Chris Hipkins

Lots of time for unions, virtually none for Charter Schools

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Perhaps unsurprising, but definitely disappointing, is that Education Minister Chris Hipkins has made plenty of time in his ministerial diary to meet with education unions, but virtually none to meet with, or visit, Charter Schools.

The exception to this being when Hipkins spoke at Waitangi with representatives of He Puna Mārana Trust, the sponsor of two Charter Schools whose connections to Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis have been the subject of Parliamentary scrutiny.

It makes perfect sense for a new Minister of Education to meet with two of the largest representative groups in the sector for which he's responsible for. Three times in your first seven weeks as Minister is probably reasonable too as you get to grips with the issues in your portfolio

But it also makes sense for the Minister to at least have made an effort to engage with Charter Schools too other than his edict that they either submit (in good faith of course) to the Ministry of Education gutting what's made them so successful, or he'll use his powers as Minister to tear up their contracts.

These schools are benefiting 1,000 students, some of them amongst New Zealand's most vulnerable kids, and are turning around lives thanks to the innovative approach that's only possible due to the freedom afforded to them.

You'd think that before writing off these schools and their operating model due to little more than narrow-minded and ideologically driven Labour Party policy, the Minister owes it to the students, their parents, and the teachers of these schools whose lives he's about to turn upside down, to have at least made an effort to meet or visit them as Minister. Especially when, as Hipkins recently announced, that the government is going to be undertaking a significant review of the education sector.

Of course for Hipkins it's much easier to threaten Charter Schools with closure if you don't have to come face-to-face with the families whose lives you're going to throw into turmoil. Given how often the then Labour opposition demanded this of the previous National Government, it seems like they're firmly on track to be guilty of the same behaviour.

You can read the full OIA I received from Hipkins below.

Callous Hipkins undermines Ardern's claim to kindness

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's claim that she wanted to bring kindness back to Government, made on 26 October 2017, seems a long time ago in light of Education Minister Chris Hipkins' decision that it's "our way or the highway" to Charter Schools this week.

If you're one of the students, their parents, or a teacher at a Charter School, Hipkins' announcement on 8 February would have come as a bombshell. Having made previous commitments about the Ministry of Education conducting case-by-case negotiations in good faith with Charter Schools, and that such negotiations will be carried out by the Ministry rather than Ministers, this week Hipkins turned that all on its head.

In a sinister sounding press release, Hipkins has essentially told Charter Schools that if they don't agree with the Ministry of Education by May 2018 to terminate their contracts early, then Hipkins himself will intervene and tear them up for them.

Perhaps the Education Minister should visit one of those Charter Schools he's so eager to close, borrow a dictionary, and look up the meaning of the phrase "good faith". Because he'll find that telling people to agree to his his terms "or else" doesn't come under the definition.

What's interesting is that the entire approach to Charter Schools by the new government flies contrary to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's promise that she would bring kindness back to Government. There is nothing kind about her Government's handling of Charter Schools, especially given that many of the students attending them have been failed by the state school system that Chris Hipkins is so ideologically bent on forcing them back into.

Simply put, the Government's approach is callous, heartless, and Hipkins in particular has taken the tone of a schoolyard bully about it.

The thing is, it didn't have to be this way. Labour could have simply announced it wasn't going to fund the opening of anymore Charter Schools, and allowed the existing ones to keep going. It wouldn't have been quite the win that the teachers' unions were demanding on the policy, but it likely would have been enough to keep them happy, and not derail the Government's post-Waitangi Day high.

What's more, the whole announcement around forcing Charter Schools to close from Hipkins is indicative of an ongoing issue from Jacinda Ardern's Government (and one that plagued the Labour Party in opposition too), and that is their uncanny knack to do something good at the start of a news week, then spectacularly shoot themselves in the foot by the end of it, which you can read more about in 100 days of action looking like 100 days driven to distraction.

Of course, a common theme in this all appears to be Chris Hipkins. Whether it was stuffing up Labour's leadership of the House, announcing policies which he hasn't costed yet, or not being able to remember whether fee free tertiary education would apply to Australian students studying in New Zealand, Chris Hipkins seems woefully out of his depth.

It's also interesting that for all the apparent experience in the Prime Minister's Office, such as Heather Simpson, Mike Munro, and Mike Jaspers, that simple political mistakes and mismanagement seem to keep plaguing Labour. Either everyone's just not very good at their jobs (which in the case of Simpson, Munro, and Jaspers I don't believe, because they're all extremely good operators), or - the more likely option - people like Chris Hipkins are failing to communicate or coordinate with the PMO at all. 

The net result of Chris Hipkins' bully-boy tactics towards Charter Schools is that it's taken all the gloss off the Government's successful visit to Waitangi. Instead the narrative for the week ahead will be people asking what students in Charter Schools did to deserve to be so directly threatened by Chris Hipkins, and where did Jacinda Ardern's promise to be kind get lost over the summer?

The selective bringing back of kindness

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Having made a big deal about wanting to bring kindness back to government, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government have been a bit hit and miss about how they apply that kindness.

On the one hand, if you're a university student you're set to benefit from that kindness. Student allowances are going to be increased and fee free tertiary education is being progressively reintroduced from 1 January 2018. Likewise, single mums will no longer face benefit sanctions for refusing to name the father of their child on the birth certificate. There's new standards for rental accommodation, and paid parental leave will be increasing to 22 weeks in 2018 and 26 weeks by 2020.

While the government will introduce their own legislation to enable sharing of paid parental leave, the petty political games they played over knocking back sensible amendments and declining leave for Amy Adams' stand along bill wasn't so kind.

So that's the kindness out of the way.

