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.

Comments (12)

by Don Donovan on May 21, 2009
Don Donovan

Rankin is criticised for making specific reference to the needs of Maori. If her comments are considered 'racialist' when, indeed, she is only pointing out the statistically obvious, why are not the tenets of the Families Commission itself not thought racialist when they specifically highlight the needs of special ethnic groups?

This is a word for word extract from the Commission's own 'About Us' section from its website:

"Although we operate as an autonomous Crown entity, the Families Commission Act specifies what we must consider when carrying out our functions. These include:

  • any expectations or priorities the Government has about our work
  • the diversity of New Zealand families and family groups
  • the needs, values and beliefs of different ethnic and cultural groups in New Zealand (INCLUDING MAORI AND PACIFIC PEOPLES) (my capitals)
  • New Zealand's international obligations relevant to families.
by David Beatson on May 21, 2009
David Beatson

Woop, woop, Dan. Please define "racialist" as opposed to "racist" so everyone understands the distinction you are making. Druis Barrett stopped short of calling Christine Rankin a racist ... very short. Christine Rankin said she had been accused of being a racist, and denied it.

But all this is a distraction from the core issue: the incidence of serious child abuse and the development and adoption of effective strategies to reduce it.

by Raymond A Francis on May 21, 2009
Raymond A Francis

I heard Christine Rankin speak a couple of weeks ago and while she made a powerful case that there was abuse she really did not have much of an answer

She did state that while Maori are over represented in the stats, abuse is everywhere in all classes etc

Frankly I was not very impressed by her, any fool knows we have a problem, fixing it is the tricky bit maybe a non PC approach is needed, certainly the PC model hasn't worked so far

John Angus the present acting head of the Chidren's Commision ( he was just a policy wonk then though) spoke in reply, really just pointing out there are no easy fixes  for this problem


by Tim Watkin on May 21, 2009
Tim Watkin

I can understand the frustration felt by people such as Druis Barrett, Hone Kaa and the like. Rankin has made the kind of ill-informed generalisation about Maori needing to lead on this issue and take some responsibility which ignores the hard work being done by such people. We act as if child abuse can be fized with a pill or a six week course. But it's generations in the making; easy to learn, incredibly hard to unlearn. You can point at personal responsibility, poverty, lack of skills, lack of support, poor health, young parents, a lack of role models, macho culture... all of them play a part. But even they are just a list of topics that scratch the surface. The sad irony is that abuse has many parents.

Solutions are incredibly hard and often case-by-case. While I haven't heard Rankin in person as you have Raymond, her media comments suggest she lacks a nuanced understanding of the issue.

The Families Commissioner Jan Pryor is class. She's no knee-jerk liberal. I remember doing a story for the Herald back around 2001 drawing on her research, which showed that kids with two parents statistically out-performed those of single parents in education, wealth, age of pregnancy and so on, even if there was tension in the marriage. Her conclusion was that to ask whether, contrary to the wisdom of sexual revolution, it was often better for the parents to stay together for the children's sake.

Rankin doesn't seem to have as open a mind to the research. She comes with a clear ideology.

by william blake on May 21, 2009
william blake

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

Should a punch in the face as part of good parental correction, be a criminal offence in New Zealand?

Raymond; "certainly the PC model hasn't worked so far"

..wait for the sentencing. If its 'lock em up and throw away the key' or 'put em up against the wall' meybe the P.C. way will work.




by Graeme Edgeler on May 22, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

wait for the sentencing. If its 'lock em up and throw away the key'

The judge made clear that there was no possibility of prison.

by Don Donovan on May 22, 2009
Don Donovan

Woop woop, David. Merriam Webster Dictionary:-

racialist One entry found.
http://www.merriam-webster.com/wordclick.cur), help;" id="wordclickDiv" class="wordclick" onmousemove="this.style.cursor = wordclick && wordclick.isEnabled() ? 'url(http://www.merriam-webster.com/wordclick.cur), help' : 'default';">Main Entry:
ra·cial·ism           Listen to the pronunciation of racialism
: a theory that race determines human traits and capacities ; also : racismra·cial·ist           Listen to the pronunciation of racialist \-list\ noun or adjectivera·cial·is·tic           Listen to the pronunciation of racialistic \ˌrā-shə-ˈlis-tik\ adjective
by Deborah Coddington on May 22, 2009
Deborah Coddington

A nice, rational comment, David, but in all this uproar over Rankin's appointment, everyone seems to have overlooked the sexual abuse of children. Maori do not figure disproportionately higher in those crime statistics - Pakeha do (or at least they did when I published my books). I think Hon Pita Sharples did try to point this out on Morning Report but was ignored. Yet I don't recall any Maori leaders standing up and proudly declaring themselves "courageous" or "not politically correct" for saying the sexual abuse of children is a Pakeha problem so why aren't Pakeha men doing something about it?

Also, what about the child abuse which occurs in the Family Court. If you spend time trawling through the cases which proceed from the Family Court through the High Court, Court of Appeal and latterly to the Supreme Court, you will see the enormous damage/abuse done to children by wealthy parents - Pakeha all of them - squabbling over their children as if they were valuable tracts of property. I consider this to be child abuse, even though it's not as dramatic as being spun around on a clothes line or a tumble dryer.

And isn't it time we moved on from wearing "politically incorrect" as some sort of badge of honour, as if it is the magic wand that solves all problems, when clearly time has proved it doesn't? People like me have learned that yelling at your opponents, being a polarising figure, might draw attention to a problem but actually doesn't bring about progress.

I agree, Tim, I've used Pryor's research too and it is first class, she's no "leftie" or "politically correct" Labour lackie. Such a shame National blew the chance to appoint someone who could really help families who are struggling - Ces Lashlie's name springs to mind and there are many others - and if they wanted to reward Rankin they could have stuck her on the Lotteries' Commission and the media wouldn't have cared about her personal life.

However, if Rankin can sit down with the other Commissioners, listen to their policies and arguments without dismissing them as "lefties", or "bullying", and accept that perhaps she might be wrong on a few issues, then I will accept that I am wrong in my opinion that there are others who would make much better Commissioners.

I won't hold my breath.

by DeepRed on May 22, 2009

There's about one instant fix, and it would involve the use of a B-52 and a good supply of daisy-cutters. Small problem - it would also put us on the next plane to The Hague for all the wrong reasons.

For a nuanced write-up on Political Incorrectness Gone Mad, here's this Jim Peron piece (+ part 2) It's from a libertarian viewpoint, but anyone who's been at the receiving end of the "PC" label will relate to it.

by william blake on May 22, 2009
william blake

did the judge also make mention of the improbability of a firing squad graham?

by william blake on May 22, 2009
william blake

Rankin isnt just politically incorrect she is probably also politically expendable. Her divisive ego driven monomania will bring the comission to its knees then goodbye Christine and goodbye Families Comission.

by Tim Watkin on May 28, 2009
Tim Watkin

Nice of you to join us here, Deborah, you're most welcome. And interesting to hear that you've decided that yelling at opponents doesn't get progress. Are you mellowing?

Interesting point you make about child abuse. Hone Harawira said recently that paedophiles are nearly all pakeha, but that isn't labelled a 'pakeha problem'. Who would have thought you and Hone would be on the same page? Truly, we live in interesting times! Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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