By WARREN GAMBLE
Christine Rankin seems surprised at her own life.
Looking back at her rise from beneficiary to government chief executive and starring role in one of the country's most sensational court cases, she talks like someone who has witnessed a miracle of sorts and cannot explain it.
"I just wanted to work. I didn't want to be on a benefit and my life has just done what it's done, which is astonishing."
Which is an interesting choice of words.
Not just because it is hard to imagine the 47-year-old drifting helplessly on the currents of fate. But also because during her rapid progress through the grey ranks of social welfare she was said to have been known by staff as "Christina the Astonishing".
Rankin cannot remember where the name came from but a former staff member said it was pointed out to Rankin, then in charge of Income Support in Auckland, by an amused secretary who was leafing through a book of saints.
Christina the Astonishing was a 12th-century Belgian peasant girl who literally rose to fame by levitating at her own funeral.
The rest of her life was full of strange incidents, including handling fire without harm and being "given to ecstasies". It left her town divided: either she was a messenger from above or plain mad.
Rankin laughs at the description: "Really, they already say I've got cults, God knows what they will say."
People are divided about Christine Rankin: her supporters, including many senior managers in the Department of Work and Income she led until last month, laud her vision, abilities and results. Her detractors, including former and current staff, say she was a phony, out of her depth and breathtakingly self-centred.
And yes, some say her style bordered on religious. "In the next life she should start a new church," said one former managerial colleague.
"I feel she has got that charismatic ability perhaps to pull a few people along, but you can't fool all the people all the time."
Whether she sought cult status or had it thrust on her, Rankin's personality has been at the centre of the country's most extraordinary employment case.
It has briefly made her the most talked about person in New Zealand. It has made long earrings and hemlines dinner topics.
Even at an out-of-the-way Wellington cafe, over a furniture shop on the light-industrial outskirts of the city, she draws attention.
It is her 12th interview in almost two weeks since her Employment Court case ended. She chose the cafe because it was quiet. The staff have also got used to cameras.
She is easy to spot. She is wearing, in case you were going to ask, a bright apple-green merino wool top, black trousers, boots and, inevitably, long, gold earrings with little globes, and bracelets.
On the table next to her latte, is a sign of the times. Written on a paper napkin is a message from a diner: "Good luck and we hope it all goes well for you. I strongly feel you're doing the right thing. Best wishes."
Whereas once she and her third husband, Allan Hogg, feared for their safety from an abusive crowd at millennium celebrations on the Wellington waterfront, now she feels the public tide has turned.
She is starting to go out to dinner more, not the supermarket yet, but she no longer gets spat at and abused. "People just come up to you and touch you sometimes and say 'keep going'. You know, it's very different from what it used to be and I'm gradually starting to overcome the fear that used to be there but it's quite difficult."
That there should have been such a body of public and media interest bewilders her.
"Who would imagine? It's like an obsession that never seems to stop. I just think this country is so boring; I just happen to be a little bit different."
B LACKBALL, a West Coast mining town on the northern side of the Grey River is an unlikely place to start the Rankin story.
It made good copy for her later rise to national prominence; the girl from Blackball, a coalminer's daughter made good.
In reality she only spent the first four-and-a-half years of her life there after being born 25km down the road in the Greymouth public hospital.
She remembers her father, Walter Parker, going to work in the mine, the wooden house she shared with her mother Sylvia, two older brothers and a sister: "I was the baby by a long, long way".
There are "lots of other memories that I wouldn't want to talk about", and she refuses to discuss the details of her early life.
A 1998 Dominion interview with her said the family was terrorised by a violent father and protected by a loving mother. But Blackball locals who remember the family are as reticent as Rankin herself.
A former neighbour would only say Mr Parker was "just an average working man, just a coalminer bringing up a family".
Rankin will say that her life was very tough then. "I had been made to believe I was never going to be anything, those were the messages that I was given."
"By my environment."
Rankin says her late parents were extremely good to her in the later part of her life. Her mother was an "amazing woman" who gave her the skills to survive hardship.
Later in the interview she describes her parents as left wing, and "obsessed with the Labour Party. That's what's so ironical."
