By Chris Holden
One could easily be forgiven for thinking Parliament is increasingly becoming a place where MPs are more concerned about their public profile and political ambitions than they are about implementing real change.
In my view Hekia Parata was different.
Why? Because Hekia Parata couldn’t care less what people think of her, no matter how many union busses were parked on the Parliamentary forecourt bearing unionists armed to the teeth with placards and megaphones protesting against her proposed changes.
Appointed as the Minister of Education in 2011, Hekia Parata had one single political ambition: Lift the standard of educational outcomes in New Zealand.
I saw this first hand while I worked in Hekia’s ministerial office on the fifth floor of the Beehive last year.
Looking back, there was no such thing as a too-hard basket in Hekia’s office.
Rather, there was a flying pig hanging from the ceiling over a boardroom-style table, which exists as a symbolic representation of Hekia’s unrivalled dedication to achieve what some might consider the politically impossible.
(Hekia Parata's office/Newshub.)
As the Minister of Education, Hekia had to front-foot hard, controversial and often unpopular decisions.
She had to close schools, defend charter schools (a product of ACT’s confidence and supply agreement with National) and oversee a review of the Education Act.
In my view, Hekia Parata will leave Parliament sometime next year with the firmly held belief the education system is in a better place than when she took over the portfolio from Anne Tolley.
The education unions and Labour will likely disagree and argue that Parata leaves behind a pile of rubble, destruction and closed schools; but at the end of the day the ultimate measure in politics is whether meaningful change was implemented to better the lives of New Zealanders.
Under Parata’s leadership of the education ship, NCEA level one achievement has increased from 77.2 per cent to 84.2 per cent, level two from 82.2 per cent to 88.2 per cent and level three from 75.8 per cent to 81 per cent.
Hekia was also responsible for engineering the in-school trades academies programme, which provides kids who don’t fit the one size fits all traditional education mould with the opportunity to learn and achieve their NCEA in a practical learning environment.
The programme has been so successful the Government announced a further 940 spots in the trades academies for 2016, which expanded the programme to include 6,190 kids.
In my view, the loss of Hekia Parata will likely mean the loss of more forward-thinking education initiatives from this National Government which prepare kids for life in the 21st century, as opposed to life in Shakespeare's world.
That's because few in Cabinet will be willing put their hand up and take on a portfolio which essentially requires going to war with the education unions to facilitate any form of change whatsoever.
Rather, we all know Cabinet frontrunners like Judith Collins, Amy Adams and Paula Bennett are quietly polishing their public profiles and preparing to contest the National Party leadership following the departure of John Key.
In other words, they will put their desire to be Prime Minister over effecting meaningful change for kids in our schools, which is something Parata never did.
A promotion from the backbench will likely result in a fresh-faced MP, who once again will be hesitant to take risks which could jeopardise his or her public image – and therefore a shot at the leadership or senior Cabinet portfolios.
Furthermore, Parata’s departure will leave the currently white male-dominated Cabinet with just one female Māori - Paula Bennett.
Why is that important? Well as Environment Minister Nick Smith so graciously demonstrated over the Kermadec debacle, there is little to zero understanding of Māori tikanga in the white boys’ Cabinet club.
Smith steamrolled the Treaty of Waitangi consultation principle and as a result will now find himself in court, which will presumably cost the taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars in litigation costs.
It is expected the Prime Minister will announce Hekia’s replacement at some stage next year.