Christine Rankin to the Families Commission

You can see her defending her appointment on TVNZ Ondemand.

While there is considerable reaction to Christine Rankin being appointed to the families commission, a lot of it is misguided. One of the tragedies of accepting any significant part of feminism is that it motivates you to defend women whose values greatly contradict your own, and while I think Ms. Rankin is a disastrous appointment, I don’t think all the criticism of her is fair or robust. In fact, I think there have been bad and good criticisms from both sides of the political divide. Let’s quickly dismiss the things I don’t want to talk about because they are trivial attacks with little substance:

  • Her dress style: Her dress style is in many ways professional, and has become more so. Get over it, if she wants to dress that way I don’t see any problem. If her male colleagues are distracted maybe they need to have a cold shower before coming to work, as she certainly does not dress in a style that I would describe as provocative. I can’t believe anyone complains about her wearing long earrings, for instance.
  • Her divorces: The families commission should represent all types of families, and divorce is a reality in New Zealand. I actually think this gives her a useful perspective, even if the conservative types may not like it.
  • Her aggressiveness: She’s a strong woman. Get over it. 😉 A commissioner should be able to vigorously defend her viewpoint, and I don’t object to that quality in Ms. Rankin.
  • Her association with the National Party: I’m personally of the opinion that public servants should not be forbidden to have a political life of their own so long as they serve the government of the day effectively and impartially. While I have doubts about her ability to be impartial, I don’t think being involved with the National Party should disqualify her.

Here are my own objections, that I feel have some substance.

  1. “Politically Incorrect”: Describing oneself as “not PC” is a way to tripwire one of my litmus tests. While I don’t think it’s possible to never offend everyone or that you should speak in language that you have not made your own, I do believe in making an effort to get along with other people and to call them by their own appropriate names and identifiers, rather than expecting them to conform to my behavioral standards and make do with what I want to label them. People who claim they’re not PC as a badge of pride tend to use this as a way of saying they expect you to hold the same bigoted views as they do, although of course I take the time to listen to them and confirm that they follow this trend before I judge them. Christine Rankin most definitely does conform to it.
  2. Diviseness: Oddly enough, Peter Dunne is right: Christine Rankin is a politically divisive figure and will not be able to work effectively with a potential labour government, and has shown in the past her inability to do so. She defended herself as being strong, not PC, and able to speak out against the left- so she’s effectively admitting she is highly divisive and not looking to provide objective advice. It’s great saying you’re willing to speak out against things that are wrong, but she crossed the line as soon as she said WHO was wrong in the specific (“the left”, although I would still object if a civil servant said “the right” was wrong after being appointed)- that made clear that she divides the world internally into people she agrees with, and people she doesn’t. I have no idea whose fault her issues with the Labour government were, and I make no judgement on that, regardless of my antipathy for her. She says she would be fine working with a Labour government if they want to hear what she has to say, but frankly I think her ideology would get in the way of that, given her disastrous performance at WINZ and her inability to deal with opposing viewpoints. Of course, Christine is also right that Dunne is on a mad quest for power, but that’s a personal attack on him, not a defense of herself. I doubt that was his motivation in objecting to her: He’s far more likely to be worried she’s going to destabilise and sabotage his most effective political achievement.
  3. Policy: Christine Rankin thinks that violence against children is sometimes appropriate and supports the re-implementation of section 59 of the crimes act. As a victim of abuse herself, I accept her right to talk from her experience and she has my deepest sympathy and my support in her advocacy for children in general, however I feel her views on smacking children, and also on the separate issue of the repeal of section 59, are likely founded on her own desensitisation to violence against children. Section 59 was not a smokescreen issue, it has helped effect a 33% increase in the number of people who know it is not okay to commit violence against children. For someone so results-focused, Christine Rankin is quick to ignore some quite positive results, and seems set on undoing an effective policy. I apologise if in saying this I’ve somehow belittled her experiences, but I can’t find a convincing reason to agree with her.
  4. Partisan Appointment: While I don’t claim the government will have viewed this appointment favourably1, I have little doubt that it has been made to further the interests of this government, and not those of New Zealand as a whole. Ms. Rankin has made clear that she does not believe in the idea of public service, and thinks governments departments must be run like a particularly poor business, cutting every cost without exceptionally good short-term justification. Some scared interviewers likely viewed this favourably because it gels with the inept last-ditch strategy of our new government to cut everything they can and hope for the best. This sort of managerial style would be disastrous for long-term social welfare project like the Families Commission, and no doubt a repeat performance of her bellyflop at WINZ, and undo the small successes the commission has had thus far.
  5. Disqualification: Rankin has made it quite clear she cannot manage senior government positions in the past. I don’t see the point of giving her another one without her gaining some very good qualifications in the meantime.
  6. Heterocentrism and normativity: Rankin seems to think a heterosexual marriage with 2.5 kids is something to be ashamed of because we now talk about other types of families. As someone who was a victim of abuse and has been divorced, I would have expected Ms. Rankin to have learned something about how useless normativity is from her experiences. That she has not clearly shows she is ill-suited to the families commission.

