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    Essential Information on an Essential Issue

    Letter No.149

    16 July, 2001

    The Rankin Case

  • Bonfire of the Vanities
  • Diary of a Court Case
  • Timeline — How We Got here
  • Voices

  • jbl-rankin.jpg - 15788 Bytes

  • IT’S ALL OVER EXCEPT for the verdict. Christine Rankin has had her day in court. In doing so, the former boss of New Zealand’s largest government department, Work and Income (Winz), has lit a fire of scorn and controversy under Wellington’s bureaucratic and political elite.

    It is extremely rare for a senior public servant to take the government to court, and the Rankin Case has been the highest-profile employment grievance this country has ever seen.

    The Employment Court hearing quickly became a “bonfire of the vanities” as government Ministers, opposition parties, leading public servants and media commentators were all drawn like moths to its flames.

    The two-week hearing (see our Diary) grabbed all the headlines, the Tv news leads, the commentaries, chatteries, and cartoons. We got to hear much more than we needed to know about the personal lives and opinions of Wellington’s inner circle. And the lid was lifted on the previously invisible workings of Ministerial offices, government appointments, inquiries, and the State Services Commission.

    At times the whole spectacle seemed incredulous ... TV producers could not have written a better soap opera.

  • Now that it is nearly over ... what have we learned?
    — There were contested allegations of sexism and inappropriate comments on Christine Rankin’s dress sense, and off-the-record deals being done by top public servants.

    — The State Services Commissioner exercised “pastoral care” over his chief executives ... which led to the expectation that CEO contracts would be renewed if their performance was satisfactory.

    — This expectation runs contrary to what the contracts actually say. Christine Rankin’s fixed-term three-year contract as CEO contained no written expectation of re-appointment.

    — Rankin’s claim for damages will hinge on whether State Services Commissioner Michael Wintringham was transparent with her about the government’s attitude to her future employment.

    — The Employment Court judge will need to decipher the different recollections of meetings that occurred between Wintringham and Rankin.

    — Rankin may well come away with some compensation for her “distress, humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings”.

    — This case will have an effect on the relationship between senior public servants and government politicians for some time to come.

  • Perhaps we have also learned that this bonfire has been the price that comes with bringing an end to an era.

    The Labour Alliance government campaigned at the last election on the need to turn our state services away from the excesses of the corporate-style approach ... and the vanities that came with it. Their call for greater accountability has gained significant popular support.

    It was always clear that Christine Rankin would be a prime target for change. Her critics have seen her as the most extreme example of corporate-style self-indulgence within our public service. That she headed up Winz — the government department charged with the support of our most vulnerable citizens — only made the excesses more unpalatable.

    In time, this court case may come to be seen as not about earrings, fashion, and sexism in the state services ... or even about the fine-points of employment law and chief executive contracts. It may be seen as the political price for stepping away from the publicly-funded excesses of the 1990s, and towards reclaiming the “public service we need” in New Zealand today.


    October 1998 — Department of Work and Income (Winz) established with Christine Rankin at the helm.

    Nov — State Services Commission lists concerns about Rankin's leadership style.

    Winz staff exposed for selling beneficiaries' private information to debt collectors and "repo men".

    Dec 1998 to Feb 1999 — State Services Commission conducts a review into security at Winz.

    Feb 1999 — Rubbish sacks of confidential Winz documents found dumped on roadside in Waikato. Prompts a second security review.

    Feb-Apri1 1999 — The department bungles student allowances as students wait months to be paid.

    March — Rankin told off after "attacking" Green MP Rod Donald through the media.

    Education Review Office chief Judith Aitken writes to Wintringham complaining about Rankin's "inappropriate behaviour".

    April — Criticisms of big spending on corporate advertisements and uniforms.

    June — Rankin's self-assessment for her performance review "voluminous", according to Wintringham.

    July — News of the Wairakei aircraft charter breaks. Another review is started, through the office of the auditor-general.

    Rankin has an "extremely disturbing" meeting with opposition MP Steve Maharey. She tells Wintringham she fears for her career.

    Oct — Auditor-general's report into the Wairakei affair. Rankin issued with a "formal warning" by Wintringham.

    Nov — Performance review states Rankin has an "innovative and unorthodox style" but poses a risk of criticism of the department.

    Revelations that Work and Income staff concocted a story to secretly pay more than $100,000 to get rid of a senior executive.

    Dec — Wintringham asked by the new Labour Government about the possibility of sacking Rankin. He says there are not yet grounds to.

    Jan-Feb 2000 — Management problems with student loans shows "no lessons learned" from the allowances bungle.

    Jan — Revelations that Rankin had sacked an executive over the Wairakei affair and was paying $100,000 plus in a settlement.

    May — The Hunn inquiry is damning of the department.

    Rankin told she would probably not be reappointed. More legal inquiries over whether she could be sacked.

    Nov — Rankin formally told her contract would not be renewed.

