk about may decide to put Key and his ministers in detention.

If it's a permanent detention - then that's called expulsion.

So Key may indeed look back at Budget 2012 - and say, that's when the rot set in.

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