With her announcement today Education Minister, Hekia Parata, finds herself in an interesting place.
Tolley was useful to National because she actually didn't understand her portfolio and was able to arrogantly push stuff through with no lingering doubts that the profession may be right. Parata understands a lot more and her initial engagements with the profession has seen her put aside the tightly scripted speeches used by Tolley and strategically "speak from the heart". She often changes her language to that which is more palatable to teachers and quickly dropped talking about performance pay, for example, and has promoted robust appraisals instead.
I think she was probably handed a lemon with the teacher cuts, lacked good advice from her Ministry (the current CEO obviously does not have any appreciation of the New Zealand education system and culture) and felt obliged to carry it through. For someone who is generally very articulate she was reduced to the sort of banal statements or mantras used by Tolley as she was obviously struggling to make sense of it herself.
The decision to backtrack was probably a wise move because to push on would be hugely damaging to National when professional groups and unions were uniting with a single purpose and were being supported by parents. This was never going to be a battle that National would win.
While initially damaging to herself, Parata has shown some courage in pushing this turn around when many of her colleagues would likely refuse to back down to teachers under any circumstances (their dislike of teachers and their unions has a long history). The real test will be how she manages things from now on and if she truly engages with the profession and develops a more collaborative approach she may be able to salvage her reputation and win some respect.
With any National Minister there is always concern about what motivates and drives them, for many it is ego and feelings of aristocratic entitlement that makes being in power more important then what that power can achieve. I do not know enough about Parata to know what motivates her, whether the backdown is more about her own political survival or a genuine understanding that cutting teachers would actually compromise quality. She has a reputation for being difficult to work with and has lost a succession of EAs in her brief ministerial career, but she still has two years to make sure that our education ranking doesn't go the way of our water quality and that will mean reversing much that National has done up till now.