Saturday, March 19, 2005

(Media/Labour) Groundwork for progress is done

(Simon Edwards, Hutt News; 15 March 2005)

Trevor Mallard's boxy and battered looking former campaign van has bit the dust. Its replacement is a rather more sophisticated and sleek VW, and with a massive majority it seems he'll roll back into Parliament pretty much in 'cruise control'.

“I've just turned 50 and I'm still enjoying the job,” the MP tells the Hutt News, just a couple of days before he completed the grueling 50km Karapoti Classic mountain bike race – a gutbuster for riders half his age.

He's the Minister for Education, Sport and Recreation, State Services, Energy, Finance (Associate) and Race Relations (Co-ordinating). It's an understatement to call that hectic, but would Hutt South folk be better off with a local MP with more time for local concerns? Mallard says that for the vast majority of Fridays he's in the electorate doing clinics and most Saturdays and Sundays he's also in Hutt South. He spends time at the sports clubs and visits a local school just about every week.

“People don't hesitate to use the phone to get me, or they email.

“I think having a national profile and appearing on tv now and again stimulates the home phone ringing – and that's a good thing. It's a wonderful part of our democracy... there's not many countries in the world where the PM and senior cabinet ministers have their home phone numbers listed in the phone book.”

Local people's gripes and ideas “feed into what I do as a minister”.

Of the last triennium, Mallard says he is proudest of the fact that groundwork and extra investment in education is paying off. “The research that was started off in my first term is affecting individual schools and teachers.” There are lifts in our students' maths performance compared with international results and he's confident that will be so when the next literacy surveys are done.

But there's a widening gap between pupils who achieve and those who don't, isn't there? “The gap hasn't widened... the bottom has not dropped,” he answers. “But there is a gap and it's too wide. That's what a lot of the research we're doing has been about. Our poorer kids, our Maori and Pacific Island kids don't do as well as in countries which are similar to ours.”

Mallard believes it comes down to the way we teach. The system has been geared to middle class, pakeha pupils. Emphasis is going in on teacher professional development and programmes that match learning delivery to the makeup of the class.

On NCEA, Mallard is disappointed that the scholarship “controversy and hiccups” has “tainted” the new examination system. “It's a very big change and generally it's gone very well. Some of our brightest kids are being stretched much harder to get excellence.”

Others who under School Certificate would have finished a year with nothing are recording credits in subject areas in which they're strong. That's making a difference with secondary school retention rates, which are lifting, he says.

From his perspective, most people whose kids have been involved with NCEA are generally supportive of it. Others who have had no connection with how it works, and have read the publicity, “are generally scared of it.”

Employers' reaction is similarly mixed. Those who have been to the seminars, checked the website and this know how to interpret the results “are generally very supportive of NCEA.”

Labour has room to feel proud that unemployment in NZ is the lowest of any OECD country. In Hutt City alone, the number of people on the unemployment benefit had dropped to 2,386 at the end of last year. That's 1,547 fewer than were registered in the city at the end of 1999. Mallard is delighted, too, that institutions like WelTec are helping more and more people into so-called “gold collar”, technology-based jobs “because it is my view it's pointless trying to compete with China and India on a low wage basis.”

Has Labour's dream run with the economy got more to do with the groundwork done in the 1990s and even earlier? “There's no doubt there has been a relatively good economic base. But what governments have been able to do in the past is scare the horses. We've been quite financially conservative and have been criticized for that.”

Mallard says this Government has been able to slightly reduce debt relative to the size of the economy, and still get more jobs and extra investment in health and education.

“If you go back, both Labour and National governments have had a habit, when it looks like we've got a sustainable surplus, of spending it, then when the economy goes bad, having to retrench.

“Even if the international economy went rotten, as it did a couple of years ago, we can sustain what we have by way of extra investment in education, health and so on because we've had the fiscal discipline to be able to do that.”