Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Campbell on the Christine Rankin appointment

May 15th, 2009

For all his considerable media skills, Prime Minister John Key has a tendency to wing it on the details in ways that must be terrifying for his media minders. He stays on message alright, but consistently over-eggs the delivery. To be charitable, I’m assuming that’s what happened this morning on RNZ’s Morning Report when, for the purpose of whitewashing his appointing of Christine Rankin to the Families Commission, he overshot the target completely.

According to Key, Rankin’s controversial status in the 90s came down to

(a) her lavish expenditure on a single WINZ conference. Which, Key added, was the sort of thing that Labour had done a couple of years ago. And

(b) in any case, Key could think of no New Zealander who had done more than Christine Rankin to highlight the problem of child abuse in this country.

Both points are quite frankly, amazing. Rankin’s controversial reign at WINZ was hardly limited to a bit of overspending on a single departmental conference. The furore related to allegations of extravagance concerning the branding and promotion of the department and its work, and the fostering within the media and elsewhere of a cult of personality surrounding Rankin herself. Since Key seems willing to rewrite history, it is worth recalling some of the extravagance involved, with details per the Jobs Letter 104:

News reports revealed that WINZ used chartered planes and scheduled flights costing $165,000 to take 140 staff to a training course in Taupo. The flights included a Whisper jet and a Dash-8 belonging to Ansett, which does not normally fly to Taupo. The staff came from as far afield as Kaitaia and Invercargill. They were flown to Wellington on scheduled flights then transferred onto the charter flights to Taupo.

Roy Carmichael, a Taupo airport official, said he tried to find out who was on the aircraft so he could welcome them when they arrived, and was warned not to ask any questions about the passengers because they required “privacy”.

The training course was held at the exclusive Wairakei Resort Hotel, which has a nine-hole golf course, heated pool, gym, sauna, and tennis and squash courts. It usually costs $174 a night for a room at the resort, although The Dominion said WINZ paid $115 per night, not including dinner.

Figures released by parliament’s Social Services committee showed that WINZ has budgeted $779,000 on conferences between November 1998 and April 2000.

The cult of personality entailed acts of allegiance more commonly found in North Korea. 25 WINZ managers released a public statement saying that Christine Rankin had inspired staff to believe that they could make a difference.

In a WINZ corporate video, Rankin was presented alongside the images of US President Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Lady Diana.

According to the Christchurch Press, some WINZ staff have been sent on study leave to Harvard University – a premier US institution – while a woman staff member who had gone to London on a six-month course had met a man there and decided not to come back to NZ.

Then-WINZ Minister Peter McCardle revealed that print and television advertising to boost the corporate profile of the new department was costing $1.3m.

All of which culminated in the ill-judged and lurid court case in 2001, and its related commentary on Rankin’s dress code at work. In the end, the court found that Rankin had no grounds for the continued employment she was seeking. To be fair, some of Rankin’s critics came off even worse on the witness stand than she did.

Point being though, Rankin’s disastrous tenure at WINZ can hardly be reduced to a spat over a single WINZ conference. By reviving memories of that extravagance, the current controversy over Rankin mainly goes to underline what an inappropriate time it is for Key to be rewarding such a person. We are after all, on the brink of a Budget that is grappling with a deep recession. The message to the public at large is that we must all tighten our belts and cut back on any inessential services.

Many in the public service are likely to lose their jobs in the process. Those that keep their jobs will see departmental resources cut back to the bone – with the axe falling quite heavily, one would assume on glossy brochures, logo-re-designs, office renovation and stuff that doesn’t directly enhance the front desk delivery of services. Yet at exactly the same moment when the Key government is trying to sell that no nonsense message, it chooses to give front page prominence and a promotion to someone best remembered as the embodiment of public service extravagance run wild.

It is not as if Rankin brings a great deal to the table in her new job, from her career post WINZ. The claim by Key that he cannot think of any New Zealander who has done more to highlight the problem of child abuse in this country is laughable. For Key’s benefit, here are a few people who have contributed far more than Rankin to bring about effective change in attitudes towards the treatment of children in this country: former Children’s Commissioner Ian Hassall is one. Anti child abuse campaigner Beth Wood is another. Sue Bradford is another, for ensuring children have equal protection under the law from abuse, as adults enjoy. Even within Key’s own party former Children’s Commissioner Roger McClay has made a far more significant contribution than Rankin.

Given time, Key might have chosen his words more carefully. It is not the first time that he has got himself into strife in this way.

Remember back in 2007, how Key declared the war in Iraq to be over, at about the time when the Americans were close to their lowest ebb? He becomes cavalier with the details, possibly in order to promote a sense of being in control, and on top of an issue. In that respect alone, Key may be somewhat of a kindred spirit with Christine Rankin.

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    1. 11 Responses to “Campbell on the Christine Rankin appointment”

    2. By bettysinclair on May 16, 2009 | Reply

      i fully support christine rankins appointment——this job needs energy ,focus, and an aggressive stance against what had become our own internal terrorism—– this is family violence. with regard to your repeating ms rankins expenditures for staff training in winz have you ever looked at what was saved interms of benefits by well trained and motivated staff .