    Dec — Rankin's lawyer, Michael Quigg, asks Wintringham to reconsider his recommendation.

    Feb 2001 — A story featuring Rankin appears in the Sunday Star-Times angering Maharey and Wintringham.

    March — Rankin writes to MP Sue Bradford threatening legal action, without telling Maharey.

    April — Rankin told about her department being merged. She writes to Wintringham requesting her performance during 2000-2001 be reviewed. She threatens to sue.

    25 June — The Employment Court hearing begins.

    Source — Michael Wintringham / The Dominion "How it all went wrong" 29 June 2001


    slaneumbrellas.jpg - 53145 Bytes Slane, The Listener

    " It was a much bigger issue than you, Mrs Rankin, much more important than the way you look. Don't you get it?"
    Alan Galbraith, Crown defense lawyer

    " The media should have stayed with the substance — the true intent of Government's restructuring — and not some woman's dress style. We want to know how the Government should go about reclaiming its public service for the public good."
    Claire Breen, St Heliers, letter to the New Zealand Herald

    " Rankin may be guilty of crimes of the wardrobe, but her clothing never affected her performance, only those of leery-eyed men around her. Her sins are not in the same league as the scandal of the Incis police computer, or the hocking off of umpteem public assets, like railways and electricity, or the systematic destruction of the health service."
    Sandra Coney, columnist Sunday Star-Times

    " She had a tendency to personalize issues and did not seem to realise that there were bigger, more important issues than her. I was trying to convey a very simple message, a chief executive of a public service department whose role is to deliver services to people who, on the whole, can not afford expensive clothes, might want to give some thought to how they present in the public domain."
    Steve Maharey, Minister of Social Services and Employment

    " I'm sorry, this person has failed in the job. This person has not managed to maintain an appropriate relationship with Ministers, this person has not projected the appropriate image of a public service chief executive and hasn't managed to carry forward the department. She presided over a succession of problems and has not managed to create the solutions required."
    Mark Prebble, head of the Prime Minister's Department

    " If any chief executive that was reporting to me had ever said anything like he could see the breasts of a woman under a piece of clothing, I would have had him in my office and if it was so, I would have had the State Services Commission straight after and I would want to know every single provision available to me to get rid of him."
    Jenny Shipley, MP and leader of the National Party, concerning Mark Prebble

    " I agree that Christine Rankin looks professional — but which profession?"
    D.L., Whangarei, letter to the New Zealand Herald

    " She would say to me: "I have done everything the new minister has wanted and more, and it won't go away." There was no Michael Wintringham, her employer the State Services Commissioner, there for her. She stood alone."
    Allan Hogg, husband of Christine Rankin

    " What I had not expected, however, was the on-going saga of problems that plagued the department and particularly Ms Rankin almost from the start of her term as chief executive. I have to say that I would expect a CEO of a government department of 5,000 staff on $250,000 a year to take responsibility for effective communication with her Minister."
    " [Her attitude] was bordering almost on an unwillingness to accept any criticism. I have rarely experienced that level of defensiveness in a chief executive. There was a mismatch between Mrs Rankin's skills and those the new chief executive would need."
    Michael Wintringham, State Services Commissioner. "

    Christine Rankin has been wronged, but not as grievously as she claims. She might have suffered some ridiculous sexist insults by officials and ministers, but she also made a hash of the Winz job. Rankin was wrong if she thought her contract would be renewed, she had to be replaced. The claims about sexism, brutishness and tall poppies are colourful and no doubt contain some truth. But in the end they are irrelevant."
    " The leader of the beneficiaries' department cannot waste money on flying bureaucrats to expensive resorts and expect to survive. Rankin also spent vast sums on re-branding the department, an entirely unnecessary expense based on the fatuous notion that Winz was a corporation operating in the marketplace. Rankin's cult-of-personality management style, full of hype, glitz and razzamatazz, was a caricature of the 1980's-style corporate evangelism. It was entirely out of place in the public service..."
    Editorial, Sunday Star-Times.

    " The Rankin furore is a direct and predictable outcome of the determination to force Labour's Employment Relations Act through parliament. But in her claim, because the State Services Commission is not renewing her fixed-term employment contract, she is doing no more than exploit a huge loophole in the Act.
    " This flaw makes it impossible for an employer to take it for granted that an employee, such as Rankin, on a fixed-term contract will clear out when her term expires, or ask respectfully if she can have it renewed as a privilege, not as a right. That's the way contracts should work. It's the way contracts in the business community work, If you give a security firm a three-year contract to look after your building, you don't find them assuming you will automatically renew it on expiry. And in the employment field that's the way they worked until this Act."
    Frank Haden, columnist Sunday Star-Times

