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Maxim Real Issues No. 185

Maxim Real Issues: No. 185, 1 DECEMBER 2005

The rise of equality politics

Scandal highlights importance of virtue in government

Terms of debating 'the right to die'

The rise of equality politics

Under recent amendments to the 1993 Human Rights Act, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has won the right to take legal action against the Government for child welfare policies it considers discriminatory. The landmark case centres on complex aspects of policy, but it also highlights problems in a new legal environment which is increasingly focused on anti-discrimination as a public policy quality-control filter.

CPAG opposes the In-Work Payment, which is a financial incentive for at least one parent to remain in the workforce (soon to replace the Child Tax Credit). The group claims it discriminates against children of beneficiaries who are not entitled to that particular income supplement. The underlying assumption is that any inequality is inherently unjust and than equality of incomes will help promote social cohesion.

If children are not getting the necessities of life, something must be done to ensure they are. But it is unwise and ill-advised for the State to increase welfare payments and further entrench dependence except in cases of genuine need. It is not the State's responsibility to correct the "problem" of some children having more than others (which is impossible, anyway), but rather to ensure, along with non-government institutions, that all children are provided with basic provisions and amenities. Whether the current system is doing this adequately is a matter of conjecture, but if it is not, the focus must be on meeting need (which is fair) rather than attempting to equalise outcomes.

Anti-discrimination provisions are problematic unless it is acknowledged that not all "discrimination" is unjust. How the Wellington High Court, which is considering the case next year, rules on this issue could have profound implications for the direction of social policy in New Zealand.

Scandal highlights importance of virtue in government

The importance of virtue in public leadership has been evident this week when the Canadian government lost a crucial confidence vote. Led by the Liberal Party under Prime Minister Paul Martin, the government was toppled when opposition parties joined forces claiming that the Liberals and their leader were too corrupt to rule.

The Liberal Party - which had only been in office 17 months - fell because of accusations that advertising agencies employed by the Quebec branch of the party had embezzled public money. The firms were contracted to enhance the federal government's image, but an Auditor-General's report has shown that in some cases, little or no work had been completed. Martin was Finance Minister at the time, but both the Auditor-General's report and a Commission of Inquiry have exonerated him of any personal wrong-doing. The blame instead has been placed on the former Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien. The Conservative Party has argued that the scandal reveals a "culture of corruption" at the heart of the Liberal Party.

As in most scandals, the facts of the case are probably less important than the spin and political fallout. If, as a result, citizens lose trust in a political party or in a leader's actions, they quickly lose trust in the government itself and the wider political process. When a loss of trust becomes entrenched, cynicism sets in. Personal virtue along with an open and accountable government, are all important in maintaining a healthy democracy.

Canadian voters will now be asked to judge whether the Liberal government has been prudent, or whether this scandal marks an abuse of trust which warrants a change of government.

Terms of debating 'the right to die'

The tragic suicide of Nelson voluntary euthanasia campaigner Ralph Vincent, who ended his own life at his home after a small stroke, has prompted calls to re-examine the so-called "right to die". There are many issues at the heart of the euthanasia debate, and the debate itself is important.

Frequently used terms such as "the right to die" are misleading. What voluntary euthanasia is really about is the "right to kill", or giving someone a legal recourse to end another person's life on the grounds that the person wanted to die. Campaigners want legal protection for the person assisting suicide, not legal protection for the person attempting suicide. Neither the government nor society has any interest in, or ability to, prosecute a corpse.

Debate about this issue is typically emotive and prone to be framed with misleading terms - controversial matters of life and death often are. But certainly debate on these, of all issues, need to be conducted with honesty and clarity.

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK - Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch, nay, you may kick it all about all day like a football, and it will still be round and full at evening.

From The Professor at the Breakfast Table

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