Elec­tion ebbing away from Nats

The Horowhenua Mail - - CONVERSATIONS - GOR­DON CAMP­BELL TALK­ING POL­I­TICS

In New Zealand, four-term gov­ern­ments are as rare as one-term gov­ern­ments. Un­for­tu­nately for Bill English, fate has made him leader of the Na­tional Party at both ends of that par­tic­u­lar spec­trum.

In 2002, English had to mount what was al­ways going to be a sui­cide charge against a re­cently elected Clark gov­ern­ment. Now, he’s try­ing to rally his tired team for a fourth term of of­fice. While hardly a lost cause, the mis­sion is looking harder by the day.

In fu­ture, English’s ad­mis­sion of the ‘‘stardust’’ sur­round­ing Labour leader Jacinda Ardern could be seen by his­to­ri­ans as equiv­a­lent to Robert Mul­doon’s ‘‘ I love you, too, Mr Lange’’ com­ment in 1984, which finally rang down the cur­tain on an­other Na­tional leader once able to con­vince the pub­lic that he, and only he, knew how to run the econ­omy.

Once cred­i­bil­ity ebbs away, the sit­u­a­tion rapidly looks like the one in The Wizard of Oz. Af­ter the pub­lic gets to peek be­hind the cur­tain they don’t see a ma­gi­cian any­more, but a rather or­di­nary per­son fran­ti­cally pulling on the levers to main­tain an il­lu­sion of om­nipo­tence.

Dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns, any gov­ern­ment will use the ad­van­tage of in­cum­bency to pull all the levers avail­able to it. Thus, Na­tional’s an­nounce­ment of four new char­ter schools last week had lit­tle to do with its ed­u­ca­tion agenda. At this point, it had more to do with fos­ter­ing the di­vi­sions within Labour on this sub­ject.

Cer­tainly, those di­vi­sions are real enough. Labour list can­di­date Wil­lie Jackson claimed in 2015 that he ‘‘truly be­lieves’’ in the char­ter schools model. As head of the Manakau Ur­ban Maori Au­thor­ity, Jackson will also be run­ning one of those four new schools.

The irony of a Labour can­di­date ac­tively en­gaged with a teach­ing model that his party op­poses is a po­lit­i­cal gift to Na­tional. At the very least, Labour’s crit­i­cisms of char­ter schools can be painted as a party in thrall to the teacher unions.

Luck­ily for Ardern though, the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry has re­cently cri­tiqued the worth of char­ter schools. At a time when state schools lack suf­fi­cient re­sources - for say, spe­cial needs chil­dren and ba­sic op­er­a­tional needs - money seems no ob­ject for char­ter schools. They’re soon to be six­teen in num­ber, even while their ed­u­ca­tional ra­tio­nale re­mains du­bi­ous. Ac­cord­ing to min­istry fig­ures, only 59.7 per cent of char­ter school leavers left with NCEA level 2 or above in 2016, well adrift of the 80.3 per cent fig­ure achieved by all schools last year.

Ar­guably, some char­ter schools have a higher ra­tio of eco­nom­i­cally de­prived stu­dents. Yet in an ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem driven by stan­dards, char­ter schools seem a strik­ing ex­cep­tion. The re­sults ap­pear to be no bar­rier to con­tin­ued fund­ing, for a type of so­cial en­gi­neer­ing ex­per­i­ment that Na­tional com­monly op­poses.

As PPTA pres­i­dent Jack Boyle claimed re­cently, there could be rip­ple ef­fects. In his view, the new char­ter schools in cen­tral and south Auck­land, Gis­borne and Christchurch will af­fect all the school com­mu­ni­ties around them by tak­ing money, teach­ers and chil­dren away from lo­cal schools.

As else­where in this cam­paign, what had looked like a good tac­ti­cal weapon for Na­tional is now it­self un­der siege.

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