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Maxim Institute - real issues - No 190

Maxim Institute - real issues - No 190

www.maxim.org.nz

ON THE FAR SHORES OF LAKE PACIFIC

THE ERA WE'RE NOW IN

FAMILIAR ODDITIES

BRITISH RE-THINK ABORTION

NEW REPORT BY THE EARLY CHILDHOOD COUNCIL

ON THE FAR SHORES OF LAKE PACIFIC

For self-proclaimed citizens of the world, we New Zealanders sometimes demand less than detailed coverage of world events. Our Prime Minister's overseas travels and yet another Orewa speech sequel, are all the buzz in our media, who have largely ignored, or consigned to trivia, the confirmation and swearing in of Samuel Alito as the new Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Any appointment to the US Supreme Court merits worldwide interest. Its nine justices, who are appointed for life, effectively have the final say on the major cultural and policy debates within the United States. Living in a country where our polity recycles itself every three years and "long term impact" means winning a third term in government, the reality that 55 year old Alito may still be interpreting and settling law in 2030 takes a moment to grasp. Unlike our justices who respectfully defer policy decisions to Parliament, the unelected justices of the Supreme Court have decided US policy on such issues as slavery, racial segregation, abortion and affirmative action.

Alito's appointment also marks a shift in the political persuasion of the Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whom he replaces, was a swing vote between the conservative and liberal wings. Alito is expected to lean towards a moderately conservative interpretation of the Constitution. He joins another recent Bush appointee, Chief Justice Roberts and for the first time in generations, tilts the Court 5 - 4 in favour of 'social conservatives'.

This tilting is notable because it represents the failure of hard-line Democrats to block Alito's confirmation by the parliamentary tactic of filibustering – extending debate to stall a vote. Weakened during the 2004 elections, only 24 of the 44 Democratic Senators voted for a filibuster and Alito's confirmation passed easily with 58 votes to 42.

New Zealanders should pay attention to the impact of the new make-up of the Supreme Court, which has the potential to pass significant judgements that will influence America more deeply than the election of a new president or power shifts in Congress.

THE ERA WE'RE NOW IN

"New Zealand is a liberal, tolerant and secular society, a society that embraces the Western Enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, private property and rationality as the basis of decision–making. These are values so central to our society that we hardly even think about them." (Dr Don Brash, 31 January 2006).

The impact cultural forces play in New Zealand was definitely a key theme of National Party leader Don Brash's third Orewa speech on Tuesday. Dr Brash highlights the deeper issues that living in a society of people from different ethnic backgrounds can raise, as well as the implications for immigration policy.

His suggestion however, that "Western Enlightenment ideals" are still dominant in today's society is only half the picture. The Western Enlightenment era drew to a close towards the end of the 18th century. While many of its ideals and features are still clearly evident in New Zealand today, this alone cannot provide us with the answer to living in a pluralist society where a vast range of values are held by both immigrants and born and bred New Zealanders alike.

The modern era of which the Age of Enlightenment was part, held to many of the ideals that Dr Brash spoke of in his speech. However, since the Enlightenment era, Western societies have continued to develop and evolve away from the ideals of that age and towards those of the Postmodern age. While it is hard to define, postmodernism is a pervasive cultural force which rejects the certainty of the Enlightenment idea that there is objective meaning in the world which can be known. Instead it creates a culture where truth is relative rather than universal and reality is little more than one's perspective. As a consequence, the world is stripped of its meaning, making it difficult for people to meaningfully dialogue together about the world.

Certainly the Enlightenment has been formative in shaping New Zealand's culture. It promoted ideals like freedom and justice which have helped society's ability to function. But if we are to address the issue Dr Brash identifies-the challenge of maintaining a cohesive society comprised of people from different ethnic origins-we must understand the current culture, be mindful of our heritage and appreciate the increasing impact of Postmodern ideas.

To read the full speech by Dr Brash, visit: http://www.national.org.nz/Article.aspx?articleId=5796

FAMILIAR ODDITIES

Many wise people in history have pointed out that it is the amusing oddities in life that give it its richness, and so often, its value. The same is certainly true in politics. Many of the odd habits of the past, which perhaps once had a reason, now continue as traditions - they provide certainty and form an intuitive part of our national political conversation.

For example, have you ever stopped to consider why Don Brash's speeches delivered at Orewa, merit the attendance of major news outlets? A strange and implicit understanding now seems to exist that these speeches are more significant than the dozens of others given by Dr Brash throughout the year. 'Orewa', is well on its way to becoming a national tradition.

Another recent example is from the United States, where the constitution merely says that the President must "from time to time" report to Congress about the "state of the union." However, since Woodrow Wilson in 1913, the president's annual and highly ceremonial public speech laying out national direction has become an expected and highly symbolic part of the US political calendar. President Bush's speech this week even made headlines down under.

Or, did you know, that while the Speaker of the British House of Commons sits on a chair, the Speaker of the House of Lords sits on a woolsack? This tradition dates back to the 14th century when Edward III wanted a lasting reminder that England's traditional source of wealth was wool production. The sack is now stuffed with wool from every country in the Commonwealth.

Rather than being anachronistic hangovers, the odd habits of parliament and other institutions add both a sense of timelessness and meaning to otherwise temporary proceedings.

BRITISH RE-THINK ABORTION

An Observer poll released in Britain this week has indicated a growing public concern over late-term abortions, reigniting the controversial debate and increasing pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair to review the current legal time limits.

The MORI survey questioned 1,790 British adults as to what they believed should happen to laws governing abortion. 47 percent of women and 36 percent of men responded that the current 24 week legal time period for an abortion to take place should be reduced. In 1990, after considering medical developments which enabled foetuses to be 'viable' outside the womb at an earlier age, the current limit was reduced from 28 weeks to 24 weeks.

Public opinion again seems to be shifting as a result of new technology. For example, ultrasound images have shown a 23-week-old foetus smiling inside the womb. Such advances, as well as the increased survival rate of babies born before 24 weeks, are shedding more light on the mysteries of life inside the womb and are influencing public opinion and potentially legislation, in the process.

NEW REPORT BY THE EARLY CHILDHOOD COUNCIL

The Early Childhood Council recently released a report commissioned by the NZIER, called 'Early Childhood Participation – Is 20 Free Hours the Answer?' The report asks questions about the efficacy of the government's 20 hours free childcare policy. This policy delivers subsidies to childcare centres at a national average rate so that all children under five years old can access the first 20 hours of early childhood education free. The report contends that there are several significant problems with this policy that parents should be aware of.

To read the report, visit: http://www.ecc.org.nz/report/.

TALKING POINT

"Man does not want to know. When he knows very little he plays with the possibility of knowledge, but when he finds that the pieces he has been putting together are going to spell out the answer to the riddle he is frightened and he throws them in every direction; and another civilization falls."

Rebecca West, quoted in Rebecca West: Artist and Thinker by Peter Wolfe

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