Armstrong on Rankin

John Armstrong looks at the Rankin appointment:

’s appointment to the is the closest John Key’s Government has come to seemingly losing its marbles in the six months since it won last year’s election.

The decision is political madness – unless one subscribes to the conspiracy theory that Rankin’s reputation and the unfortunate political baggage attached to the former head of Winz (now Work and Income) is craftily being used to discredit the autonomous Crown agency as a first step towards abolishing it.

That’s not the case. The Families Commission is too small and inoffensive to worry about.

The decision looks like political folly – unless you subscribe to the slightly more credible theory that Rankin has been installed on the commission’s board to shake up a sleepy outpost of government and make it start producing the kind of policy ideas a National Government likes to hear.

More likely.

However, Rankin is a far more unpopular and polarising figure. Furthermore, unlike Cullen’s, Rankin’s appointment carries huge risks for National. Her bolshiness and trouble have often been companions – as National found to its huge cost when it was last in Government.

It is difficult to see much upside politically in finding a job for someone remembered mainly for creating a “culture of extravagance”in the public service during her brief, but flamboyant tenure as a departmental chief executive.

The culture of extravagance was much exaggerated. We’ve actually seen worse from other Departments. However as I often say – in politics perception can be more important than reality.

And this is where the Rankin appointment is baffling. There is no doubt that the Rankin appointment would be controversial and unpopular in some quarters.

Further, it gives Labour a long-term target. I can guarantee you right now some spotty faced Labour reseaercher is making a diary note to file OIA requests every three months to the Families Commission seeking details of all travel and other expenses for the Commissioners. And they will happily highlight any expenses (even if reasonable – because the media will bite regardless).

So why would the Government make a controversial appointment, and buy a headache it does not need? Normally the reason is that the decision in question is too important to not do. Hence we get a motorway not a tunnel in Mt Albert, we get a suspension of Super Fund contributions etc etc.

But the Families Commission is almost an irrelevance. It is not like the Electricity Commission where if it stuffs up, you run out of power. So why use political capital unnecessairly?

Injecting a more conservative flavour into the commission’s work suggests Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is seeking alternative sources of advice than just that coming from her ministry’s officials – in the same way that Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s Law Commission became a think tank for Helen Clark when she wanted advice on justice and sentencing matters.

That’s possible, but I think unrealistic.

I have to admit, that this is one of the few Government decisions that has baffled me politically. That doesn’t mean I think Rankin will be a bad Commissioner – I don’t – just that the politics of it are, well to be blunt, somewhat stupid. Considerable pain for no gain.

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