Analysis: James Shaw apologises for his astonishing “error of judgement”, National promises to help new parents if it wins the election, the Speaker orders the opposition to withdraw a “misleading” advert and Parliament limps to the end of its term, [Peter Wilson writes.
“It didn’t work out well.” James Shaw’s words will probably go down as the understatement of the year after his disastrous decision to fund a private school nearly $12 million of taxpayer money.
Shaw issued a media release last week to announce the decision to fund the development of the Taranaki Green School. It sounded like good news, and Shaw clearly thought it was a big win.
The Green Party co-leader said the $11.7 million would allow the school to expand its roll from 120 students to 250, secure 200 construction jobs and contribute $43 million a year to Taranaki’s economy. It was one of the “shovel ready” projects to be funded through the $3 billion Covid-19 Recovery Fund.
What he hadn’t considered, or perhaps hadn’t remembered, was his party’s fundamental policy that private schools should not be publicly funded.
Shaw initially defended his decision, saying the money was for a construction project, but the storm that brewed over the weekend forced him to admit on Tuesday he had made “an error of judgement” and issue an apology to everyone he could possibly apologise to.
They included his MPs, former MPs, teacher unions and parents. During the uproar, which gained extraordinary publicity, the “construction project” justification was totally eclipsed. It became a very emotive matter of the government giving money to a private school charging fees of up to $40,000 a year while state schools in the region suffered severe under-funding.
One former MP, Catherine Delahunty, stated a concern that may have been shared by others: “I think James, as a minister, has become isolated from the party to some degree, in the sense of his instincts didn’t tell him that this was never going to fly with the Green Party.”
The acting principal of New Plymouth’s Marfell Community School, Keally Warren, wrote a scathing letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern telling her the grant was “totally unacceptable, elitist and completely inequitable”.
Call for Shaw to resign
It was a gift for the opposition. National’s leader Judith Collins went to New Plymouth to announce a policy that would allocate nearly $5 billion to repairing and renewing schools and classrooms across the country over the next 10 years. That helped fuel the fire that was roasting Shaw.
Collins said he should resign, which Shaw didn’t feel was necessary.
Late on Wednesday a bad situation became worse when Newshubreported an email from Shaw’s office to his fellow ministers which said he wasn’t going to sign off on at least 44 other shovel-ready projects unless the grant to the Green School was included. It would be interesting to know how Newshub got hold of the email.
Collins accused him of “holding the rest of the government basically to ransom” and suggested to RNZ the delay could have cost hundreds of jobs. Shaw denied there had been any hold up and said the email was sent because he had concerns about some of the other projects.
The Green School’s chief executive, Chris Edwards, said the application had been for the money to be split – 25 percent as a grant and the rest in a series of loans. He emphasised that it wasn’t education money, and said if the school didn’t get it not a cent would come back to the public sector or Taranaki.
Shaw said he thought the best solution would be for the money to become a loan, and at the end of the week negotiations were under way. Finance Minister Grant Robertson had earlier said there was no question of pulling the funding because it had been granted in good faith.
As RNZ’s political editor Jane Patterson pointed out, Shaw’s fellow ministers didn’t rush to help him out. Education Minister Chris Hipkins said funding the Green School wasn’t something he would have prioritised. Labour wanted to stay well clear of it.
Contentious ad linked to Collins
Collins, meanwhile, had some problems of her own. Speaker Trevor Mallard ordered National to withdraw a “misleading” advert which purported to show a statement on a ministerial letterhead and carried the party leader’s name as the authoriser.
Collins said she hadn’t known anything about it. The party had put it up without telling her.
“I didn’t even know about the ad, which I was really quite annoyed about,” she said. “The use of my name was unacceptable.”
On Thursday Collins continued her social policy rollout, promising services worth $3000 for new parents. It would be means tested.
The funding would not be a direct payment but would allow parents to access services during the first 1000 days of their child’s life such as post-birth screening, additional paid parental leave, specialist support and GP home visits.
National has costed the policy at $200 million a year.
“This new funding, allocated per child rather than directly to services, will mean that parental demand will determine which services receive how much of the additional money,” Collins said.
At the same time, National would means test the $60 a week Best Start payment for new parents introduced by the government.
No fireworks as Parliament ends
Parliament adjourned on Wednesday and will be dissolved on Sunday so the 17 October election can take place. The prime minister delayed the date from 19 September because of the Covid-19 outbreak and Parliament sat for an extra three weeks.
It was a feeble session with far fewer MPs than usual because of Auckland’s restrictions. Collins’ questioning of Ardern was more irritating than incisive and MPs were glad to get it over with. “Zombie Parliament stumbles to a close with little to inspire,” said Stuff’s headline, and it was about right.
*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.