Peter Rankin: Haere rā to a revolutionary thinker

Paekākāriki and Aotearoa have lost one of its revolutionary thinkers. Former Paekākāriki resident and Chief Executive of New Zealand Planning Council, Peter Rankin, passed away this week, aged 80. Friend Patricia Sarr shares her reflections on an extraordinary man.

When I conjure up Peter Rankin, he always has one eyebrow lifted and is chuckling deep in his throat. Then there’s a pause. Then there are Peter’s words – thoughtful and considered, offered and not shouted, optimistic within the biggest stretch of what just might be possible.

In Paekākāriki, many of us knew Peter through his crucial leap of imagination which eventually grew and flowered to be the project we now call Wainuiwhenua.  Peter took some of the varied environmental pieces on the map and said, ‘Why not put them together and create something larger, something coherent and welcoming and even useful for human and non-human alike?’ His vision put pieces together to form a new, larger whole, encompassing all, for the long term. That’s what Wainuiwhenua became.  Peter was there planting the seed at the beginning. We were so lucky.

There’s a rich and long history of service before he came to plant that seed here in Paekākāriki.  Starting out with a degree in Greek and Latin, Peter worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Wellington, New Delhi, Ottawa, and Brussels.  A fine way to learn there’s more than one way to do things.

Out of that foreign experience, he became convinced there were things needing to be changed in New Zealand. But first he earned a Master’s degree in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard and studied at Georgetown’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He did his homework well.

He was asked to come back to join and then lead New Zealand’s Planning Council; the agency wanted someone with a broad perspective, not narrow technical expertise.  He was a good fit since he believed wisdom came from involving a broad range of viewpoints and knowledge. This was the late ’70s, and the Planning Council was one of the pioneers in making a strong effort to understand and honour Māori understandings, which Peter always saw as core to New Zealand’s identity. 

Peter thought another contribution of the Planning Council was to encourage longer-term thinking – this was many years before local governments had to produce Long Term Community Plans or Treasury its Long Term Fiscal Outlook. Peter said, ‘That long-term approach was inconceivable in the ’70s.’

‘We talk about economic development as though it’s just about extracting more resources out of the ground or out of the farm or out of the trees. But that’s not how it will work.  It’s about finding the riches in our people and enabling them to fulfil their potential.’

Peter Rankin

The demise of the Planning Council was not the end of Peter’s career. Peter worked in a number of roles including planning functions at Wellington City Council and as an independent consultant. He also had a long interest in farming and thought much about how it could be more productive. He and his wife, Theresa tested some of his theories by buying land near Carterton and running a small livestock farm for a number of years. This was followed by a stint in South Africa working for VSA.

But there were also hidden talents; some of us were lucky to hear his wonderful singing voice.

Peter’s broad view and independent way of thinking never stopped. One of his last visions is what became Wainuiwhenua.  We were so lucky to have Peter and his beloved wife Theresa in the village. They were an inspiring pair.    

But the seeds that he planted all around this country, including Wainuiwhenua, means he will be sheltering and inspiring us for years to come.

Listen to Peter’s talk on how we might embed foresight into public policy in 2020 and beyond.

‘To be a friend of Peter Rankin’s was indeed a pleasure. To be with him and listen to his expansive intelligent ideas and visions was an honour. To have this man thinking about all our futures was critical. Thank you Peter for all that you were for us individually and for our country. We will create your vision with the Wainuiwhenua project and carry you with us.’

Jenny Rowan

‘Peter’s energy, intellect, deep moral values and commitment to community were so immensely valued by everyone who knew him or had the privilege of working alongside him. He had a strong voice at Council, at the Community Board, and in the wider community, and his presentations and submissions were always intelligent and deeply felt. He always called a spade a spade and was never afraid to say exactly what he thought. He knew how to take a problem and create an elegant and creative solution. His work and passion will leave a lasting legacy.’

KCDC Deputy Mayor, Janet Holborow

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