(Blackball itself was the scene of one of the country's first strikes, a collective action by miners in 1908, which gave rise to the Federation of Labour.)
After spending most of his life in the mine, her father became a prison officer and shifted the family from Blackball to his new job in Christchurch.
Rankin went to Villa Maria Catholic School where, she says, the nuns reinforced her low self-esteem. She only learned how to be misbehave, talking in class, playing practical jokes.
She once rendered a classmate senseless during an argument when she hit her with a library book.
The classroom messages "reinforced that we were dumb and we were lazy and we were silly, when they should have been telling us exactly the opposite". Halfway through secondary school the family shifted again when her father became a guard at Auckland Prison, Paremoremo.
They settled in the small prison village and Rankin continued her schooling at Rangitoto College, where she says she responded to a more positive environment.
Still, she left school with only School Certificate. University was out, not only because of her academic underachieving, but because her family could not afford it and were not academically minded.
Girls got married, a man looked after them and they had babies. By the time she was 20, she had followed the prescription after briefly working as a cadet in the Valuation Department and for shipping companies.
She met her first husband, Mark Rea, on the school bus. He was an apprentice printer, later a traffic officer on the North Shore. Five months before the wedding in July, 1973 the couple had their first child, Matthew, now a human relations manager in Wellington.
Her second son, Joshua, was born two years later. He is now in London working for a concierge company catering to rich clients.
The marriage lasted five years and, when it broke up, Rankin was left with her two boys and the domestic purposes benefit.
Applying for it, as she has consistently told interviewers over the past decade, was one of the worst experiences of her life. It was at Social Welfare's Takapuna office where later she was to make her mark as an up-and-coming manager.
"It was a hideous experience, ghastly, something you would never forget. They treated you as if you shouldn't be there, as if you weren't entitled to anything, and they didn't tell you anything.
"I think it's just they had so much power and you didn't, and the power is the information. They certainly didn't give that willingly and kindly - everything was a struggle and I was terrified.
"I can still truly say that I can close my eyes and see the room, the people, everything."
She does not remember how much the benefit was in those days, only that it was a struggle. Spurred by her family's work ethic - "you didn't take anything from anybody you hadn't earned" - she applied for a job as temporary clerk at the Auckland office of Social Welfare.
She started in June, 1978, the beginning of a 23-year career which would take her to the top of the civil service ladder. One of her first managers at the Auckland office, Gavin Antony, said she was only an average clerk who sometimes needed retraining after lunch because her memory retention was not top of the line.
But she was keen and she loved the job. "I don't know why, I just believed there was a different way to treat clients, and I never, never treated anyone badly, ever."
Nine years later, Antony had the tables turned when Rankin turned up at the Grey Lynn office as his boss, at the age of 34, soon to become the youngest district director in the country.
He recalls being surprised at her progress, but says he never had any difficulty working for her.
As for her emerging fashion sense Antony says the men in the office never worried about what she wore, or the length of her dresses.
"The woman has very, very long legs. I personally don't believe she wears short skirts."
Rankin's transformation from a shy, unconfident clerk to management material happened at Takapuna, where Antony says she almost became a cult figure.
She says her progress stemmed from her job interview there when staff appreciated her views on how to treat beneficiaries.
"What happened to me there was the first time in my life anyone thought I had done anything good and I responded to that. It took a long, long time to build up my confidence but they let me do the things I believed in. They let me train the people in the way I wanted."
Her use of role-playing to motivate staff emerged at Takapuna. As a training officer, she recalls a breakthrough session where she asked staff to stand in a circle, close their eyes and pretend they were in a stifling train-station queue in Calcutta. When they finally got to the counter someone closed it in their faces.
The charade, inspired by a television programme, was to get workers to understand what it was like for beneficiaries to be turned down or sent away without the information they needed.
Not all staff liked the approach, but Rankin says it got results. The clients - the official jargon, although she does occasionally say beneficiary - also appreciated being met by people who wanted to help to change their lives.
Rankin says in 18 months at Grey Lynn she had lifted its performance from 72nd out of 74 offices up to number 12. They were results which powered her in 1992 to the northern regional manager post for the Income Support Service, the newly formed department which looked after benefit payments.
