What does a government do when people are talking about things that don't suit it? It gives people something else to talk about instead.

You may have heard how the National Government generally, and Hekia Parata in particular, managed to turn what was meant to be a fairly bland and boring budget into a potential full-on revolt by the school sector backed by hoardes of upset parents. 

I'm not enough of an educational expert (I just drone on-and-on-and-on at the front of a lecture room ... I've no idea how teaching actually should be done) to say how much class-sizes actually matter. So for all I know, Parata's general policy actually might be a good one to pursue. 

But in terms of political presentation, it was a disaster. Middle New Zealand will accept a lot of things in the name of "fixing our nation's household budget", but start messing with little Jack and/or Jill's education and you're running into a minefield. And if you really, really feel you must go running in a minefield, it pays to first locate where all the mines are. Because if it turns out your policy is going to kill off beloved subjects like "hard materials" or "soft materials" (what we old folks used to call wood/metal work and sewing) at even a few schools ... then, BOOM!

Which means that since carelessly tripping that particular anti-personnel mine (making me wonder if the class-sizes policy actually might not be illegal in New Zealand), National has been frantically mounting a damage control operation. The quick reassurance that no school will lose more than two teachers (irrespective of what this will do to the promised savings, hence the extra money to "improve teacher quality") failed to do the trick. So seeing that it isn't winning this particular conversation, National wheeled out Paula Bennett to announce that the Government is considering introducing orders that will prohibit some convicted child-abusers from caring for, or living or working with, children in the future.

Now, I'm making an allegation here - that Paula Bennett's announcement was made purely to distract attention away from the class-sizes issue and get people talking about an issue the Government thinks will cast it in better light (or, at least, force its opponents into saying things that might cast them in worse light). I'm not the only one to make this claim. Reliably anti-National bloggers like this and this say so, too. But, then again, I probably also could be classed a "reliably anti-National blogger". So am I just peddling a swivel-eyed, leftist conspiracy theory?

Maybe. But here's my reasoning.

First of all, why announce this "policy" (and I'll come back to the reason for those quote marks in a second) at this particular point in time? It wasn't made in response to any particularly relevant event, or announced in a speech to a particularly relevant audience. It just plopped into the public arena out of the blue - so suddenly there isn't even a press release about it up on the Government's website.

Second, in terms of policy, the "no more children orders" suggestion is incredibly undeveloped. All Bennett (and the Prime Minister) are saying is that the Government is "considering" certain measures ... but can't say how those measures actually would work, or who they would apply to, or for how long, or anything much concrete about them at all. 

Sure, John Key apparently explained that  "New Zealanders should prepare for an at times uncomfortable conversation" about how to respond to child abuse. So maybe this announcement is just all a part of a "journey" we need to go on together. But if that is the reasoning, there's another problem.

Because the public announcement of this one particular policy proposal stands in stark contrast to how the general issue of child abuse is being considered within government. The Government currently is working on a "White Paper" of formal policy proposals to protect vulnerable children, following on from its "Green Paper" consulation exercise on the topic. That consultation produced 9000-odd submissions. As such, here's a few questions about how the Government's "no more children orders" proposal (which may or may not appear in the final White Paper) fits into this wider policy development scheme:

(1) How many of the submissions to the Green Paper suggested this policy would be a good one to adopt?

(2) Has this "no more children orders" proposal been "rigorously reality checked to ensure [it is] robust, practical and easy to understand" by the Reference Group established to advise officials on matters of policy - if so, what did they say about it; and if not, why announce it publicly before getting their views on it?

(3) Why select this one proposal out of all those being considered for inclusion in the White Paper to publicly announce at this point in time?

Finally, if the Government is serious about turning this measure into actual law, they appear to have failed the first rule of politics - learn how to count. Because the reactions of the support parties it will need to back its move in the House have been pretty hostile. Leaving the Government with (at most) 60 out of the 61 votes needed to get it onto the statute books.

Again, it may be that National thinks this proposal will be popular enough that United Future and/or the Maori Party eventually will have to swing in behind it. But it is pretty poor coalition management to tell the public about what you want to do to child abusers before checking with your support partners that they're on board with it. So poor as to make an observer wonder whether the end goal is getting the policy into law, or just getting people talking about whether it should be law.

So, there you are. Note that I haven't said anything about whether the actual "no more children orders" policy is a good or bad one to adopt. Because as soon as I were to do so ... well, the trick will have worked, won't it?

Comments (7)

by Matthew Percival on June 07, 2012
Matthew Percival

I see there has now been a total backdown on the teacher policy.

Even though I don't entirely agree with the teachers position it is good to see Democracy in action.

by DeepRed on June 07, 2012
DeepRed

Yep, you guessed it - Paula Bennett has mastered the art of attacking the symptom.

by DeepRed on June 07, 2012
DeepRed

"I see there has now been a total backdown on the teacher policy.

Even though I don't entirely agree with the teachers position it is good to see Democracy in action."

Next stop: Asset Sales.

by stuart munro on June 07, 2012
stuart munro

I believe all of these teaser issues have been raised to distract the public from the gross and negligent failure to meaningfully address New Zealand's economic problems. People may disagree about teaching, or eugenics for solo mums or sex offenders, but the government's economic track record, like Harfleur, is no longer defensible.

Asset sales, though they are an abuse of and a gesture of contempt for democracy pale into insignificance beside the failure to meaningfully engage with any of NZ's ongoing economic issues. If the greater public recognise the fact, National faces at best another decade in the wilderness.

Hence the parade of silly neoliberal conceits. Each one forgone increases the illusion of reasonableness. It's a way of generating approval when none of the actual policies are tenable.

by Tim Watkin on June 08, 2012
Tim Watkin

It's interesting – for all the reasons you suggest it seemed like a classic diversion; and perhaps it was hoped the mere mention would inspire talkback hosts and other media to change their tune. But what runs against your interpretation is:

a) even before Parata announced the u-turn, Bennett was turning down interview requests from all over. So there wasn't much effort going into the diversion.

b) Parata's announcement came only 24 hours after the abusers line, so assuming the u-turn wasn't decided in just a matter of hours (and who knows, perhaps this u-turn was done utterly on the fly) it seems too little, too late.

And c) It came from a very vague comment in a RadioLive interview that got picked up by other media, which makes it a very hit-and-miss diversion. (Perhaps the comment 'slipped out' on purpose and gallery media were pointed to it, but I haven't heard that claim).

by DeepRed on June 08, 2012
DeepRed

If it's not diversion, then maybe it's just preaching to the choir?

by Peter Clareburt on June 08, 2012
Peter Clareburt

Interesting - however I have a sneaky feeling that the classroom size was the diversion and maybe while people are cclapping themselves on the back something else is sneaking through. A bit like the schedule 4 mining. It takes a while to get critical mass in protest and once people have done their bit they tend to sit back a bit. The teapot sarga was another such stratagey - it took out 25% of labours election time considering the compressed timescale. 

Some of the so called political mistakes seem so stupid and of course gets everyone up in arms - but to me these are not stupid people at the senior levels of National and so I am just wondering - who is fooling who - I may well be wrong of course.

In the end the agenda is to cap funding in education for a while, and that is going to happen. - So  who will be to blame for poor educational outcomes if they occur - well the people who stopped the government improving the status quo of course.

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