Election ebbing away from Nats
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.