27 March 2013

Should same-sex marriage be put to a referendum?

As Members of Parliament twist and turn under the pressure of a conscience vote on the amendment to the Marriage Act that would allow for same-sex marriage, some might support moves to put the matter to a referendum. After all, as this is a member's Bill pulled out of the hat, it was not an issue that was debated before the election, and many MPs may not see it as their role to decide for the people, given the degree of concern about it.
On the other hand, as a representative democracy, the people elect these MPs precisely for that purpose: to make decisions on our behalf, knowing that MPs will have access to much more information for and against any particular issue (and the time to consider it) than the average citizen. Those MPs who call for a referendum suffer from the indecisiveness of the proverbial possum caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. In this case, that vehicle is public anger.
The other problem with a referendum is that it would allow a majority to make a decision (for or against) on a matter of equality of rights for a minority. Not all members of the GLBT community wish to get married, but those who do are obviously a small minority of our society. Is it fair and just that the straight majority (who can enjoy the right to marry a person they love, regardless of whether they choose to have children as well) should be given the chance to 'allow' (or not) a small minority of equally law-abiding citizens the same opportunity?
I support the rights of all committed loving couples to unite in marriage. Life is short, and love is hard to find... so let them do it! And I am not satisfied that a public referendum on this particular issue is the right process, especially given the intemperate debate that would lead up to it.
A true democracy is not a tyranny of the majority where minorities get squashed simply because they are minorities and hence can never hope to sway a referendum.

20 March 2013

Should we extend the ACC scheme to cover illness?

This idea was initially proposed by the Woodhouse Report (1967) which set out the principles and design of the ACC scheme. While Woodhouse thought it was too early at that stage to recommend that ACC cover both personal injury by accident and disability caused by illnesses, he did suggest that, later in the piece, the idea should be considered. After all, why discriminate? The fourth Labour Government even introduced legislation to do it in 1990, but they were removed from office before it could be implemented.
For the disability community, the disparity between ACC cover and public-health/social-welfare benefits has always been a cause of grievance and is seen as discriminatory. The Court of Appeal actually agreed that it is discriminatory, but found it to be 'justified' discrimination.
The present Minister for ACC, Judith Collins, has rejected the proposal, as she does not want ACC levies to rise. But let's look at some of the facts.
The tax-payer is already paying to support those with illnesses through public-health funds, primary-care subsidies and sickness and invalids benefits. So, there already is a cost right there. But, as ACC entitlements are more generous, the cost of caring for all illnesses under ACC could be more costly overall. As far as I know, though, no-one has done the maths to figure what the estimated costs would be.
According to the latest figures available, there were about 82,000 people on weekly compensation payments in ACC, while there were a total of about 143,000 on sickness and invalids benefits. Now, the proposal for ACC to cover illnesses does not mean that it would have to cover all of those 143,000 beneficiaries, as we have no idea yet what the exact criteria of ACC cover for illnesses should be. Would it cover congenital disability and chronic mental illnesses, for instance?
A recent study by Susan MacAllister at Otago University found that injured people covered by ACC are 3 times more likely to have returned to work after 12 months than a matched sample (including matching functional impairment) who suffered a stroke. ACC claimants' economic and social outcomes were much better.
Received economic wisdom would suggest that more generous income-replacement policies under ACC would mean longer times to return to work. But this study suggests quite the opposite.
So, we need to consider the possibility that transferring those incapacitated for work by illness to the more generous ACC benefits may actually mean a better return-to-work rate, because of the more generous support, rather than in spite of it. That is, ACC may be more cost-effective economically than MSD's means-tested benefits.
Another point: the employers' levies already cover illnesses that are caused by work-related factors, so the proposal to extend ACC to illnesses would have no effect on employers' levies! The impact would mainly be on the earners' account, which is the one that wage and salary earners pay into to cover off-the-job personal injury.
Many people argue that, if we cut the ACC's subsidies for minor injuries that require only one or two visits to the doctor and that cause no time off work, then there would be more funds available for the more serious incapacitating injuries. It's true that ACC accepts a huge number of medical-fees-only claims (about 1.4 million of them per year). But, they are not the major cost-driver of the scheme. Furthermore, if we were to say to the patient in the waiting room that they will get an ACC treatment-subsidy only if they need, let's say, at least one day off work, then that could put pressure on patients to seek more time off work, and on doctors to certify it. That would not necessarily be cost-effective. It may be better just to have ACC cover all injuries as they happen, without asking how on day one disabling they are, so that the injured person gets back to normal as quickly as possible. It may well be the case that many are returning to work straight away because they sought medical treatment immediately, and no further support was required.
More research is needed!

11 March 2013

Grumpy old Grey Power guy. But was he racist?

A representative of Grey Power has come under fire for suggesting that the lifestyle of the elderly is under threat due to the projected growth of the 'Asian' population in Auckland. In his submission to the Auckland Council he suggested that there be a decision made about an "optimum size and ethnicity" of the city. (I haven't read his whole submission, only the Herald article.)
Now, it's no secret that the population of immigrants from Asia (which refers to a huge range of countries and cultures) in Auckland has grown and is projected to grow much further in the coming decades. There has been much public discussion of this fact and what the effects are.
It's also a fact that some people embrace such change, and others don't. 
So far, so good. It's possible to have such a conversation without offending anyone. To suggest though that Auckland is in danger of becoming an "Asian city" and that some kind of "optimum" level (presumably a limit) should be placed on numbers of immigrants specifically from Asia (and hence not on those from Europe or North America) takes things to a level beyond mere factual discussion. It introduces the idea of an immigration policy that explicitly targets certain 'Asian' peoples for stricter controls than others. And, according to the gentleman who has raised the issue, the justification for it would simply be that the elderly who presently live in New Zealand (who themselves must surely be of many diverse ethnicities) are said to feel threatened by the changes going on around them. I'd like to know what evidence there is for the actual prevalence of a supposed sense of 'threat' among the elderly anyway. But the submission's suggested 'optimal' policy sounds suspiciously like a policy targetting a racial group on the grounds that the natives 'just don't like them'.
So, I have to conclude that the submission to the Council, as reported in the Herald, has implications that are racist. It reminds me of the objections caused by the Maori academic who said we should have fewer immigrants from South Africa because too many of them, she thought, were 'white supremacists'.
We should not ignore the fact, though, that there may be a portion of our community who do feel threatened and uncomfortable with the demographic changes being wrought by younger New Zealanders leaving and people of many different ethnic backgrounds arriving, most of whom are in pursuit of their various hopes for a better life 'somewhere else'.
The social changes happening in New Zealand (and especially Auckland) at present are not the most dramatic ever seen, but they are substantial.
We must condemn ideas that have racist implications. But then we should also face the fact that not all of us embrace these changes. Some level of tension or resistance to change is always likely.
The only consolation that I can offer to elderly neighbours who may feel threatened by the amount of new arrivals with whom we share the footpaths is that we need these skilled, aspiring people to boost the economy so that we can continue to pay for NZ Super... And, one day, if not today, that lovely nurse in your nursing home could be be from India or Malaysia.
If you feel threatened, you may be hanging on nostalgically to a past that probably never really was, and certainly will never come again, and so you might as well get out there and learn to love the diversity of our sprawling, gorgeous city. I would never suggest that, just because you're old, you can't appreciate what's new.