Puffed-Up Political Popinjay: Associate Minister of Education, Craig Foss. The Member for Tukituki epitomises the National Party's almost reflexive antagonism towards urban culture and the free life of the mind which it promotes. Mr Foss's neoliberal ventriloquists are determined to dismantle the democratic and egalitarian education system set in place by the First Labour Government.
SEVEN YEARS AGO Craig Foss made his living manipulating money for Credit Suisse Financial Products. Before that he had, like his leader, John Key, been a currency trader. In 2005, after heaving Labour’s Rick Barker out of the provincial Hawke’s Bay electorate of Tukituki, he became a National Party MP. National had been odds-on favourite to take the seat, but everyone agrees Mr Foss worked tirelessly to make it a certainty.
He was perfectly cast for the role. The election of 2005 marked the first surge of the king conservative tide which would sweep away practically all Labour’s representation in the provinces and seriously erode much of its urban base. To the conservative voters of Tukituki Mr Foss’s jutting chin, porcine squint, and querulous pout communicated the confidence of the self-made man who understands the value of Pounds, Dollars and Euros – but very little else.
This lack of cultural depth was anything but a handicap in Tukituki, where the Clark Government’s intelligent social liberalism had long since outworn its welcome. Mr Foss may have spent much of his working life in the world's financial hubs, but his values remain firmly rooted in the socially conservative Hutt Valley suburbs of the 1960s and 70s, where he was raised.
BEING A TORY in the Hutt Valley of that era can't have been easy. Surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of industrial workers in New Zealand, the besieged defenders of free enterprise who triennially defied the Labour-voting hordes must have felt like political refugees. Their true home wasn’t the Hutt, seething with socialists, but out there – in the Heartland. In all those decent, hard-working provincial towns. In all those leafy city suburbs. That’s where “real Kiwis” lived, well-fenced against trouble-making trade-unionists, subversive secondary-school teachers and condescending academics.
It’s this almost reflexive antagonism to urban culture that turns most National Governments into dreary re-runs of The Heartland’s Revenge: a dull-witted drama punctuated by repeated acts of petty social vengeance. Think Murray McCully’s dismantling of MFAT; Paula Bennett’s axing of the Tertiary Assistance Grant; Steven Joyce’s sabotage of public transport; and Bill English’s pogrom against public servants. Most of all, think of the entire National Caucus’s hatred of education.
Nothing epitomises the Tory mind-set more completely than its attitude to learning. The essence of conservatism is its love of boundaries. People are supposed to stay where they are put: the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. Workers, Maori, women, children: each must remain in their allotted social space. The only legitimate vector of social mobility is wealth. Work, by itself, will not set you free: but work attached to bundles of cash just might. Of course, money is not the only source of freedom. The human mind, liberated from ignorance, prejudice and superstition, bestows upon its owner a very different sort of wealth. Education has the power to dissolve boundaries – which is why conservatives hate it with such passion.
Why else would National have withdrawn the funding that allowed schools and polytechnics to offer night classes? Why else would they, against the advice of their own experts, have introduced “National Standards”? Why else are they underfunding our universities and attempting to turn them into purely vocational degree factories? What else could explain their extraordinary contempt for public service broadcasting? Their enthusiasm for dumbed-down, commercially-driven programming? The free life of the mind is anathema to the National Party, and everything which contributes to that freedom must be destroyed.
But, how to end the free dissemination of knowledge without, at the same time, crippling the ability of the rich man in his castle to govern effectively? The answer is simple: ensure that only the wealthy get a good education. This will, of course, entail the destruction of the public education system put in place by the First Labour Government, whose 1939 “mission-statement”, penned by the then Secretary of Education, C.E. Beeby, at the behest of his Minister, Peter Fraser, required:
[T]hat every person, whatever the level of his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.
The swiftest and most effective means of destroying such a system is simply to place it in the hands of private, profit-seeking businesses. Identifying the system’s weakest performers by using NCEA pass-rates and National Standards test results will allow private-sector investors to pinpoint the prime locations for National’s new, taxpayer-funded “Charter Schools”. The construction of these new institutions will offer further opportunity for private profit in the form of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs).
WHICH BRINGS US BACK to Mr Foss. At the end of last year John Key made the Member for Tukituki Minister of Commerce, Minister of Broadcasting, Associate Minister for ACC, and Associate Minister of Education. In was in this latter role that Mr Foss, on Tuesday 10 April, proudly announced the education sector’s first PPP.
Over the next 25 years, a private consortium called Learning Infrastructure Partners will construct, administer and maintain Hobsonville Point Primary School and Hobsonville Point College. At what cost to the taxpayer, and at what rate-of-return to Learning Infrastructure Partners, we are not being told. Such information, according to Mr Foss, is “commercially sensitive”.
Listening to Mr Foss being interviewed by Mary Wilson on Checkpoint and by Simon Mercep on Morning Report, I was moved to wonder by what measure the Associate Minister was deemed worthy of his $257,800 (excluding allowances) salary. So fatuous were his answers; so completely pre-scripted were his lines; that not even he could deliver them without a suppressed giggle. Over and over again, reading from the page of talking-points which no doubt lay on the desk in front of him, Mr Foss told Radio New Zealand’s listeners that this was:
A good deal all ‘round for the taxpayers, for the Government, for teachers, for boards of governors, for the pupils themselves.
Boards of “governors”? Surely that should have been “trustees”. New Zealand schools haven’t had boards of governors for more than a quarter-century. That our new Associate Minister of Education was so ignorant of his portfolio that he failed to correct the error did not surprise me. But who, in the Ministry of Education, could possibly have made such a slip? Could it have been someone who’d only just arrived from a place where schools still have boards of governors? Someone whose last job was managing her country’s education infrastructure and funding? Surely, the Minister’s talking points were drafted by that proud promoter of Charter Schools and PPPs; Sheffield’s own ambitious lass; and New Zealand’s brand new Secretary of Education: Lesley Longstone?
Ms Longstone is what’s known as a “change manager”. Her appointment is all the proof we need to convict this National Government of planning to dismantle New Zealand’s democratic and egalitarian system of public education – a system internationally acclaimed for its outstanding pedagogical successes.
Assisted by Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, Ms Longstone will continue to put the words of the neoliberal ideologues who still run this country into the mouths of puffed-up political popinjays like Mr Foss. Who will, in turn, continue to receive six times the median income for putting young New Zealanders in their place.
The place from which C.E. Beeby and Peter Fraser freed them, more than three-quarters-of-a-century ago.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.