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Chris Ford: Christine Rankin - Here We Go Again!

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

I have very un-fond memories of Christine Rankin, the newly appointed Families Commission commissioner.

I must state that I have never met Ms Rankin and wouldn't want to, even in a broken down lift (and then I would try and find a means of escape!)The one thing that I remember about her tenure of the top job at Work and Income New Zealand (otherwise known to us plebs as WINZ) is how she screwed up the lives of thousands of students across New Zealand during the student loans payment debacle of early 2000.

Back then, I was completing one of those useless (or almost useless for least I did become a freelance writer out of it) certificate courses at Aoraki Polytechnic's Dunedin campus. This was in media communications and as part of the class curriculum we prepared our own student paper, 'The Greasy Fish'. As part of my intrepid reporting for this publication, I focused on the plight of Dunedin campus students who were literally starving and almost being threatened with eviction from their flats due to the time delays and stuff ups being experienced in processing student loan payments. One day, I contacted (after being passed through copious layers of WINZ PR people) the chief spokesperson at WINZ HQ in Wellington. This woman appeared to be a Rankin loyalist as she asked for the details of this near-starving student to be given to her and, with his consent, she went away to prepare her response.

And what was her response? It was the standard one being offered at the time that the student concerned had not filed his student loan application on time and therefore it was his fault.

However, by this time (and it was March 2000) the Labour-Alliance Government of the period, buoyed by the honeymoon it was experiencing, decided it was time to deal with Christine Rankin and her incompetent (as well as excessive) management style. Labour's hard man Trevor Mallard (then state services minister) made allusions to a civil service CEO who wasn't up to the job. And we all could guess who that was!

Rankin, a loyal bureaucratic acolyte of the previous Bolger-Shipley National Government, had about six months before Labour's election in 1999 engaged in a departmental spending spree of her own when she and staff from around the country jetted off on a $65,000 'strategic retreat' at a posh hotel. This infuriated WINZ clients, staff and ordinary taxpayers alike and was symptomatic of her over-the-top management style. When the students began starving in early 2000, the finger was not turned at the new government but at Ms Rankin whose departmental spending priorities came under further scrutiny.

Then we all know what happened next, don't we? The failed court case which proved that she couldn't manage a huge government department, let alone a fish and chip shop. The numerous PR-driven exercises in rehabilitation (who can remember 'Short Skirt Day?') which created for her a fan base of right-wing activists as well as talkshow hosts and callers. And who can forget that failed 'Dancing With the Stars' bid that ended with her doing a Rodney Hide-style slip up on the dance floor?

At the end of the day, all Ms Rankin cares about (in the good old New Right selfish way) is herself. She says that she cares for the welfare of children but in reality she headed a department which dealt with vulnerable families and individuals who were made to feel more vulnerable due to the policies WINZ implemented in the late 1990s (remember work for the dole?) Furthermore, does she not see the paradox inherent in supporting the repeal of the anti-smacking legislation and her continuing advocacy on behalf of child abuse victims? I doubt it.

Although it is a salacious allegation, Monday's report in that veritable Tory broadsheet 'The Dominion Post' cited as to how family friendly Ms Rankin really is, particularly in citing her reported affair with Alistair McAuley who was still married to his real estate agent wife, Margo. Mrs McAuley allegedly became despondent after Alistair left her for Christine Rankin and Margot was found dead in her apartment in mid-2008.

So it's little wonder that when you hear politicians like Peter Dunne (the father of the Families Commission) express concerns about her suitability for the role and a Maori advisor to the commission resigning saying that she could never work with Ms Rankin given her comments about Maori and child abuse, that you begin to think here we go again!

The questions that should be posed are these - and they should be answered by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. Why did you appoint Ms Rankin as a Families Commissioner? Is this merely to place Ms Rankin, a known opponent of the commission and its work, as a fifth columnist within it who would then seek to internally destabilise the organisation and render it useless? Is National's real intention to gut the Families Commission over time to save money as Peter Dunne being the sole surviving United Future MP might no longer be of any use to National after 2011, and therefore with it's sole political champion gone, this might be easier to achieve?

These questions are what good commentators and journalists should be really asking about this appointment. After all, it has the potential to blow up in National's face before 2011.

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