End of the line for End of Life?

Looks like New Zealand will have to wait a bit longer to show a bit more compassion and humanity towards those facing the end of their lives. I refer to Andrew Little’s decision to withdraw Iain Lees-Galloway’s private members’ bill on voluntary euthanasia. Lees-Galloway had taken on the mantle of piloting the End of Life Choice Bill through parliament, after its original sponsor, former Labour MP Maryan Street, failed to get reelected in September.

I am going to be charitable and suggest that Little’s real reasons for dropping the bill were that he wasn’t quite sure that it would have the numbers to pass across the political spectrum. Either that, or he concurred with those who felt that while there is popular public support for some kind of death with dignity legislation, the safeguards in this particular version were not stringent.

This is a serious blog post, so we need reflective, thoughtful images.
This is a serious blog post, so we need reflective, thoughtful images about end-of-life.

To be honest, though, I think Little has missed an excellent chance to show some political courage and even a populist touch. John Key’s big progressive idea, don’t forget, is the referendum on changing the flag. It sounds breathtakingly radical, until you think about the pointlessness of it all. I wouldn’t object to a change to the silver fern on a black background. But it really won’t alter much from a constitutional perspective; certainly, it will have much less impact on people’s lives than switching to MMP, becoming a republic or, er, signing the Treaty in the first place!

Indeed, I can picture more than a few veterans and their wives grumbling into their sherries down the RSA at Key’s brazen cheek – a supposedly National PM to boot – in replacing one of their cherished symbols of national identity in the name of ‘progress’. The right to die with dignity, however, cuts across class, race and creed. There are few elderly voters or people with elderly parents who would not have a relative or know of someone facing an uncertain future of pain and poor quality of life.

Little’s stated reasons for getting cold feet were baffling. He said:

“It comes down to priorities at the moment. There are more people affected by weak labour market regulation and weak economic strategy than they are about the right to make explicit choices about how they die. It’s not about avoiding controversy but it’s about choosing the controversies that are best for us at this point in time. That stuff on euthanasia, it isn’t the time for us to be talking about that.”

I don’t know where to start with this, but I have excoriated school debaters for making similar fallacies. We are such awesome multi-taskers that we can actually debate and legislate on many issues, social and fiscal, at the same time. Saying there are more important things to discuss is a bit like saying that you can’t think of anything to say against, so let’s just distract and deflect: cowardly. Priorities are also irrelevant if you are in opposition. There is nothing to stop Little banging on about National’s record on jobs and the economy, while the much-needed debate on euthanasia takes place. After all, any bill on zero hours contracts, say, is very unlikely to get past a watertight National-ACT majority. A conscience vote is a different matter. And in answer to his final point: if the time for talking about having the freedom to decide how we die is not now, when is it?

If this post is too depressing, contemplate this Tui snapped outside the Beehive on a fine Wellington day.
If this post is too depressing, contemplate this Tui snapped outside the Beehive on a fine Wellington day.

David Farrar is also disappointed with the decision, and he is hardly a left-wing social engineer! So what are the fearsome arguments against this bill which Little is scared will frighten the voters horses too much? Let’s take it from the top:

Myth One: If we legalise euthanasia today, it is just a short step to the non-voluntary eugenics of Nazi Germany.

It really isn’t. This is the slippery slope fallacy, and if you analyse it closely, it’s a very weak argument because it implicitly acknowledges that what is on the table today looks OK. Opponents argue that it will necessarily lead to x, which is truly awful, and so we can’t allow it. This is the same sort of nonsense as the notion that gay marriage will lead to bestiality and polygamy. Oh, and ‘studies’ in Holland and Oregon that show ‘evidence’ of elderly abuse as a result of euthanasia laws actually show nothing of the sort.

Myth Two: There is always the possibility of an incorrect diagnosis or a miraculous recovery.

Well, yes there is. Yet that is scant consolation to the 99.9% of terminal sufferers who do not manage a miraculous recovery. This also presupposes that people are always desperately hoping for a last minute cure. Many who are terminally ill, and have come to terms with their situation, find an inner calm and decide to try and live their remaining time in as civilised a way as possible. For the vast majority, we can hardly say that their determined decision to die is unreasonable.

