Hard News by Russell Brown


That Buzzing Sound

My dander is up, but it would clearly be prudent to wait to see the promised new plan for the Waterview Connection before pronouncing on that.

So just a quick note for Sean Plunket: sometimes governments massage financial numbers to make their ideas look better, and in this case, it seems the numbers haven't been so much massaged as given a full-service rogering. And a corresponding note for Sean's interview subject, David Shearer: sometimes it's easier to just say "creative accounting" or "raiding the piggy bank" than to explain the details.

Which leaves us with the controversial appointment of Christine Rankin to the Families Commission, which was apparently the subject of furious arguments around the Cabinet table, and was made over the head of the commission's patron saint, Peter Dunne.

Rankin, you may recall, was levered out of Work and Income after, it seemed, operating it as a personality cult. In 2005, she was hired by conservative businessman John Sax to head up a campaign to "stop families breaking up". The campaign itself offered no policies, just lots of Christian conservative cant. At the time, Sax posed the question: ""We claim we have the right as adults to pursue any relationships we like - but at the cost of our children, do we?"

The project became the For the Sake of Our Children Trust, a celebrity-oriented vehicle for Sax's fundamentalist beliefs about families. And the woman he hired is now, as you may know, onto her fourth husband. The buzzing sound of moral dissonance has characterised Rankin's work with the trust, which, among other things, helped sponsor the visit of English blowhard Theodore Dalrymple, who believes divorce should be outlawed in most circumstances.

The issue of the relationship between his eventful private life and the Families Commission role is tricky: so much so that a story by Colin Espiner was amended after publication. The deleted section is still there on Kiwiblog. It refers to the suicide of the former wife of her new husband, six months ago. A comment under the original post claims that the suicide "was in part brought about by the discovery of the affair" between Rankin and the husband. It does sound messy.

But, however we might not enjoy being lectured by Rankin in this context, it would be perilous to say that it should preclude her from the post. There are much better arguments than that -- most notably that Rankin and her trust set themselves against all the genuine child welfare agencies in the country by advocating strongly for the "right" to hit your children. It is genuinely difficult to see how she could work effectively with organisations like Barnado's given her comments about them in the past.

Speaking personally, I gave my time and my face to a campaign, organised by the Families Commission, that delivered the message that it's not okay to hit anyone in your family. I'm gratified that the Families Commission CEO Jan Pryor has restated its support for the "anti-smacking" law, but Rankin's sounding-off so far about bringing change, and her long record of attention-seeking, would seem to indicate trouble ahead.

Religious affiliation per se isn't really the issue here either. The outgoing commissioners, Sharron Cole and Lyn Campbell, both have enduring commitments to their respective church communities. Cole has just taken a job as director of the Catholic Education Centre and Campbell is a member of the NZ Baptist Assembly Council. (Rankin, by contrast, was last seen chanting for a new car with the ridiculous "prosperity Buddhism" cult Soka Gakkai. It's that buzzing sound again.)

(And yes, yes, I know the wingnuts told you the Families Commission was staffed by godless lesbian communists. But that goes to show why you shouldn't listen to wingnuts.)

The point is that both Cole and Campbell had exemplary qualifications as families commissioners. The same might possibly be said about Bruce Pilbrow, the CEO of Parents Inc, the organisation founded by Ian Grant and his wife and warmly praised in the past by John Key. I personally don't dislike Grant. I think he does (unlike Rankin) actually help people, and that he does have something to bring to the table. But, as Craig Young explained a while ago, the Grants really do not like the gays. In the mid-90s they both campaigned against the Hero Parade, and Ian Grant was a signatory to John Sax's disgraceful junk-science letter to MPs, trying to have the civil unions legislation derailed.

This isn't about the best person for the job: it's a political statement. The people behind Rankin have connections. And Sax will be celebrating this week: he's really scored. This is a significant shift away from professional knowledge and towards moral conservative certainties for the Families Commission. In a way, it's almost better for the fundies than the Commission being scrapped altogether.

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