    " Watching her give evidence raised dozens of questions. My first thought was: How could this woman ever have been appointed head of a government department? How much sympathy would she get form the many thousands of unemployed who have suffered at the hands of her department? How many students, remembering their long and painful wait for student grants, would join her in empathetic tears? Surely, a government should have the right to hire and fire the people in charge of implementing policy?"
    Bill Ralston, columnist The Independent

    " Whatever the outcome of the Christine Rankin witch hunt, many of her senior staff in Napier consider her a very caring, enthusiastic person, always concerned with the many people trying to cope and often living on a pittance.
    " Unfortunately, those judging her from "ivory towers" often have little empathy with those people Rankin fully understood. No wonder she did not enjoy or attend meetings with often faceless bureaucrats who rarely related to anyone but their kind."
    Pat Magill, Napier, letter to the Sunday Star-Times

    " Regardless of whether Christine Rankin snaffles more of the taxpayer's money in addition to her huge salary, the remarkably elaborate grievance procedures available to her are staggering in contrast to the denial of normally recognised rights for those at the opposite end of the Winz spectrum — beneficiaries under investigation by the Winz benefit control unit.
    " On the strength of anonymous tip-offs, often followed by snooping around the neighbourhood, unit investigators typically arrived unannounced on the accused's doorstep, provide vague outlines of the alleged misdemeanours and ask for a statement or information to be supplied at short notice. They may also conduct, again at short notice, an interview with the accused on their own in a Winz office. If the beneficiary is fortunate enough to have access to a local support organisation (usually volunteers) he or she will have some informed advice, but set against the resources available to Winz' trained investigators, even that may be a far cry from the concept of justice. If no offence is found, the accused may be left in a state of continuing anxiety with no confirmation of the outcome.
    " The contrast with the hearing being conducted for Mrs Rankin's benefit graphically illustrates the situation of one law for the rich and quite another for the poor..."
    — David Trantor, West Coast Unemployed Workers' Rights Centre

    " In light of Mrs Rankin's employee's petition of support I offer a final solution. Let her clients have their say on the outcome, because the customer is always right."
    A.L., Mt Roskill, letter to the New Zealand Herald

    " I would like to know why I and many other students have not been called as witnesses in Christine Rankin's case. Last year, like many others, I received my student loan almost three months after the study year started. This year the government's policy of wiping off interest has not been implemented for many students because Winz has not transferred their loan accounts to Inland Revenue.
    " I suggest that supporters of Ms Rankin, who think she is being victimized because of her clothes and earrings, have never been either students or beneficiaries whose lives have been blighted by procedural problems with Winz."
    Mike Batten, Sandringham, letter to the New Zealand Herald

    " It is true that her personal appearance and leadership style may have been spectacularly ill-advised for the chief executive of a government department ministering to the people out of money and down on their luck. It may also be true that Mrs Rankin's deficiencies as chief executive of Winz were such that she occupied more of Mr Wintringham's time than all the other public service bosses put together. And she may have been arrogant or naïve (or both) in not seeing that she was politically vulnerable because of the controversies rocking her department, such as the exorbitant Wairakei staff training exercise and the incompetent handling of student loans.
    " But what Chief Employment Court Judge Tom Goddard has to determine is whether Mrs Rankin was fairly treated in being denied a renewal of her contract, or whether —as she alleges —Mr Wintringham was influenced by vindictive politicians who simply didn't like her style. As in so many Employment Court cases, the fairness of the process followed in dumping Mrs Rankin may assume greater importance than substantive issues such as the way she performed her job. In the final analysis, the legs and the earrings are merely peripheral."
    Editorial, The Evening Post

    " I had this contract to build a fence for $8,000. I've built the fence but the silly people who signed the contract say they do not want to build another fence and won't give me a new contract. I heard them comment that they didn't like my automatic nailer, and they thought the stripes I have painted on my wagon were suggestive. So I'll sue them for $800,000, buy a boat and retire to the Bay of Islands with my devoted spouse (she is very supportive here) and we will live happily ever after. Have I got it right?"
    D.R Jennings, Northcote, letter to the New Zealand Herald

    " The former head of Winz says that she has received no job offers this year. Is this to become the new eligibility test at Winz, or do we still expect the unemployed to be actively seeking work?"
    John Stansfield, Waiheke Island, letter to the New Zealand Herald

    " Her passion and zeal for her job as chief executive was unparalleled. We'll wait for the judgment. But it has certainly exposed some practices in the public service that might require some examination if the allegations are proven. The case demonstrated that every person, whether a chief executive or in a less senior position, deserved fair treatment."
    Michael Quigg, lawyer for Christine Rankin

    " [The suit] is obviously important to the government in terms of its relationship with chief executives. No government would want to see a re-run of this sort of performance each time a CEO is not re-employed."
    Alan Galbraith, Crown lawyer for Michael Wintringham

    " I feel free and I am very, very pleased to be going home to hide away for a while. I just want to say thank you to the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who've supported me. I think they've been very brave and I really appreciate that."
    Christine Rankin, on leaving the Employment Court

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