Rankin is not the issue

If the government has a strategy for the Families Commission, then allowing the Christine Rankin row to run its course is not the way to advance it

The appointment of controversialist Christine Rankin to the very politically correct Families Commission is causing far too much collateral damage to be tolerated at a time when our most fragile families are facing the stark reality of the worst recession since World War II.

Next month, the Ministry of Social Welfare is due to provide Parliament with a review of the impacts of the so-called anti-smacking amendment to the Crimes Act. That review sets the scene for a referendum during July and August in which we will be asked:

“Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”

For Christine Rankin, and at least 310,000 others who signed the petition forcing the citizen’s initiated referendum she helped to promote, the answer is an unequivocal no.

For the Families Commission she is joining, the correct response is yes. A smack is not a part of good parental correction.

In a statement on the Rankin appointment, chief commissioner Jan Pryor warned the newcomer that her board members had taken a unanimous decision to support the new child discipline law. More than 360 of the 409 words in Pryor’s statement were devoted to hammering the message home.

The message was reinforced at a day later, when Pryor announced the resignation of Druis Barrett from the commission’s whanau reference group, where she was working with commissioner Kim Workman on a Maori-focused initiative to be launched later this year.

Barrett is a past national president of the Maori Women’s Welfare League with a long record of service to the Maori community that earned her the award of Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001.

Pryor explained that Barrett indicated at the beginning of this year she was considering resigning due to other commitments. She also works on the Taskforce for Action on Violence within Families, the Family Services National Advisory Council and the Family Outcomes Strategic Group. Then, she went on to note, almost as an aside:

“She mentioned Ms Rankin’s appointment as yet another reason for deciding to resign.”

Druis Barrett was far more direct in her own public comments about Rankin.

"I didn't want a Pakeha woman like that, who spoke down about Maori, making decisions on the whanau concept that Kim and them are going to be putting forward and she is one of the commissioners, who will have a say of the whanau development that is going to happen in the Families Commission. I didn’t want a Pakeha woman that doesn’t know much about whanau Maori making a decision on our behalf… I wouldn't go as far as to say she is racist, but she is damn well close to it

If you were wondering what provoked that outburst, here it is in Christine Rankin’s own words, in a press statement she issued as chief executive of the For The Sake of Our Children Trust in July 2007.

“Maori feature hugely in the child abuse statistics, yet this fact is something that we’re not allowed to talk about and when I’ve raised this issue before, I’ve been accused of being racist. I’m not racist. I’m simply stating the facts. Are we honest enough to tell the truth?”

Rankin went on to question why Maori leaders are not speaking up more strongly on this issue.

“They are leaving a legacy to their people and to this country – they deny that it is a real issue, talk around it, and any Maori leader who speaks up on this seems to quickly withdraw from their strong and courageous stance. Why won’t they fight this issue?”

Given Barrett’s record of service and commitment in the field, it is easy see why she would take offence – but what comes round goes round.

By last weekend, Rankin herself was on the receiving end of one of the most vicious and intrusive campaigns of insinuation and privacy invasion to be seen in the New Zealand news media. None of it merits repetition here, beyond the comment that she defended herself with dignity.

However, the defence of her appointment to the Families Commission is a battle that she is left to fight alone. It is the duty of those who appointed Christine Rankin to justify and explain their decision. It deserves something more than Justice Minister Simon Power delivered on Q+A last weekend:

The Cabinet supported that appointment, therefore I did.”

What is the Cabinet’s objective in setting up an inevitable confrontation within the Families Commission?

If ever there was a time for consensus-building on policies to protect the welfare of the vulnerable members of the families most exposed to the cruelties that come with a recession, this is it.

Prime Minister Key may well say:

''As far as I'm concerned she's been appointed a commissioner, one of seven in a part-time job, to advocate for families and particularly because of her expertise when it comes to abused children. That's what I want to hear her talking about and nothing else.''

That will give Rankin plenty of scope. Surely, on the basis of what is known and on the public record already, the Prime Minister cannot imagine that her introduction to the Commission, at a time when the cauldron of public debate over the anti-smacking law is being brought to the boil, will do anything other than polarize the situation.

As the semanticists would say: no universe would ever allow the irresistible force to meet the immovable object.