Families appointment: Rankin 'surprised' by reaction

BY TRACY WATKINS AND KERI WELHAM
Last updated 16:16 12/05/2009
NEW APPOINTMENT: Christine Rankin says she is "really surprised" by the reaction to her controversial appointment as a Families Commissioner.
ANDREW GORRIE / The Dominion Post
APPOINTED: Christine Rankin at Parliament in 2007 protesting over the Medicines Bill.

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Christine Rankin says she is "really surprised" by the reaction to her controversial appointment as a Families Commissioner.

UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne, architect of the Families Commission, today lambasted the appointment as "a mistake" and called on Ms Rankin to reject the position.

Labour leader Phil Goff said she was a controversial and divisive figure. 

Green MP Sue Bradford said National was subverting the commission through political appointments, and accused it of sabotage.

Ms Rankin, who recently remarried for the fourth time, said today she had not expected the furore over her appointment.

"I am really surprised by the level of reaction," said Ms Rankin.

Ms Rankin said she had not been appointed to agree with everyone.

"I have a particular view and a passion for New Zealand children and families and I think I have a big contribution to make."

She said the MPs were entitled to their opinions. Her view was the sabotage allegation was "nonsensical" and Labour criticism meant nothing to her.

"(Labour) set out to destroy me a long time ago and I don't know that any of that's changed."

Ms Rankin said she stood by her criticism of the anti-smacking bill. She said parents were unnecessarily investigated and it created fear in the community.

"To me it was silly legislation in the first place; we've got a major child abuse problem. We don't need a smokescreen that takes us down the wrong road."

She did not regret her previous comments - she said Labour made mileage out of one conference while she had made major savings at the department, Miss Clark did not have children and Maori did need to face child abuse issues.

"We need to stop being politically correct."

The Government confirmed today Ms Rankin was one of two new appointees to the commission in a decision which has already sparked controversy.

The Families Commission was set up as a Crown agency to promote better understanding of families issues as part of a support deal between United Future and Labour following the 2002 election.

National was previously scathing of it but agreed to retain it as part of its post-election support agreement with Mr Dunne.

"Ms Rankin is simply the wrong person to be appointed to a body of this type. She is divisive and controversial and her appointment will be disruptive to the ongoing work of the commission," Mr Dunne said.

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"The fact that her appointment was bitterly contested within the Cabinet, together with her fall from grace under the previous government, shows she does not enjoy sufficiently widespread political support to make her appointment tenable."

Ms Rankin should decline the appointment, he said.

"Her taking up this role will seriously undermine the credibility of the Families Commission."

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett announced the appointment of former head of Winz (now Work and Income) Ms Rankin, and Bruce Pilbrow, chief executive of the advice service Parents Inc, saying they were strong advocates for children and families. There are seven commissioners.

Prime Minister John Key said Ms Rankin was passionate in campaigning against child abuse.

It was reported Cabinet hotly debated Ms Rankin's appointment.

Goff said he was astounded and said Ms Rankin's personal friends prevailed in the Cabinet debate.

"She is obviously a very controversial and divisive figure," he told reporters.

"The last time we had a recession she was spending several hundred thousand on hiring a private plane and a luxury lodge for her chief executives.

"Is that the sort of message we want to send out?"

Ms Rankin was not reappointed as Winz chief executive after staging the spectacular conference with a price tag of $235,000. She then lost a colourful legal challenge to her dismissal in 2001.

Ms Rankin led a group opposed to Ms Bradford's anti-smacking legislation - which National voted for. As head of For The Sake Of Our Children Trust she went head to head with former Children's Commissioner Cindy Kiro and child advocate groups.

Ms Rankin argued the law change, removing the defence of reasonable force when parent was charged was charged with assaulting a child, would make thousands of parents criminals.

"She's attacked groups like Barnados and others that she will now be required to work with," Mr Goff said.

During the anti-smacking debate Ms Rankin referred to former Prime Minister Helen Clark as childless, which Mr Goff said was an unacceptable personal attack.

Ms Bradford said the Families Commission supported her bill.

"Ms Rankin's appointment seems like a deliberate move that will divide the commission. This amounts to a form of political sabotage," Ms Bradford said.

The law was working well and police were happy with it, she said.

"I'm extremely concerned about the influence Ms Rankin's view may have on the future of the commission's work on violence against children, and the future of the commission itself."

Mr Goff said Ms Rankin aligned herself so exclusively with one side of the political spectrum, for example attending Destiny Church and Families First rallies, that it was hard to see how she could be representative.

Mr Key said despite her record he considered Ms Rankin a safe pair of hands whose priority would be families.

"I don't think she will actually agree with the National Party on certain issues, we've taken a different response for instance with smacking - she has been a strong proponent the other way."

Ms Bennett said she had argued for the appointment.

"I think we were pretty strong in putting her forward, and she certainly presented well," she told reporters.

"I think Christine has some pretty strong views on things, I think she will bring those views to the commission and as a consequence the decisions that come out of it will be fairly robust."

Lobby group Family First NZ welcomed the appointments.

"Both Christine and Bruce will bring the Commission 'down to earth' and rather than being blinded by ideology, it will hopefully start listening to the voice of families and advocating for them in a relevant way," said Bob McCoskrie, national director of Family First.

- with NZPA

- The Dominion Post

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