It was a killer line about karma from Hekia Parata. Not only did it reveal her true feelings, it encapsulated what the government can expect in 2013 as it heads into its fifth year
Isn't it funny how a single word, a moment of levity, can be so revealing? When Hekia Parata joked that a technical hitch which saw Education Ministry staff missing out on their pay was "karma", it was a simple reference to the Novopay mess and the missed pay so many teachers have suffered in recent months. But it's a pretty good word to set the scene for the government's prospects in 2013.
The joke itself was a rare moment of honesty and brevity from a minister who typically wraps herself in jargon and spin (yes I mean, she, "the great communicator"!). Parata said out loud what many teachers would have been thinking; a Labour Education Minister would have got away with it as the unions laughed along.
But coming from a National minister's mouth, one whose blood is in the water and who has repeatedly angered the teaching profession in her short tenure, it offered her opponents a chance to score points in a larger game. And it was revealing of the damaged relationship between Parata and her own ministry. If the departure of Education's CEO Lesley Longstone wasn't sign enough, that one word showed how much she thinks of her own officials.
It was one of those political moments, a glimpse behind the curtain, a confirmation of what was widely believed about just how fractious the education world is.
But Defence Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman yesterday may have been muttering more darkly about 'karma' – when actions bring inevitable and aptly just results, good or bad – as he faced questions about the review undertaken by the Auditor-General into cost-cutting at the New Zealand Defence Force.
The money saving drive was initiated by his predecessor Dr Wayne Mapp, and led at first by the now-Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, but accountability for the cock-up landed in his lap. Coleman was left to pay the price for the sins of others. He, like Parata, chose his words badly, trying to pretend the issues the Auditor-General raised were "old news". But in truth they're clear and present issues for the military still.
Back in 2010 Mapp said that the recession meant cuts were needed. Although it wasn't quite that clear. As you can see in this Q+A interview, on one hand he was saying that the recession had sparked a "value for money exercise", but on the other he was insisting the money would not be cut and just "a bit" would be moved "essentially from the back office to the front".
"No it's not a cost cutting exercise, what's occurring over the next three years or so, we're receiving nearly two billion dollars of new equipment - helicopters, upgraded aircraft, of course the project Protector fleet. That pushes up the cost of operational costs in particular, and right at a time when the economy is you know recovering, so we do have to be able to shift a bit of resources out from the back to the front, and that's of course in common with other government departments as well".
Cuts? What cuts?
When pushed on where the back office savings would come from he mentioned that old chestnut of shared HR departments, as if there were tens of millions wasted in a few computers and recruiters. What we see now is just how much spin was involved in his attempts to dampen down public concern. At least Coleman was honest yesterday when he said the reforms had actually gone pretty well from National's point of view, because money had been saved. It was always about the money.
In 2010 it was recession-time, and National had decided to cut. John Key and Bill English wanted to deliver zero Budgets and that was that. It's clear from the Auditor-General's words that our defence came second to dollars and cents in these reforms.
Talk of back and front offices is well and good, but in reality they're inseparable. As the Auditor-General found, if you cut money and staff, you lose capability across the board. In other words, is you spend less, you get less.
Which must have other ministers wondering about possible karma coming their way. Mapp was not the only one who talked about moving money from the back office to the front (if Tony Ryall used that phrase once, he used it a hundred times, as did the Finance Minister himself), as if it would change nothing, not really.
English's drive for zero budgets meant cuts all over the show. Politically it's interesting to wonder whether other departments are starting to run into problems from all those cuts and when the loss of services and capability will impact on you, me and other voters. That's when the political karma will really kick in.
Bigger picture, this is the nature of second-term administrations. You start having to pay for your decisions and suffer all the unintended consequences and the reality of the decisions you tried to spin away.
For National, there could be a lot of karma this year, good or bad. From the SkyCity convention centre through welfare reform and the partial asset sales to the increasingly rigid and austere economic line they've chosen, 2013 will be a year of reaping what it has sowed.
So karma nails it. The question is whether the next minister to use the word will be laughing, as Parata did, or ruing the decisions of the past four years.