    3. By Ann Lynch on May 16, 2009 | Reply

      I do not care which earrings she wears, how much leg she shows, or whether her decolletage goes all the way down to her bellybutton. What I do care about is, that at the time she was spending those large sums on herself and her team of buddies, frontline staff were encouraged not to let desperately poor people know about supplementary benefits that they would have been entitled to receive, thereby depriving them and their children of necessities.

      You will remember that, at that time,jobs were scarce and rents high, forcing gross overcrowding and substandard housing, along with malnutrition and medical care deferred for cost considerations. It was also the time of major health problems among children, including meningitis.

      It also marked the time when a publication, the “Legal Resource Manual’ appeared in the Reference section of libraries, which informs the public of their rights and entitlements, and has been kept up-to-date to this day. It has a bright yellow cover, reminiscent of Ms Rankin’s favourite colour. It is not published by any Government agency; quite the opposite.

      I recommend this publication to all, (more especially to those who find themselves assisting immigrants, young parents, and others struggling with unfamiliar bureaucracy,) as the only real contribution of Ms Rankin’s period of tenure to the welfare of New Zealand children.

    4. By remo on May 17, 2009 | Reply

      theres the question. Or, That IS the question. Why Christine, right now. WHY? John? You out there??
      Do you think we are going to find out? What the interests were that decided this one. Could it be the desire of the blue bloods to have the ‘anti-violence’ bill , protecting our children against physical hitting, re-tooled??, and Christine with her bellicose pro-discipline advocacy the very ‘tool’ to ‘do the business’ ??

    5. By Pietrad on May 18, 2009 | Reply

      Once again, many many thanks to you Gordon Campbell, for insightful comment. I’m really heartened and impressed by the quality of your finely-tuned ‘crap detector’. Long may it continue to operate and my very best wishes to you.

    6. By Juliana Venning on May 18, 2009 | Reply

      Kai ora
      What troubles me about thsi, is as Gordon so ably puts it, the woman has no credentials except for being extravagant with the public purse, has no sensitivity to tikanga and kawa Maori, is in fact almost racist in her comments and assumptions regarding Tangata whenua and has actively campaigned against legislation set in place to further protect our most vulnerable, our children. This beggars belief.
      We knew a National government would be a disater, now it is proving it so clearly it makes one cringe.
      Down with the appointment. Let Paula Bennett show some maturity (despite her previous hasty judgement)and expel Rankin.
      Juliana V.

    7. By Steve Withers on May 18, 2009 | Reply

      I’m beginning to wonder if the Rankin appointment was part of the Blitzkrieg strategy around the Auckland transformation legislation. The idea would be to distract the media with some petty outrage while they page 3 the most important stories. The NZ Herald did exactly that today….putting the Rankin Irrelevancy all over the front page, while the passage of the law establishing a dictatorship over the Auckland region was reduced to a 4 inch NZPA story at the bottom of page 3.

      Looks like the best strategy when the government does something outrageous is to have a look around at what ELSE they are doing…..

      The Rankin matter pales into insignificant against the unlilateral wiping of democracy in the Auckland region.

    8. By stuart munro on May 18, 2009 | Reply

      While the issue of irresponsible spending of public resources is highlighted by the Rankin appointment, it would be nice to see a little of the rigor presently being applied to the UK parliament visited on our local MPs. It would be very surprising not to find the same kind of weaselry in NZ parliamentary expense claims, especially given the influence of the British New Labour party on local Labour policy. A strict scrutiny of National funding streams would likewise reveal numerous pallid and odious allegiances, squirming desperately to avoid the light.

    9. By MollyByGolly on May 18, 2009 | Reply

      Hi Gordon, this may be of interest to you or your readers:

      Joe Wallis, ‘Evaluating Organizational Leadership in the New Zealand Public Sector in the Aftermath of the Rankin Judgement’, International Review of the Administrative Sciences, vol. 68 no. 1, 2002, pp. 61-72.

      Wallis writes about the potentially destructive impact of charismatic change leadership of the kind exemplified by Rankin at WINZ.

    10. By Jum on May 18, 2009 | Reply

      Steve Withers

      I agree.

      Spotted the Herald bit. The 4.30 tvone news didn’t mention the legislation at all; what was with Mike Lee and his ‘get over the grieving folks’; you can’t keep your assets. Get used to it’? I missed part of his comments.

      I certainly heard Banks spluttering and apologising because he let out the full extent of job losses with the council takeover. It was a typical apology to John Key and Rodney Hide, not us, for getting caught telling the truth. Didn’t even need a microphone.

    11. By Jane on May 19, 2009 | Reply

      bettysinclair, how you equate Rankin’s loud opposition to the child protection bill which gave our children the same right as NZ adults, and children in other developed countries, with an “aggressive stance against family violence”?
      Ever since the passing of the bill I have been asking for a reasoned explanation from those I meet who were opposed to it. Mention of the word “nanny state” is the usual inadequate response. Further enquiry as to the meaning of this ubiquitous term reveals even less rational thought.
      Perhaps you could explain?

    12. By George on May 20, 2009 | Reply

      Steve, totally agree. It’s almost like the Granny has decided to bury the Auckland story beneath the mess that is Rankin.

      Or perhaps they’d just rather report gutter stories?

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