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real issues. this week: No. 104

real issues. this week: No. 104,

Contents: --------- * 'Mercy killing' is not compassion

* Pulling the plug on Aqua

* Violence in schools

* Historian's death presents challenge

'Mercy killing' is not compassion - Lesley Martin says her guilty verdict for attempting to murder her mother is 'unjust', and has vowed to continue the fight for a law change to allow euthanasia. The guilty verdict however, is both justice being done and being seen to be done. Seldom has a case against a defendant been so clearly laid out as that against Martin in her own book, To Die Like a Dog.

In a highly unusual move, however, her lawyer requested a discharge without conviction, and after consultation with Justice Wild, it was agreed that this possibility would be left open. To ensure the integrity of our justice system and law, it is essential that when Martin is sentenced (on 30 April) it reflects the seriousness of the crime, which has a maximum penalty of 14 years.

The death of a parent is a traumatic emotional experience. But in Lesley Martin's case, her intervention was an attempt to bring her mother's life to a quicker end. Euthanasia, or 'mercy killing', is the use of a lethal external agent to kill someone rather than to allow a natural death. The reality of modern medicine is that we don't have to kill people who are in pain to kill the pain. Admittedly, this is a complex and sensitive issue, but how we respond reveals our society's deepest convictions about the meaning of life and human dignity.

In New Zealand, as in other Western democracies, the freedom of the individual is based on an intrinsic belief in the value of human life. To pre-emptively kill people is to say that, at some point, their lives are no longer of any value. The implications of this argument are huge. To argue that speeding up death by 'mercy killing' is a compassionate act of love shows a profound moral confusion. True compassion is suffering alongside those in pain; it is providing comfort, rather than helping people kill themselves.

Pulling the plug on Aqua - State-owned energy company Meridian has ditched its $1.2 billion scheme for hydro-electric development on the Waitaki River. Debate over Project Aqua has been intense for three years, with everyone from farmers and environmentalists to writers, poets, musicians and locals getting in on the opposition. Delays associated with the 1991 Resource Management Act (RMA) and the Government's Resource Management (Waitaki Catchment) Amendment Bill, as well as the tactics of opposition groups, all contributed to the decision.

The outcome highlights at least three important Civil Society points. Firstly, has the RMA served its purpose or is it proving to be a stumbling block? If a large state-owned company can't meet the RMA's requirements, who can? Good law should clarify the way ahead, not prove to be unworkable or require more legislation.

A second point is that much of the $95 million spent on consultation and land purchases is now money down the drain. The high compliance costs erode confidence in infrastructure investment and raise frustration over the political process and law. The public too, need confidence and reassurance that taxpayer money is wisely spent.

Thirdly, it is significant that opposition was vocal and mobilised at all levels. This is a reminder that change is possible when ordinary people are committed to a cause. That sort of determination and pressure needs to be applied in other areas, particularly in social policy. The Aqua decision is a reminder that active and responsive citizens lie at the heart of a vibrant Civil Society.

Violence in schools - Ministry of Education figures show that 537 teachers were physically assaulted in 2002. In addition, 4,763 students were attacked by classmates, and weapons (commonly knives) were used in 229 schoolyard assaults. It's not only a problem in secondary schools - 155 primary students were also expelled for assaulting students or staff.

PPTA President Phil Smith is correct when he says easy access to drugs and alcohol doesn't help, and that schools are only reflecting a much wider problem. In response, the union has issued an anti-violence toolkit to every secondary school.

But the solution will not be found in a teaching kit, no matter how well the material is written and presented. The underlying cause is a society ambivalent about violence: on one hand, most of us deplore playground bullying and violence; but on the other, we soak up violent TV programmes and video games. Anger is a secondary emotion, the primary feelings are of rejection, hopelessness, grief, and loneliness which all to often get channeled through anger which then manifests into violence. Drug and alcohol abuse are further catalysts in the lethal cycle of escalating violence.

There are no easy answers, but any reduction in school-based violence will be hard won and take a long time, perhaps generations. It starts at home. Children and young people need to know they are loved, but also that they are accountable, and that their behaviour has boundaries and consequences. These things happen in functioning families, and while not a guarantee against things going wrong, strong families go a long way to addressing the problem.

Historian's death presents challenge - The death of Michael King will be keenly felt by historians, politicians, writers, and indeed by all New Zealanders. Dr King was a prolific author, with over 30 published works on race relations, war and landmark historical biographies. He truly helped us to 'see ourselves' and had a deep appreciation of why a society needs to be grounded in a knowledge of its past. The decisions of today, he commented in a recent TV interview, are attached to what's gone before by an 'umbilical cord'.

Dr King's writing is characterised by balance and empathy and he had the rare gifts of scholarly insight coupled with an ability to communicate with ordinary people. At a time when clarity and reason about our past is perhaps more important than ever, Michael King's death presents New Zealanders with a challenge to continue grappling with history and learn from its tragedies and triumphs.

Charity Golf Tournament - only a few places left - In association with Rotary of St. John's, our inaugural Golf Classic will be held on 16 April at Titirangi Golf Club. Sponsored by Mike Henry Travel Insurance Specialists, the tournament is a great opportunity to support Maxim and have a lot of fun (heaps of prizes to be won, too).

To enter a team of four, or inquire about sponsoring a hole, please call David Youngson on 09-627 3261 or email David.Youngson@maxim.org.nz

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK - George Bernard Shaw

Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.

To subscribe send a blank email to: realissues@maxim.org.nz

Real Issues is a weekly email newsletter from the Maxim Institute. The focus is current New Zealand events with an attempt to provide insight into critical issues beyond what is usually presented in the media. This service is provided free of charge, although a donation to Maxim is appreciated. Items may be used for other purposes, such as teaching, research or civic action. If items are published elsewhere, Maxim should be acknowledged.

Key principles - The Building Blocks of Civil Society http://www.maxim.org.nz/main_pages/about_page/about_keyprinciples.html

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