1 I expect they’ll object because there is still strong currents of sexism running through the National Party, and because they are slowly and with great difficulty transforming themselves into a populist party, and Christine Rankin is anything but a populist appointment. However, to my knowledge they didn’t want to veto the appointment in cabinet.

5 Responses

  1. Popped over here from the Standard at Pascal’s Bookie’s recommendation.
    Great Post. Thorough.Intelligent. Capable of creating debate.
    All qualities that are not on the Agenda for National.
    Rankin is Key ‘s sop to the rabid right wing fundamentalist child beating nut jobs who put his supreme sliminess in power.
    Rankin is devoid of education, intellect and low on intelligence. She is an incompetent manager. Bit like Key and his band of mental midgets. Cheers!

  2. apparently this represents the best analysis around of the rankin appointment. which is aa sad reflection of the rest of them. this is inadequate.

    Address is a meaningful way the now admitted fact that Maharey and Labour targeted Rankin in order to win political points and all the “divisiveness” melts away. Labour policy on gaining power was to loudly rebut what Rankin put in and then quietly reverse their own policy and follow up on her changes.

    It is hardly surprising that a normal person who had been so appallingly treated by one part of the political spectrum would find common cause with their opposition.

    Meaningfully rebut the accusations of Cindy Kiro espousing all that is politically correct as being good and you might get to start point in having valid criticisms. Mean time your commentary is simply like saying Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty because a court found that to be so.

  3. Shona- This move doesn’t smack of Key’s style. He is becoming quite a populist and there’s no way he’d want to appoint someone as controversial as Rankin unless he wanted to distract the public from other news. I’m keeping an eye out just in case, but I actually suspect that Rankin was appointed to show the Commission is willing and able to work for the government, rather than imposed on them.

    The other possibility is that he OKed these appointments as an olive branch to the right wing of his own party, as there was always a lot of pressure over them going centrish-right rather than hard right.

    Phil- this is what happens to civil servants when the government changes. The job description is to serve the agenda of the government of the day. If Labour had to contradict Rankin just to advocate their own policy, something had already gone wrong and Rankin was no longer doing her job. She should be ready to advocate for children in a way that gels with the priorities of whatever government the people elect.

    Cindy Kiro couldn’t have done the same because National doesn’t have any policies on children to start with, other than putting them in ineffective bootcamps. 😉 She was a big defender of S59, but she had already got to lower-profile work by the time the new government was in power. And I should point out that National has no policy on that either, they just like to use it to embarass Labour.

    As I said above, I don’t claim that I have any insight to which side was wrong or right in Ms Rankin’s employment dispute. I simply claim that there will eventually be another one if she continues to act in this partisan fashion, and can’t be practical and find a way to work with non-national governments. I also claim that her partisanship gets in the way of her acting as an effective civil servant, as civil servants need to be objective in their work and work with facts and research, not try to twist the government to their own ideology counter to their priorities like Ms Rankin did with WINZ. While I’m sure she’d survive under National, she’d probably have difficulty under anyone else, even ACT.

  4. Ari – Rankin was screwed over for political gain, not because she was doing a bad job. Maharey ended up putting in everything she and National had been pushing, but he wasted 3 years posturing.

    So he and Labour wrecked someones career for political gain.

    Rankin was an objective civil servant until that occurred. Maharey admitted years later that Rankin was simply a pawn.

    My conclusion is that this appointment is justice finally done. A public resurrection as it were. Recent s59 advocacy is interesting but only relevant if you have prejudged whether you agree or disagree with Bradford.

  5. I don’t claim to know the truth of what happened with regards to Ms. Rankin’s employment dispute, and I don’t see a reliable way to get at it even if I had the resources to try.

    I certainly wouldn’t describe her career as wrecked, she’s certainly had her successes as an advocate for children, and as her appointment proves, she’s not entirely damaged goods even if she’s become highly controversial.

    I don’t particularly think you can describe this as justice based on her past performance- and by performance I don’t mean the fact she was fired from her job, I mean the failure of management in her department while she was at the top. WINZ was in many ways dysfunctional and acting counter to its mandate (for instance by withholding information from its clients) under Christine Rankin’s watch, none of which was adequately addressed until central government stepped in. This is the sort of thing I’d have expected to see her disprove as an issue at WINZ rather than a personal failure with some successes at other mid-level and/or high-level management work, which is noticeably absent from her CV.

    Recent s59 advocacy is interesting but only relevant if you have prejudged whether you agree or disagree with Bradford.

    Right, I’m pretty clear on this blog that §59’s repeal is a move I passionately agreed with as an issue and I think I’ve made that case several times in the past, also arguing that combined with other measures to reduce family violence, this largely symbolic change has actually deeply effected our culture of abuse on an amazingly fast timescale. I fail to understand how anyone who cares about children like Ms. Rankin claims to could dismiss those positive results, even if some of the factors that led to them may have been distasteful to her.

    So yes, I’m pre-judging on that issue, but based on outcomes, evidence, and the principle that our threshold for violence against children should be at least as high as the threshold for violence against adults.

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