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Letter From Elsewhere: Inalienable Feminist Rights

As a feminist of thirty years’ standing, I would like to make a short statement. Being able to wear short skirts and long earrings to work is not an inalienable feminist right. It is not even a feminist issue.

What is a feminist issue is the right to have your job performance judged on the same criteria as everyone else in comparable positions. If you head the largest government department (which is already highly controversial), and for three years your boss has to spend more time trying to sort out your performance and your key working relationships than those of all your peers put together, you can hardly expect a glowing report. If you have been responsible for a series of prominent and embarrassing cock-ups, especially after assuring your Minister that everything would be fine, and to top it all off have sued a Member of Parliament, you would be foolish to count on reappointment when your contract comes to an end. If you have become such a high-profile, controversial public figure as a result of said cock-ups, combined with the way your department deals with its “customers”, that you are reviled and harassed in public, you would do well to start discreetly looking for another position.

I am sure various forms of sexism are rife in Parliament, as they are virtually everywhere else. It is quite likely that some of the men dealing with Christine Rankin made uncalled for and ill-judged remarks about her appearance. They may well have had difficulty sorting out the real performance issues from the minor details. But Rankin herself seems to have similar difficulties, to such an extent that she appears to be denying that there were any other grounds, or any sound grounds whatsoever, for not reappointing her.

To see her as some sort of latter-day martyr to sexism is to miss the point. She seems to have taken a personality cult approach to leadership, involving kooky videos and appearances out of clouds of dry ice. She imposed a rigid dress code on her own staff, while insisting on her right to dress as she pleased. She is reported to have recently pressured staff to sign a petition endorsing her leadership.

Women and children are the major users of the department she has just ceased to head. Rankin presided over the implementation of policies which made beneficiaries out to be non-contributing parasites, who for their and our good had to be forced into some parody of employment, regardless of what else they were actually doing. Those were, of course, the policies of the government of the day, and it was the job of a loyal civil servant to carry them out.

But in November 1999, the government and the policies changed. A year later, Wellington’s Downtown Ministry exposed the fact that only 6.5 percent of those who were eligible for special benefit – which would stop them having to choose, for example, between medical care and food – were actually receiving it. By March 2001, three months after new instructions had been issued to staff at the renamed Department of Work and Income, this percentage had risen - but only to 9 percent.

At the other end of the scale, when Work and Income staff send out a form letter to tell you that your recently deceased mother’s final pension payment has been made, it seems they do not take the trouble to make sure they have inserted her name in place of the previous name on their list. Yes, I know it’s a very small thing, but it does matter.

As she faces the prospect of unemployment, Rankin can count herself fortunate that even if she fails to get the $818,000 she is seeking in compensation, she is unlikely to need the assistance of her former department. Her previous annual salary equated to almost one thousand weeks of the current basic unemployment benefit for a married person with children. Over the last ten years, this benefit has risen by eight dollars and sixteen cents.

ENDS

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