Saturday, October 3, 2009

In the Beehive

In my wildest dreams I’d never imagined spending eighteen months working in close proximity to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In David Lange’s autobiography I warrant two sentences. In mine he fills more space. Such is the nature of experience and the good fortune that led me to be an education aide to him. In my span of three score years and fifteen those eighteen months rank spectacular.
Part of the turbulence was the education administration reform Tomorrow’s Schools. Structural reform was part of the ethos of the period - the fourth Labour Government was in full flight, economy booming, share prices soaring, a gold-rush mentality. Anything goes and everything goes, the stagnant economy of the Muldoon era kickstarted into vitality. There was a desire to put more efficiency into all systems, including education. Critics at the time pointed out emphasis was upon input and process rather than outcomes and claimed consultation and participation too often led to veto and paralysis.
One specific education event proved crucial. Russell Marshall then Minister of Education and David Caygill (Associate Minister of Finance) put an agreed secondary salary claim on the Cabinet table only to have it rejected by their colleagues. PPTA then took the claim to arbitration, and gained a 32% increase - an amount close to that earlier negotiated. This led to blow-outs in other parts of the public sector. Many in Government were outraged - education must be re-structured.
Behind these mindsets and value judgements was a vague, generally accepted idea of devolution and empowerment. Up for grabs, the concept of devolution free-floated in the ideological atmosphere. It had been voiced consistently since 1877. After 120 years its time had arrived. The degree of control exercised by the Department of Education and the Education Boards was increasingly criticised as inflexible and inappropriate. The status quo held dwindling support. Previous attempts at administrative shakeups had failed but now both Marxist lecturers and New Right theoreticians alike agreed about the need for radical reform. A consensus had emerged about the need to redefine the relationship between the central authority and the individual school in a way which would enable greater decision making by the school, especially primary.
This consensus (we have lived with its contradictions ever since) hid an uneasy alliance. On the one hand, devolution was seen as an extension of the state sector reform model to schools. On the other it was seen as a vehicle to increase the involvement of parents in education. Added to this tension there was a third agenda, some saw the reforms as necessary cost-cutting. "We have got to corral this run-away herd." It was an era of tight fiscal control. As the reforms were implemented, decisions were often made to control, and sometimes reduce, education expenditure on financial rather than education grounds. It was part of the larger debate – what is the role of government. Over this battle-ground Lange and Douglas fought to a standstill. This was the second reason for turbulence. I went on holiday at Waiheke Island before I started working in the Beehive. I was swimming at the moment David Lange pulled the plug on the flat tax.
But inevitably, given that the education radicals joined forces with the conservative critics in demanding a major re-structuring, some form of administrative shake-up would occur. Post-war New Zealand education planning reflected the international trend - centralised top-down implementation. Various attempts to make it more democratic failed until the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms swept that model aside. Many in education still hanker for a return. Quite a number outside also. Of course, there is irony in that the reforms attempting devolution were themselves a top-down imposition. Compounding this irony is the factor that the centre and the politicians remain unwilling to let the system go. Indeed they too keep pulling up the plant to see why it isn’t growing.
My original role of just being education speech-writer had long gone. It was the most hectic time of my existence. The adrenaline rush carried its own buzz but there was too little time to reflect or consider consequences. I realise once a government is formed it carries its own momentum, the energy consumption based on the thoughts, plans and hopes at the time of taking office.
It was not just education. There were three press aides. One day I was under siege from NZEI and the Minister of Labour’s Office involved in an industrial dispute. NZEI claimed the issue was educational, the Minister of Labour’s office was adamant it was none of the PM’s business and he was stay out of it. A view which coincided with his own. It was a period when the Boss as called him was under immense pressure. My phone kept ringing from both parties. I left it off the hook. A telephonist appeared at my office, the other two press secretaries were out of the office would I take a call from an agriculture reporter from Dublin. “I can’t help him. Put him through to the agriculture adviser in the Boss’s office.” Protocol did not allow that. I had to take the call. So I did. Rather incoherently the Irishmen began chastising his old mate David Lange on selling out on Ireland. He admitted he’d been at the whiskey bottle quite a bit during the evening. Eventually I pieced together his concern. It seemed New Zealand was dumping old mutton in the Middle East. I told him I’d ring back and went and saw the appropriate adviser. He knew nothing about it. I rang Dublin to relay this information. He’d had more whiskey. “It must be true” he wailed down the line. “My old mate Lange.” I asked how he knew the PM. Apparently he’d accompanied the Irish prime minister during his visit here. I’d just hung up when the adviser appeared. It had just come over the wires, it wasn’t our mutton, it was Australian. One of the other press officers had returned so I left him to cope with Dublin while I kept reiterating to the disputants, ‘no I will not involve the PM.” A back bencher appeared to lobby for NZEI.
That evening it occurred to me that I was one of the first people in New Zealand to know a particular piece of information about world trade.

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