- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2001

Christine Rankin's penchant for dangling earrings, low necklines and high hemlines has taken center stage in an explosive employment-discrimination case that has riveted New Zealand and unsettled its government.
Arguments before an employment-grievance court in Wellington concluded earlier this week on whether Miss Rankin, who until this month headed the country's massive welfare agency, can proceed with a lawsuit seeking reinstatement in her job and some $485,000 in damages from the government.
The Labor government maintains Miss Rankin was let go because of poor performance and because her position was being eliminated in a merger with another agency.
But the headlines and television coverage during nearly two weeks of preliminary arguments have focused on senior government aides' reported comments on the statuesque Miss Rankin — a 6-footer who favors high heels — and her flamboyant fashion choices.
Mark Prebble, a top aide to Prime Minister Helen Clark, said at a hearing earlier this month that Miss Rankin's dress had distracted male clients who had business to do with the Work and Income Department, the government's largest bureaucracy, headed by Miss Rankin since 1998.
"I was outraged to have someone sitting in front of me displaying as much breast as she did," Mr. Prebble told the court. "I thought it was revealing to the point it was indecent, and I found it offensive."
Miss Rankin, who promised a story that would "shock and horrify" New Zealanders at the opening of her hearing, said she was told by Social Services Minister Steve Maharey that her attire was inappropriate for the agency that oversaw social welfare and poverty programs. She testified that Mr. Maharey urged her to wear longer skirts, shop at a more reputable discount clothier and junk her Hugo Boss eyeglasses.
Sticking to her trademark skirts and earrings but occasionally breaking into tears, Miss Rankin told the court that Mr. Prebble at one point told her her earrings "in terms of Darwin and 'The Naked Ape'" constituted a "sexual come-on."
Such comments, played up in massive coverage in the local press, have sparked a backlash among some women. An e-mail organizing drive led to July 6's "Christine Rankin Day," in which many women braved the Southern Hemisphere's winter chill to don large earrings and miniskirts in solidarity with the dismissed bureaucrat.
Among those joining the sartorial protest was Jenny Shipley, leader of the opposition National Party, who was photographed sporting large earrings and a modestly abbreviated skirt.
"The Labor government must be ashamed of itself that it is taking us back 20 years in its perceptions of women," Mrs. Shipley said.
The media circus surrounding the Rankin case is all the more striking because women dominate the upper echelons of New Zealand's power structure.
The Pacific island nation was the first to grant women full voting rights 108 years ago. In addition to Miss Clark and Mrs. Shipley, women hold the four most senior government posts.
"The gal with the '60s look versus the bureaucrats, the technocrats and the autocrats has provided deliciously chic fare for the entire nation," columnist Phil Campbell wrote in the Rotorua Review.
The Labor government, which targeted Miss Rankin and her agency even before taking power in the 1999 election, contends the hemline hoo-hah has obscured genuine failings in Miss Rankin's record.
Miss Rankin came in for sharp criticism for a decision by her agency to charter a jet to fly staffers to a conference for $80,000. Her new Labor superiors criticized her job performance and said New Zealand's civil-service laws had been specifically amended to allow new governments to remove nonperforming senior bureaucrats.
Associate Minister Ruth Dyson, testifying for the government, told the employment court Monday that Miss Rankin had taken criticism of her appearance the wrong way.
"If Ms. Rankin saw this as an attack on her dress, she misunderstood the point," the minister testified. "It was about the public perception of the department and of Ms. Rankin." She testified that Miss Clark had taken similar critiques of her appearance to heart.
Miss Clark "has become a much more engaging person from the public point of view now that she has relaxed and become less defensive," Miss Dyson said.
The court is expected to rule within three weeks on whether Miss Rankin can proceed with her complaint.

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