Delicious. That was the word that sprang to mind when I read that Christine Rankin had been appointed to the Families Commission. (That’s delicious as in irony, and not to be confused with delicious as it might be applied to, say, confectionery or ripe tropical fruit.)
One of the more pleasing aspects of National’s election victory in November, for me, was that it promised relief from the pervasive influence of sanctimonious, busybody policy agencies that, under Labour, had proliferated like mushrooms – or perhaps toadstools would be a more appropriate metaphor – in spring rain.
The Families Commission, of course, wasn’t a Labour creation. It was a well-intentioned, if poorly conceived, initiative of United Future leader Peter Dunne, who made it the price of his co-operation with the Clark government in 2002. Creation of the commission gave Dunne a political trophy that he could flourish for the benefit of United Future’s conservative Christian supporters, for whom “family” issues were of paramount importance (the more so given their anxiety about the policies that might flow from a leftist, Godless government).
Any hopes that the commission would champion the traditional family values embraced by Dunne’s supporters rapidly collapsed. The most charitable assessment of the commission’s performance is that it was industriously (if expensively, at $7 million a year) ineffectual, harmlessly busying itself with talkfests and reports to which no one paid a blind bit of notice. A darker interpretation is that the commission was hijacked so as to ensure that none of the issues of concern to Dunne’s supporters – for example, the ticklish question of parental rights versus those of the state – got in the way of Labour’s Utopian social agenda.
Any illusion that the commission would protect traditional family values, as naively envisaged by Dunne’s allies in 2002, was irrevocably shattered when it threw its weight behind Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill last year. And if that wasn’t enough to raise suspicions that the commission’s agenda was firmly aligned with Labour’s, any remaining doubts would surely have been erased when the commission’s founding head, Dr Rajen Prasad, was named at No 12 on the Labour list for the 2009 election (he’s now an MP).
All this made some people wonder whether the Families Commission, along with finger-wagging upholders of leftist orthodoxy such as the Human Rights Commission, would be a goner if National came to power. As early as last August, Simon Collins in the New Zealand Herald was speculating that the commission would be a casualty of a National victory.
But no; John Key’s government has decided on a much more exquisite solution. National has retained the commission, presumably as the price of Dunne’s support in Parliament, but its appointment of the flamboyant Rankin – a staunch opponent of the Bradford bill – places a fox in the henhouse, and already the feathers are flying. For good measure, Rankin is joined at the commission boardroom table by another conservative on family issues, Parents Inc chief executive Bruce Pilbrow.
National isn’t traditionally known as a party of jokers, but only someone with a wicked sense of humour could have perpetrated this piece of political mischief. Dunne is incensed, as are the Greens and the Labour Party.
Claims that Rankin’s appointment is an act of sabotage aren’t entirely off the mark, though National would doubtless prefer to characterise it as a rebalancing of an institution that, like most politicised state agencies under Labour, tilted sharply to the left. I note that John Armstrong, in an uncharacteristically choleric column in the Herald this morning, claimed Rankin was unpopular – but with whom? Perhaps with the Beehive insiders political editors talk to, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the family values espoused by Rankin are a lot closer to the mainstream than the views of people like Prasad and his successor, Victoria University academic Jan Pryor. That’s born out by the number of opinion polls that showed the public overwhelmingly opposed the Bradford bill (which, to its lasting shame, National ended up supporting).
One of the most satisfying aspects of Rankin’s appointment is that it will cause enormous chagrin among leading Labour lights, who detest her. Whatever one might think of Rankin’s extravagant behaviour while head of Work and Income, and she did indulge in self-aggrandisement on a stupendous scale, it was hard not to sympathise with her in the face of a nasty gang-up by male politicians and public service mandarins who, for all their supposed belief in sexual equality, clearly felt uneasy with – maybe even threatened by – a stroppy and assertive woman who flaunted her sexuality.
Social Welfare Minister Steve Maharey allegedly swore at her in meetings, belittled her as looking like a cocktail waitress and ordered her to change the way she looked – no sensitive New Age male, he – while the creepy Mark Prebble, then head of the Prime Minister’s Department, nagged her over the shortness of her skirts, complained that she made him feel uncomfortable and fretted that her breasts were a distraction. Dear me.
Most peculiarly of all, the Employment Court action over Rankin’s dismissal as head of Work and Income heard that her boss, State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham, offered to visit her in Australia if a job could be organised for her there, but added – and it’s anyone guess why he should have said this, but the answer isn’t likely to be edifying – that any such encounter would be platonic, because he was celibate.
It was hard to escape the impression that as much as she was punished for her lavish reign at Work and Income, Rankin was also made to suffer for upsetting sexually uptight men. After all that, I reckon she’s earned the last laugh.