When News of Murray McCully’s protracted recuperation from surgery began to filter round the capital, it was inevitable that speculation would turn to who could be his successor as foreign minister.
Names like Jonathan Coleman and Paula Bennett were quickly mentioned.
And then, Hekia Parata.
That wasn’t surprising. She would undoubtedly be an elegant and well qualified Foreign Minister.
Her CV includes a stint at Harvard after her master’s degree at Waikato.
Since the 1990s she has moved in and out of the public service and consultancy and with her marriage to Local Government Commission chair Sir Wira Gardiner, whose CV is even more heavyweight, she is the ultimate capital city insider.
Yet ask her whether she would one day like to be Foreign Minister and she demurs.
She says that when she decided to run for Parliament after she re-joined the National Party after her very public split with them over Don Brash’s Orewa comments about the Treaty of Waitangi she did so because she wanted to be Education Minister.
“I would be quite keen in being an associate finance Minister because that’s what effects change,” she says.
“But I’m very happy in my role.”
This answer says two things about Parata.
First it displays her caution when she is on the record or in public. In private she is an exuberant and engaging politician with a personality as big as her brain.
But perhaps because of the controversies she found herself in once she made it to Parliament and the Ministry — problems with cars, her sister’s senior position in the Minister of Education, problems at the Ministry with novopay and other matters and rumours of tensions in her office — these days she seems very careful with the face that she presents to the public.
But the other part of her desire to remain education minister reflects what is quite clearly. her genuine passion for the job
There aren’t many Ministers who can be convincing when they say they have got their ideal job. But she is.
What she is doing in education now reflects what is slowly becoming a radical overhaul of the sector; perhaps the most radical since the Picot Report and Tomorrow’s Schools in 1989.
Later this year she will pilot through Parliament a revised Education Act which will encapsulate a lot of her thinking about education.
And this starts with he own background. She was brought up in a house where education dominated. Her father was deputy head teacher at Ngata Memorial College in Ruatoria and she went there and happily quotes its motto, “e tipu e rea” which the College translates as “achievements of the highest ideals of life” and she says means “grow and fulfil the needs of your generation”.
She says coming from Ruatoria meant she came from a community that was materially impoverished but culturally rich.
“I came from a family that had a high and explicit emphasis on the value of education coupled with a very clear expectation of doing as well as you possibly could and education was the platform for that.
“The discussion in my home was always around reading and understanding what was going on in the world.”
And she and her brothers and sisters was encouraged to challenge the status quo.
“I remember coming round the corner at College and down the whole row of four classrooms there was a Parata child sitting on the rubbish tin outside because they had all been kicked out of class for being argumentative and challenging and all of those things.
“My father just looked down the row and turned around and walked back the other way.”
She says that though her parents encouraged to challenge it had to be an informed and intelligent challenge.
But she is also Ngati Porou and as she says she comes from hapu who have traditionally put a huge emphasis on education and going to university and who look back to Sir Apirana Ngata and the Young Maori Party and the way they advocated maintaining a Maori cultural identity at the same time as gaining a Pakeha education.
All of this is ideal preparation for the big challenge facing education in New Zealand which is how to lift the achievement of Maori and Pacifica children who have been lagging behind overall achievement.
With this sort of background it probably wasn’t surprising that she was once a student activist campaigning against the 1981 Springbok tour and for various Maori causes.
But like most National Party Ministers of Education she has had her own battles with the kind of people she probably once marched with on demonstrations; the members of the teacher unions.
The proposal in the 2012 Budget to increase class sizes, for example, was a particular battle which eventually she lost.
She says this taught her a lesson.
“I learnt a lot of lessons from that and one of them was to put a lot more time into creating relationships with the unions and relationships with the profession and relationships with parents and family and whanau.”
And she’s been helped by having the highly regarded public service leader, Peter Hughes become Secretary of Education in 2013.
One of Hughes’ innovations has been to place a Deputy Secretary in the Minister’s office, a move which draws the Minister and the notoriously prickly Ministry closer together.
But all that doesn’t mean she has given up trying to change the teaching profession.
She has gained a wider acceptance for her “Investing in Educational Success” programme which has established communities of learning which encourages schools to work together and to share teacher expertise.
But there are still issues.
The current teaching pay scale rewards principals according to the size of the school they head rather than the degree of challenge they face.
But she rules out trying to introduce performance pay, traditionally a quick answer to educational issues from the right in her party.
Nevertheless teacher quality is critical.
“Every profession is a bell curve and there are some who are outstanding at one end of the curve and then there are some who should really get another job and then there is a distribution through the middle and in that regard I see my job of constantly investing to move that bell curve towards excellence.”
Part of that involves the use of data to pin point where action is required.
Ironically much of that data derives from the controversial National Standards regime which went into full operation in 2012.
She says that there is now enough data for it to be robust and that it allows teachers to understand what difference they need to be making for the kids they are teaching.
Significantly, teacher objections to the standards appear to have subsided.
Ultimately what she tries to focus on is achievement. And again, that comes back to Ruatoria and Ngata and her own career. But with that background she also defines her job in a way that is entirely consistent with the John Key/Bill English National Party.
“The way I see my job is really simple; to get as many kids, Maori, Pasifika, New Zealander, the best education possible and for them to make their decisions as a result of that.
“So for Maori and Pacifica kids the focus that I have had is a relentless focus on the individual.
“How do they get the opportunities they need and then it’s their choice.
“I don’t think that I or any Government of any stripe can make someone’s life better.
“You can create the environment; you can make investments that give them better choices and you can set up incentives for them to make as good choices as possible but in the end they are individuals who will make those choices.”
It’s classic National 2016 style. Drive what you are doing by results rather than ideology.
That sort of thinking puts her right at the heart of the Key Cabinet. How long will she be happy to be Education Minister? How long before she moves further up the ladder?