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.