On the flip side things are a bit darker. The new government has continued on the xenophobia that it displayed in opposition, with it seeking to introduce legislation to ban foreign buyers from purchasing existing properties, despite the evidence showing this will largely have no impact on prices given the small role foreign buyers have in our market. Factor in the pending immigration crackdown championed by both Labour and New Zealand First, and anti-immigrant sentiment is being stoked by the new government.

If you're a student at a partnership school, you and your family face a summer of uncertainty with Education Minister Chris Hipkins hovering like the sword of Damocles over their futures. Prime Minister Ardern added to this, effectively telling partnership schools it was her way or the highway for their future, with no acknowledgement of the fact that partnership schools are providing a productive alternative for students who aren't thriving in the state school system.

Then there's the "it's not called work for the dole" work for the dole scheme. Despite Shane Jones and Prime Minister Ardern dressing it up as a scheme that will pay the minimum wage, we've seen how these compulsory work schemes have failed in the past, and there's little to suggest this will be any different.

Cavalier attitude to costings undermines Labour's economic credibility

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With Labour traditionally struggling for economic credibility, they're doing themselves no favours with pressure mounting on them to explain how they're going to pay for all the policies they've agreed to in their coalition agreement with New Zealand First, and their confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party.

Of the policies in those agreements, it's notable that only two have a price tag attached to them. They are the $1 billion a year Provincial Pork Barrel (Regional Development Fund) for New Zealand First, and a $100m Green Investment Fund for the Green Party.

Grant Robertson poured fuel on the fire when he appeared on The Nation and was repeatedly pushed by host Lisa Owen on releasing costings. Robertson also erred when he tried to claim that Labour hadn't had access to the public service to cost the policies they'd agreed to, a claim which has now been shown to be false, with Treasury confirming that they had worked on costing policies for Labour during the negotiations to form a new government.

With Robertson's misleading comments spectacularly exposed, the pressure piled on when Labour announced they were increasing student allowances by approximately $50 a week. What Labour failed to do when they made that announcement was to also reveal how much the increase was going to cost, with Tertiary Education Minister Chris Hipkins offering a bumbling excuse that essentially boiled down to that the government would release the costings once they'd figured out how much it would cost.

It was an amazingly cavalier attitude to take about the spending of tax payer's money. Not withstanding the fact that increasing student allowances is a good move, to announce the increase without purportedly knowing the full cost of that increase, suggests a carefree attitude to responsible management of the government finances that plays right into National's hands.

The pressure is clearly showing. Labour was forced to cave after a day and release costings on the student allowance increasing, with it costing around $700 million over four years, less than what they'd originally anticipated it would when they announced the idea in opposition back in April.

Whether or not you agree with National's finance spokesperson Steven Joyce's claim of an $11 billion hole in Labour's fiscal plan, Labour are doing themselves no favours by mangling the financial side of announcements. If Labour wants to dispel doubts about their economic credibility, then they need to be upfront about the costs of new policies as they announce them, and ensure that their mini-Budget, should it be announced, stacks up perfectly.

Hipkins' creates omnishambles on first day as Leader of the House

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On the Commission Opening of Parliament the Leader of the House has one simple job - make sure you have the numbers to elect a Speaker. Today the new Leader of the House Chris Hipkins failed to do just that.

With at least five Labour, NZ First, and Green Party MPs away and one National Party MP, Labour wasn't confident if it would have had the numbers in the House to elect Trevor Mallard as Speaker.

If Hipkins was doing his job properly he would have realised that he didn't have the numbers before the Commission Opening, and would have approached National's Leader of the House, Simon Bridges, and done a deal before it came to a head on the floor of the House.

The onus is on the Government to ensure it has the numbers to ensure confidence, pass legislation, elect a Speaker, and so on. You can't fault the Opposition for picking up on Labour potentially not having the numbers and forcing the issue.

The net result for Labour is that they've been forced into an embarrassing back down over Select Committee numbers.

Nothing short of an omnishambles from the Government on its first day in the House.

UPDATE:

It appears as if Labour fell for a spectacular bluff on National's part. Labour did actually have the numbers 58 to 56, however ended up negotiating on Select Committee numbers to ensure that Trevor Mallard's nomination as Speaker didn't end up going to a vote. As a result, there are now 108 Select Committee places, with National receiving 5 chairs and 5 deputy chairs.

Leader of the House Chris Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern emerged nearly four hours after Labour's shambolic performance in the House to try and spin their way out of it. Hipkins claimed that they knew they had the numbers, but wanted Mallard to be elected unopposed to show he had the confidence of the House (ignoring the fact that in the past opposition parties have voted against Speakers), and also that they had let National know previous that Labour wouldn't oppose a nomination, and had hoped National would do the same.

Problem with Hipkins' claims are this: there's no onus on the opposition to ever vote with the Government on anything. Your base operating position should also be that if you haven't heard anything to the contrary, you always assume the opposition will not support whatever it is you're putting to the House.

Fun and games in the House by oppositions are nothing new. Last term I remember some urgent legislation that Nick Smith put to the House. As it was an omnibus bill being passed under urgency, it meant that the then opposition could keep putting up amendments which the then Government would then have to vote down. Even though the opposition parties knew all their amendments would be voted down, they still did it because they had been given the opportunity to do so.

What is far more likely is that Hipkins and Labour's leadership team were completely unprepared for some basic House manoeuvring, didn't realise their bluff was being called, and ended up caving on Select Committee numbers which they had, up until now, been firmly entrenched on.

While this whole botch-up by Labour is little more than a Beltway sideshow, it's still hugely embarrassing for Labour. They know that one of their key weaknesses this term will be avoiding getting stuck in the narrative that they're unable to manage their two divergent partners in NZ First and the Greens. Today's omnishambles did little to dispel that.