The class size issue is the first substantive back down of the Key administration. Thus, it will be a milestone in the history of this Government.
Back-downs expose the core tension in politics between leading a nation the way politicians see best, and leading a nation the way the people see best.
To win votes, politicians often need to mash up the things voters want with the things the politician wants. There’s few politicians whose platform is to do everything the public wants. There’s few politicians whose platform is to do only what they want. Most live uncomfortably in-between – always trying to bring together what they want with what the public wants.
The idea of trading off class sizes for “quality teaching” was what National wanted. But the art of politics is sniffing when need to swap out what you want for what the public want. I said after the Budget that given the strong preference of parents (i.e. a lot of middle-NZ voters) for smaller class sizes, the policy was brave.
The risk politicians take in pursuing what they want, is that they can get caught further away from public acceptability than they are comfortable with. At this point, they can choose to back-down. But a back-down has problems.
1) Governments appear fallible. A back-down, after first insisting and resisting, signals that your ideas can be wrong. If you are wrong about this, what else will you be wrong about? It also invites people to pressure you over issues in the future.
2) Governments get offside with the public. Western Governments, largely, want to be popular. Being popular attracts more popularity. Not being popular is equally infectious.
Will National’s class size back-down matter? In the long term, the two factors listed above will count against National. But for now, there are three very likely results:
- The public will be largely pleased about the reversal, and will not hold too much against National just now.
- Working with the education sector will get tougher for the Government.
- Hekia Parata’s political stock will not change: she bravely went to bat for the policy, and handled the back-down astutely. There are questions about the degree to which the policy was questioned before it got into the Budget, and the wisdom of the two-stage back-down, but it is likely that many players were involved.
There is a way of preventing this sort of risk from back-downs. It requires a type of politicking that knows its own mind, but is not afraid to channel public opinion rather than reflect it, to crowd-sources solutions, and to takes less ownership (and credit) for ideas.
But that secret is for a different post.