Trevett on Tolley

In their third feature in a series, Claire Trevett rates ’s first year in the job:

Anne Tolley was reportedly given the job of National’s education spokeswoman because of her reputation as the party’s whip of having an iron hand in a velvet glove.

Party leaders John Key and Bill English believed her tough approach would serve her well against the infamously lippy and powerful teacher unions.

Personally I would recommend deploying 245-T against the teacher unions 🙂

Her decision to target adult night courses as one area for cuts is understandable and should have been easier to “sell” – deeper cuts to education for young people would be even more unpalatable.

But it attracted far more opprobrium than it should have. It drew a petition with more than 50,000 signatures, and National sources say backbench electorate MPs were besieged to such an extent that a caucus revolt was narrowly averted.

She underestimated the public reaction to it and erred in understating the impact by saying it would affect only “hobby” courses such as Moroccan cooking and belly dancing.

My view remains that the true scandal is that we were subsidising so many of these courses at all. I think National could have been ore aggressive on this issue, and painted Labour’s defence of them as a case of being out of touch.

Labour MPs have gained a grudging respect for other ministers they initially targeted, such as Paula Bennett. They remain disparaging about Mrs Tolley. Former education minister Trevor Mallard is now the Opposition’s education spokesman.

Although he can be merciless, his attacks have made little impact as yet partly because he is distracted by his other duties.

If he put the unremitting focus on education that Bill English did when he was made education spokesman after being ousted as National’s leader in 2003, Mallard could make mincemeat of Tolley.

There is a difference. Mallard’s attacks on Tolley are quite personal. English’s blitz on Education was focused on standards and outcomes.

As it is, Mrs Tolley is showing signs of improvement. Until recently, she was reluctant to return media calls on even uncontroversial matters. This was astonishing for a front bench minister in charge of such a fundamental portfolio.

I find if you don’t call the media back, it rarely helps you.

National’s current policy does not propose any major reforms of the types that invoked widespread outrage in the 1990s. But Mrs Tolley is struggling against the unions to bring in even those smaller scale changes for which it has a broad public mandate.

My biggest criticism in Education is of the policy, not the Minister. I think wider ranging reforms are needed. I want performance pay, standard funding etc.

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