Three years later she became the general manager of Income Support, replacing one of her mentors George Hickton. In her personal and leadership styles, Hickton became a huge influence. The snappily tailored, former national sales and marketing manager for a vehicle distributor, Hickton brought corporate ideas to the newly formed benefit payer in 1992.
He introduced a corporate wardrobe and began dismantling partitions and counters in Income Support offices as part of a more open, personalised case-management approach.
A former Income Support colleague when Rankin was general manager says she tried but failed to emulate Hickton's style, and did not gain the same respect.
He says Hickton's approach was to shift as much decision-making as possible to frontline staff facing clients, but Rankin quickly brought back more central control. "Hers was a leadership by personality rather than a leadership by empowerment."
The colleague says she surrounded herself with loyal lieutenants, such as current national commissioner Ray Smith, benefit crime manager Joan McQuay and business development general manager Helene Quilter, to push through changes quickly.
Quilter, Rankin's bridesmaid at her 1995 wedding to Hogg, a former Income Support general manager, gave evidence during the employment case.
Another head-office colleague and friend, Elizabeth Jones, sat next to her in court each day.
McQuay spoke out publicly after the Wairakei plane charter in 1999, saying Rankin had been maligned.
As a frightened 30-year-old domestic purposes beneficiary in Takapuna, she says, Rankin gave her the confidence to restart her life. She ended up working with Rankin for most of her career and described her as extremely visionary. "She can see how things work, that we need to give people dignity, let them know they are worthwhile."
But the former Income Support colleague says personality, vision and a "ra-ra" approach were only enough to "get away with it", not to lead Income Support forward. He says his time was up in head office when Rankin stopped talking to him, as she had warned would happen when she no longer wanted to work with him.
"I just feel to a certain extent she has lived by the sword and she will be dying by the sword."
R ANKIN'S halo shone brightest in 1998 when she landed the biggest job in the public service.
On June 30, State Services Commissioner Dr Michael Wintringham announced her as the first chief executive of the Department of Work and Income - the merger of Income Support, the Employment Service and two community employment programmes.
Wintringham, the man she took to court alleging unfair treatment, was confident she had the experience, energy and sensitivity to make the merger work.
The job had a salary of $250,000. The new department was WINZ and Rankin was determined it would live up to its name.
But over the next year the expected teething problems became badly infected. It was election year and the new department's spending of millions of dollars on commercials and corporate rebranding were a gift to politicians campaigning for public service restraint.
Rankin says she achieved a complex merger of almost 5000 staff within time and under budget. Her critics, including Labour's social welfare spokesman and now minister Steve Maharey, attacked the spending as excessive. The political jackpot was a WINZ managers' conference at Wairakei in June 1999 when the department spent $165,000 to charter a plane for staff.
Rankin lost face with the public by not fronting to the media, a decision she now says went against her instinct and was wrong. She brought in public relations consultants - which also attracted flak - who advised her that she would only inflame the situation.
Rankin also lost support in her own department when she publicly said she was misled by a junior staff member over the charter costs.
Two government investigations found no one to blame, but led to Rankin being docked a $37,500 performance bonus and an out-of-court settlement for the staff member who claimed constructive dismissal.
The look-at-me management style which had got her so far was now counting against her. She became a brightly coloured, sitting target.
R ANKIN says she has always been interested in clothes but her distinctive fashion sense developed over the past decade.
She confesses to wearing jeans like many of her colleagues when she started, and horror of horrors, kung fu slip-ons.
"We used to wear jeans and jandals and shorts and any old thing really.
"We all looked the same, but that changed over a period of time and as I became the manager I presented differently because I was starting to develop my theories on how we should present.
"If you are going to deliver a professional service, you can't look as though you don't mean it."
The earrings? She has worn them for at least the past 10 years, and has them tailor-made. "I used to wear big earrings before then, not always dangly ones, sometimes just big, but it's just been part of my style that's developed over a long period of time.
"I still cannot understand why earrings are so offensive. I find that amazing. And that Mr Prebble [Mark Prebble, head of the Prime Minister's Department] sees that as a sexual come-on is beyond belief."
