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Free Press, 14 May - The Teachers' Mega-Strike

With Friends Like These

Free Press bets Education Minister Chris Hipkins wishes he’d kept charter schools. Sacrificing them to keep the unions happy hasn’t satiated them one bit. It’s a good example of why you should never give in to a bully. That the unions are promising the Labour Government the largest strike in New Zealand history (about two thirds of 50,000 teachers are union members) is one thing. That they are striking the day before the Government’s flagship ‘Wellbeing Budget’ is, as the kids say, savage AF.

$100 Billion of PR

For the party in power, the Budget is a PR game with a simple objective. Get as much positive publicity as possible for spending $100 billion of other people’s money. There’s a limit to how much bang you can get for your buck if it’s all on one day, so governments roll out an announcement every few days to spread the jam as far as possible. If they’re lucky, the warm glow of generosity will cover over a Shane Jones indiscretion or an embarrassing KiwiBuild revelation.

A $100 Billion PR Problem

The Government’s difficulty now is that everything they do will be gazumped by a simple response: ‘yeah, yeah, but you can’t pay the teachers’. The test for every pre and post-Budget announcement will be: is this more important than paying teachers properly? Almost no announcements will make the grade.

Exhibit A

The Government said it would spend $95 million (over four years) on a range of measures to make more students want to be teachers. Well, there’s about 50,000 teachers, so they could have just given every one of them about $500, nearly an extra one per cent raise on the average teacher’s salary. Instead, they will spend the money getting more students to enter the profession so they can leave after five years too.

Exhibit B

The Government then announced it would spend $47 million over four years on clean energy research in Taranaki. They seem to have missed that there is an energy sector in Taranaki because fossil fuel deposits are there. It is madness, but it could also be another half a per cent raise for teachers, and so it will go on.

The Teachers’ Case

In 1984, a teacher at the top of the pay scale earned 80 per cent more than the average wage. Today, they earn 40 per cent more than the average wage. It’s the kind of treatment that leads to strikes and protests. We are lucky not too many teachers are French, or half the country would be burning by now. It’s also a very good example to remind anyone who thinks unions help workers.

Not Just Money

The forces of bureaucratisation that plague nearly every aspect of life are in education too. Lessons must be planned and progress must be measured. Continuous internal assessment has replaced annual external exams. The complexity of behaviours teachers have to deal with has increased exponentially. We know of one school that took in 100 new students this year. 10 of them had autism spectrum disorder. At precisely the time we need better people in the classroom, pay is getting less competitive.

We Don’t Want to Say We Told You So...

But ACT campaigned on increasing teacher pay by a billion dollars if only they abandoned union contracts and went on individual employment agreements like every other profession. This kind of initiative would have been a much better investment than Fees-Free, more welfare, keeping pensions at 65 even as people live longer, or Shane Jones’s slush fund. All of those expenditures continue while the nation’s teachers undertake a mega-strike that’s difficult to disagree with.

C’est la vie

As with so much of what this Government does, the real priorities are easy to see but neglected in favour of policies that make for better PR. Now it’s coming back to bite them in the bum, from the unions who are supposed to be Labour’s friends. Had they done the right thing and taken on the unions by offering principals a lot more money to pay good teachers well, we’d have better people in the classrooms and union dominance of education subdued. Instead, we have KiwiBuild, the Provincial Growth Fund, Fees-Free, and a lot of very angry parents looking for babysitters the day before the Government’s showcase Budget.

Don’t Forget

Ticket sales are already strong for ACT’s annual conference, which will relaunch the party with a few surprises in store. For a political party conference like no other, please register here.

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