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Maxim's Real Issues

Maxim Institute - real issues.

this week: No. Forty-Nine 6 FEBRUARY 2003

* Waitangi Day - birth of a nation or seedbed of division? What are we celebrating and will it be possible to move ahead?

* This land is your land Most New Zealanders have taken property and access rights for granted, but this could change.

* Vibrant media vital to civil society Democracy and civil society requires the media to be objective and analytical. State broadcasting is increasingly politicised and private press limited in ownership.

* New photographic exhibit - art or exploitation An Australian photographer defends her work amidst claims it is feeding our cultures serious problem with child abuse.

* Children as trophies - whose interests are served? Artificial insemination and surrogacy are complex legal issue, but when combined with the agenda to make all family forms equal they are a minefield.

February 6, 1840 - birth of a nation or seedbed of division?

Waitangi Day is here, and again the focus is on who is going and isn't, the protests and this year something a bit different in the form of a media ban. But the important issues of vision and nationhood are obscured. If we are honest we are deeply confused over nationhood, cultural identity, biculturalism and multiculturalism. What exactly are we meant to be celebrating?

One thing is for sure: we can't ignore the past. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 was a pact between two peoples. It brought rule of law to a people divided by inter-tribal warfare, but it did not prevent injustice to Maori. How we view the past shapes how we see the Treaty. Too often many of us are guilty of 'chronological snobbery'. We read back on the past with own contemporary values. A variety of interpretations reduces the Treaty to a political power struggle. So, in the end the document itself is forced to bear too much. It is simply not robust enough to act as a surrogate constitution. Principles of the treaty have been made into law, but in recent years more principles seem to be 'discovered'. So the more obscure and contentious the Treaty has become. Instead of being the enlightened document it was supposed to be it will divide us.

This land is my land, that land is my land

Farmers could face a pedestrian invasion if the Government succeeds with moves to ensure farms are open up farms to public foot traffic. Rural Affairs Minister Jim Sutton has set up a 'reference group' to study whether the general population should be allowed to cross private farm land to get to recreation areas - National and ACT say it's effectively a done deal.

Property rights are basic to personal freedom. Indeed, they are a bulwark against the State as it tends to increase its power by intrusion on private rights. Historically farmers were generally pretty tolerant of folk nipping across a paddock to pick a mushroom or go for a swim at the local river or beach, as long as they didn't break down fences or disturb stock. Because there was an understanding of social responsibility this worked for both sides. In this give and take framework of civil society the locals mostly tried not to abuse the privilege.

As this has been eroded we find ourselves with the prospect of law that says farmers must provide access to all comers. That is another matter entirely. It raises a raft of questions concerning who really owns the land, what happens when stock is disturbed (or when a pedestrian is injured), who pays, and even why the public should be given rights over a property owner. We have to wake up and realise that mutual responsibility and goodwill cannot be replaced by more laws.

Vibrant media vital to civil society

All is not well in state broadcasting. TVNZ's charter continues to generate debate, National Radio has major staffing problems, while TV1 is axing 'Assignment', its only in-depth investigative documentary programme. If what is reported is accurate, funding is at crisis level and the result will be further programme and staff cut-backs.

National Radio is funded entirely by the taxpayer and is non-commercial. TVNZ is now a Crown Owned Company which mixes commercial goals with public service responsibilities. But when well-resourced, and operating from a platform of objectivity, they can deliver enormous benefits which respect and uphold the principles of a functioning democracy. But we haven't seen this for a long time.

A recent report by Transparency International cited cause for concern in New Zealand where a free press has always 'struggled'. It noted that most of the 67 'independent' regional papers were owned by two media giants Tony O'Reily and Rupert Murdoch. Private ownership and government involvement in the media in the Pacific region "have tended to reduce the diversity of reporting, as well as its critical edge".

The issues are complex: technology is changing rapidly and broadcasting infrastructure is very costly to maintain and improve. But even more costly is what happens to the democratic heart and intelligence of a nation when objective and well-resourced public and private media are lacking. The chairman of Transparency International warns that "corruption will continue to thrive without the vigilance of the media and civil society". Mixing commercial and service goals with political demands is not unhelpful. An active and informed population is the best defence against a continued decline of these vital services.

New photographic exhibition - art or exploitation?

A photography exhibition opening in Wellington this week is expected to provoke reaction with its images of pubescent girls. Australian artist Deborah Paauwe says "I welcome people interpreting my art in whatever way they want to."

Paauwe insists mothers are always present at the shoots, and that many of the children love posing. That might well be true, but no child could be fully aware of the eroticised and exploitative environment. To claim children enjoy it is to show gross ignorance of a serious problem. The point at which art and free expression become suggestive and exploitative is increasingly difficult to establish in a morally confused society.

But many people still have some sensitivity, as demonstrated by the backlash concerning photographs of Sally Ridge's daughter. These sorts of images have to be considered within the context of wider culture - it's naive to pretend otherwise. At the centre of our concern is the effect on the children themselves. When natural processes and modesty are presented for adult entertainment they are not reflective of a child's 'best interests'.

Children as trophies - whose best interests?

An Auckland woman has given birth to a child. The family concerned has refused access to the father who donated his sperm by artificial means to a lesbian couple. The trio had drawn up a detailed written agreement, giving the father access to the baby boy for at least a fortnight a year. But the friendship broke down, creating a complex legal dispute involving three adults and the child.

The laws on artificial insemination by donor were formulated before the era of making all 'family forms' equal. For obvious reasons artificial insemination ranks higher on the agenda for change for prospective homosexual parents, than it does for heterosexuals. The present law in New Zealand covering these matters is the Status of Children Amendment Act, 1987. Under this legislation, when a heterosexual couple conceive a child by donor insemination, the husband or de facto partner of the biological mother can consent to become the legal father of the child. In a lesbian couple, the partner does not become the legal partner and the donor has no legal rights or responsibilities either.

The 1987 law says the child's rights are the paramount consideration. But are they? Children are embroiled in the legal ping-pong and it's really an issue of adults attending to their own needs, not those of children or their best interests. In a culture of rights advocacy, we're seeing more and more law. But this is the wrong way to solve the problems of human relationships - it brings increasing complexity to order to solve faulty logic. Children are not trophies to be 'won' by legal battles. We need to remind ourselves the usual and most beneficial context for having and raising children remains two committed biological parents.

Maxim Forum 2003 - In search of Civil Society

Kevin Andrews is one of Australia's leading family policy advocates and is currently Minister for Ageing in the Australian Federal Government. He will speak at the Maxim Forum on: Are there practical and legitimate steps government can take to reinvigorate the family? Since 1996 he has been Chairman of the Federal Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, producing a series of reports and books including To Have and to Hold on strategies to strengthen marriage and relationships (1998), and Human Cloning (2001).

Register now for your place at Maxim's inaugural one-day forum on 22 March. http://www.maxim.org.nz/forum2003/forum1.html

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK - French management saying: That's all very well in practice, but it will never work in theory.

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