John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Rankin anti-smacking tirade another straw for PM's back

Has Christine Rankin blatantly defied the Prime Minister and compromised the Families Commission with her latest outburst against the anti-smacking law?

The answer is probably not. Nevertheless, she has strayed perilously close to crossing the boundary of what John Key can tolerate politically and also what is deemed acceptable conduct for a board member of a Crown entity.

The wide-ranging interview in the latest issue of Investigate magazine would seem to contravene Key's dictum that she confine her public comments as a Families Commissioner to her expertise on child abuse "and nothing else". However, when Key delivered that warning, the "nothing else" referred to her talking about her private life, in particular the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the break-up of her current husband's previous marriage. The Investigate article steers away from that subject.

More problematic is Rankin's assertion that section 59 is not working and is having a "traumatic" impact on families. Her remarks run directly counter to those of Jan Pryor, the chief commissioner of the Families Commission.

Last week Pryor declared the law was working well and parents were not being criminalised for trivial offences.

Key was yesterday quick to play down Rankin's latest contribution to the debate as "generalised comments" rather than "active campaigning" for the "no" vote in the coming referendum - something which Key made clear would be unacceptable.

Not wishing to reignite last month's row over Rankin's appointment as a commissioner and get into an argument with Rankin and her legions of supporters, Key seemed to be looking for any excuse not to dump on her. However, the Prime Minister's reluctance to criticise Rankin does not remove her obligations as a commissioner. Guidelines issued by the State Services Commission - the state sector watchdog - declare board members on Crown entities must act in good faith "and not at the expense of the entity's interests".

Whether Rankin is cognisant of what the State Services Commission describes as the tension between the official role of a board member and wanting to express personal views on Government policy is a moot point.

In her defence, her remarks are not as provocative as they could have been. In addition, if Key's position of seeing no reason to change the law is Government policy, it is Government policy more by default than by deliberate consideration by the National Party as a whole.

The more pertinent question is whether Rankin's remarks undermine Pryor individually or the Families Commission collectively. However, if the commission is not robust enough to cope with Rankin's broadsides on smacking, then it may as well dissolve.

What is clearly provocative is the timing of Rankin's intervention in the run-up to August's referendum. Key could have used that factor plus the interview's contents as reasons to remove her from the commission's board. He probably deemed the grounds too weak and that she could only be found guilty of bad judgement.

However, if it isn't smacking then something else will inevitably arise which sees Rankin seriously embarrass the Families Commission or the Government or both.

- NZ Herald

Your views

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

Read more by John Armstrong

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 27 Dec 2014 00:35:24 Processing Time: 1848ms