The short skirts? "This is just me and, you know, when Mark Prebble told me to buy my clothes at Katies I said to him, 'I'm still going to have legs, they're going to stick out the bottom of something you know'."
She says she did buy three pinstriped suits with longer hemlines to her knees in an attempt to modify her style, but nobody took any notice of the change and she took them up again.
Rankin says before the comments from Prebble and Maharey no one had made her dress-sense an issue. She tells of leaving her seat to speak at an international conference when the veteran head of social welfare, Dame Margaret Bazley - the archetypal sensible shoes dresser - ran after her with the earrings she had left behind.
She rejects claims of a double standard over enforcing a corporate wardrobe while indulging her own flamboyant style.
After the Wairakei incident some staff anonymously criticised the dress code, saying they were led by "someone who dresses like a cocktail waitress with earrings longer than her skirts."
Rankin says she prizes flamboyance in her staff.
"What I said was they were not allowed to wear jeans, jandals and sneakers and those kinds of things, that they were to dress professionally.
"No one can say I didn't dress professionally."
Rankin describes her style of leadership as "out front and up front."
"Those people on my frontline get paid $30,000 if they're lucky. They do one of the most important jobs in the country, they face people every single day with massive problems who don't always treat them very well especially since the chartering incident.
"To do it really well they've got to feel inspired, they've got to feel like they've got a purpose in life, and I've tried to create that purpose.
"And I did love them, I'm not ashamed of that. I loved them dearly and I still do."
For Rankin, staff inspiration included team-building weekends, videos, and theatrical presentations.
Two of the most controversial were a mock wedding to mark the Income Support-Employment Service merger in New Plymouth in February 1999, and a video at another conference featuring world leaders.
They still rankle with her. She says the wedding breakfast was part of a normal conference, and had no extra money spent on it.
Rankin says there were actually four funerals to mark the end of four organisations, and a wedding to mark the merger in which she played mother of the groom.
The best man, she says, was none other than the current Minister of Maori Affairs, Parekura Horomia, who was then general manager of the Community Employment Group. "I notice he never says anything about it."
Rankin says stories about the world leader video suggesting she compared herself to Princess Diana and Mother Teresa were wrong, but her explanation may be equally strange.
She says the video was another manager's presentation and featured historic figures such as Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill as leaders who had got into a lot of trouble.
"They flashed me up on to the screen as well and said she's getting into a lot of trouble. It was nothing to do with me, I didn't compare myself to any of those people, and it once again had a political spin on it."
Rankin says her own videos were a vital communication tool in a large organisation. Theatre, humour and music were used to help to get the message across, often with the ham-actor help of two staff known as Fletch and Fletch.
Rankin says the videos cost about $350 each to make.Gavin Antony says there was a rush on for the toilets when they were screened. Many staff thought they were laughable rather than funny.
Rankin: "I have clear expectations of people but I also like them to have fun. I don't mean stupid things but I think they've got to enjoy what they're there to do because it's so tough."
During the interview Rankin is relaxed and chatty. But she bristles at the suggestion from staff and politicians that she was promoted beyond her ability, that she was out of her depth.
"If I'm the dumb blond the Government likes to paint me, how come I turned that place around, how come I merged them as quickly as I did and got the results I got?"
Stable work-placements and job-placements for Maori had reached record levels in the past year. Critics say job growth and new technology have played their part in that.
Rankin says she still does not know the full reasons for her unpopularity with the Government. She does not follow any particular political ideology, although Labour had painted her as right wing.
The only party she had belonged to was Labour during her 20s. Her partner, later to become second husband, David Rankin, now finance director at the Auckland City Council, stood unsuccessfully against Don McKinnon in Albany during the 1978 elections.
Rankin was the branch secretary."I did more fundraising for the Labour Party in that electorate than anyone had ever done previously."
In the end Rankin believes that having vilified her before the 1999 elections, Labour were determined not to give her a chance.
In the end she says she may have been too different for the Government.
"What a shame, what a shame. Does that mean that no one who looks different can work in the public sector, no one who dares to look a little different or who has a different leadership style?
"They talked during the court case about how my personal leadership doesn't fit. Well, I find that amazing, I find that absolutely amazing."
Feature: the Rankin file
By WARREN GAMBLE