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Gordon Campbell: schools closures, Afghanistan and Hollywood

Gordon Campbell on the schools closures, Afghanistan and Hollywood politics

by Gordon Campbell

Isn’t it time we closed down Education Minister Hekia Parata, or at least merged her with Anne Tolley and cut our losses? The timing, speed and substance of yesterday’s interim decisions about school closures were all dubious. Many of the changes will take effect from the start of next year, and not 2015-16 as first indicated. (After all its dithering over restoring basic services after the ‘quake, this government seems able to cut education services at lightning speed.)

Take the timing for starters. The Census was postponed in 2011, because of the Christchurch earthquake. The Census forms are now about to be sent out. You’d think a prudent government might like to wait for the results, given that the Census could provide some definitive numbers. That’s what the Census does, right? Waiting seems an especially good idea before closing and merging a lot of Christchurch schools, given that demographic factors are said to be playing a big role in the decision mix. But no….Parata has announced the list of mergers and closures before getting that boring, definitive Census data. She’s winging it. Because that’s what she does, right?

Mind you, Parata’s hit list is a bit different from the bloodbath she first intended in mid-2012. Seven schools will close, 12 schools will merge, seven schools will be relocated and rebuilt, and six new schools will be built. Twelve schools originally destined for closure will now stay open.

Predictably, Labour’s Chris Hipkins has cited the backdowns as evidence of how Parata has “botched” the process, but this was always going to be a lose/lose point for the Minister. If she hadn’t budged from the original list despite the storm of school/community protests last year, Hipkins would no doubt be releasing the other draft press release he has in his bottom drawer: you know, the one that slams Parata for barging on with her pre-determined agenda. In the circumstances, backing down (a little) was a political inevitability.

That doesn’t exonerate her, though. To the extent that Parata has amended her original plan, this confirms that last year’s attempted blitzkrieg was poorly researched, and poorly thought out by a Minister who evidently thought she could ram her agenda through regardless of community opposition. It didn’t work – but some of the people who felt relieved yesterday will today be resenting being put through the mill unnecessarily over the past nine months. They may also reflect that while the need to save funds has allegedly driven the closure/merger process, the government can still mysteriously manage to find the funds (a) for its charter schools experiment, and (b) for the bailing out of an elite private school like Wanganui Collegiate. When ideology comes in the door in education policy, the funding constraints just seem to go flying out the window.

Can we conclude that Parata is learning on the job? That seems to be the case. Yet given a ministerial salary of $260,000 a year plus perks and other special funding, this still makes her the country’s most expensive apprentice. Which takes me back to my original point – whether the nation can really afford to keep Hekia Parata open for business. To get a rough idea of a value-for-money comparison, Parata’s salary package is roughly the same as the entire annual budget for the Wellington Rape Crisis service.

Despite demand for its services doubling between 2011 and 2012 and an increase in costs such as rent, funding has either decreased or remained the same, centre spokeswoman Natalie Gousmett said. The centre has a $310,000 annual budget, including up to $90,000 from the government, although this funding is not guaranteed and the centre must reapply every two years. The rest of the funding comes from Wellington City Council, the Lotteries Commission, smaller trusts and donations - and the organisation has put out a call for supporters to hold fundraisers, such as cake stalls and fun runs, to help.

Reportedly, Wellington Rape Crisis faced funding problems after its client list grew from 543 in 2010/11 to 995 in 2011/12. (Needless to say, Parata’s salary does not depend on funding from cake stalls and fun runs.)

Afghanistan

Tricky old Prime Minister John Key. He never promised, Key now says, to bring all our troops home from Afghanistan by the end of next month. Silly us for thinking otherwise. We just hadn’t notice the subtlety of his messaging on Afghanistan. We must have distracted after five New Zealand troops had been killed in Afghanistan last August and Key was assuring the nation that he was bringing our forces safely home. All along, it seems, he was planning on leaving 27 of them there for another year. Who knew? I guess that’s why military planning is best left to the experts. They’re able to grasp that bringing all the troops home by the end of March 2013, meant bringing them all home except the ones that wouldn’t be being brought home until 2014. This residual force of 27 will include twelve NZDF personnel attached to the ISAF Special Operations Forces headquarters, and employed ‘mainly’ in intelligence and planning roles. And the rest of the time? Best left to the experts.

So for another year, our military will be helping defend a totally discredited corrupt, theocratic regime in Kabul whose days are clearly numbered. In reality, the New Zealanders serving in Afghanistan have been risking (and losing) their lives to protect the security of this government’s political relationships, not the security of New Zealand. Any further deaths will be on the Prime Minister’s conscience. It has been his decision to keep them in Afghanistan, long after the international threat posed by al Qaeda has been vanquished and long after the Karzai regime lost all credibility.

Oscar Politics

We’re in the final stages of an Oscar voting round that’s been beset by the hellacious clanging of political meta-texts. Zero Dark Thirty has been damned for its jingoism and journalistic inaccuracy, Argo has been championed despite its jingoism and journalistic inaccuracy, Lincoln has been both praised for its historical accuracy and damned for its historical inaccuracy, which seems to include a deliberate libel by Steven Spielberg on the anti-slavery voting record of the good state of Connecticut. We could, and will, go on. Because the high point of Hollywood politicking this year has to be this fantastic 29 second interview with Samuel L. Jackson about a certain aspect of Django Unchained.

ENDS

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