The Prime Minister chairs Cabinet. The Budget is signed off, policy by policy, by Cabinet. Any competent Prime Minister would be intimately familiar with the major policy changes well before they even get to Cabinet.
So, it was very interesting to see Audrey Young’s ‘insider’ piece on the education debacle yesterday. It’s chock full of tidbits that smell like they were supplied by Murray McCully (using the intermediate newsletters from his own electorate was a bit of a giveaway). What’s McCully’s objective going to be in giving inside information to Young for this kind of story? Well, he’s National’s political strategist, and loyal to whoever his current boss is. Clearly, it’s going to be all about inoculating Key.
But, as a bonus, McCully directs the blame to one of his old enemies, and kills one faction’s leadership ambitions.
All the blame is sleeted home to Bill English and Hekia Parata. We learn that English had been pushing for increases to the teacher ratios since 2009 to free up more money for discretionary spending in Vote Education (which may well be true, but isn’t it interesting we’re being told now). We’re told that Parata is English’s protege (and not that she is also tight with the same people who put Key in charge). English, we’re told, didn’t want to drop the policy even to the last.
We also learn that Parata quit National over Brash’s Orewa speech, which frames her as disloyal or not committed enough to the party.
So, that’s the English faction dealt with.
But where’s John Key in this story? Nowhere, McCully would have us believe. We’re given the impression he and other ministers had little notion of the policy before the Budget:
“The only people more surprised at the Budget outcome than the intermediate schools were the Cabinet ministers who had signed off on the policy without realising its effects. It seems they ticked it off at a Cabinet meeting chock-a-block with Budget items and were satisfied by assurances that 90 per cent of schools would barely feel the difference. … Exactly when during the process Parata realised what the huge impact would be on intermediate and middle schools she is not willing to say. But incredibly the Cabinet learned about it only after she had made her pre-Budget announcement in a speech to a business audience in Wellington on May 16.”
In the backwards world that we operate in, a Prime Minister not knowing about the basic effects of a major policy is a good thing because it means he isn’t to blame. All he did, we’re told, is come in on his white charger at the end of the day and kill the policy, once the polls told him he to.
I heard Matthew Hooton running this same spin on RNZ on Friday – ‘it was all Parata and English’s fault, Key saved the day, this was a victory for him’.
I’m sorry, but that’s just not going to wash. Key was defending this policy for two weeks. That doesn’t just go down the memory hole. The damage will be lasting.
And what damage it is: there’s the polling hit, of course, which National can ill-afford with all its support partners walking dead; there’s the loss of a potential leader who was far more electable than alternatives like Judith Collins and Steven Joyce; a policy that was intended to help break the power of the teachers’ unions has only strengthened them; National’s policy momentum is broken; and the Government looks weak – questions are now being asked about why it won’t back down over a similarly unpopular policy – asset sales.
All McCully’s spin can’t stop that sticking to Key.