Myth Three: Old people are vulnerable and unlikely to have thought through and be fully educated on the consequences

Way to go to patronise the terminally ill. Any legislation would require a lengthy process of consultation. The stringent safeguards would make a rash decision impossible. This is not equatable to someone suffering depression, getting drunk and then recklessly taking their own life.

Myth Four: Palliative care is so much better than it used to be

OK, that’s not a myth – it is. But I question what relevance this has on whether people should have the right to die with dignity. It’s not a binary choice. A decision to end life is not a slur on the quality of palliative care. And anyone who decides to go down the route of euthanasia will have already undergone a fair bit of palliative care. It is also a dubious argument to say that palliative care has improved, as though that might suggest a recovery. By definition, palliative care is an option when recovery has been ruled out.

The most vocal opponents will be the religious right. And I deplore how they disingenuously refuse to say that they simply don’t like the idea, which would at least be honest. Instead, we are treated to patronising fallacies and dubious ‘evidence’. Oh well, this is an issue whose time has come. Who in the Beehive will be bold enough to take it on?

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Tranz-Tasman: the alternative political Oscars for 2014

The 10th Annual Roll Call on NZ MP performance has just been published by transTasman, and as you would expect from a right-leaning outfit following a triumphant election for National, the ratings for John Key and his main acolytes are stratospheric. I’ve always felt its profiling of MP’s annual performances reads a bit like a horseracing guide, so here’s my less serious contribution as the festive season approaches.

Most Entertaining Poll Result: the unstoppable ALCP

Nats may well crow about Labour’s 80-odd year nadir, or Cunliffe’s dismal preferred PM ratings, or even Little’s lowly share of the caucus votes in the leadership race. Many from across the spectrum took delight in Hone’s unheralded and undignified unseating by Kelvin Davis. For me, the sad hilarious sight of United Future gaining fewer party votes than the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party takes the prize. It even forced TV1 and TV3 to carry ALCP on their rolling percentage graphic in place of the hapless UF – and marvellous publicity for the dopeheads too. Poor Peter should consider a merger: they could roll him a joint while he’s fixing his hair and his bow tie.

Worst Gaffe: Asenati Lola-Taylor

No, not Silent T. Honestly. I mean there was this one. And that one. And many more. But I’ve kicked him in the goolies enough times in recent weeks. Plus, for all his faults, David Cunliffe is as gifted a political operator as Key when compared to the batshit mentalism of Asenati Lola-Taylor. Apparently ‘the NZ Reserve Bank is foreign-owned’. Sure.

Most Dubious Cabinet Appointment: Maggie Barry

I know Conservation isn’t that important (Greenies, calm down), but being a TV gardener doesn’t quite equate to understanding climate change. Bit of a pisstake there, John, methinks.

Biggest Waste of Money: Kim Dotcom

Laughably easy. His $4.5 punt on Hone translated to about $500 per vote and NIL return on investment. Colin Craig isn’t someone you’d want to accompany to the casino either.

Biggest Comeback: Laila Harre

This award would be wasted on a genuine campaigning tyro like Stuart Nash, who did really well to win the Napier from National. No, it takes something special to crash and burn twice in NZ elections, both times showing a spectacular lack of grace and humility. Guess we’re all still voting with our heads, eh Laila?

Portillo Moment: Hone Harawira

Nuff said.

Pinocchio Award for Sincerity: Rt. Hon. J. Key

It's known as having the last laugh...
It’s known as having the last laugh…

Levelling the playing field

As the curtain falls on another year of NCEA exams, as a teacher, I can only applaud the increase in the number of students given access to Special Assessment Conditions. For the uninitiated, this means students diagnosed with dyslexia primarily, but also a range of other learning challenges, can use the services of a reader-writer, do their exam on a computer, or just be given a vital half hour of extra time. NZQA spends about $500,000 on providing this service and there has been a significant increase in the number of eligible students year-on-year. The stigma has finally been lifted. If a dyspraxia club were started in a large high school, students would be falling over themselves to join!

Joking aside, sadly and predictably, there is opposition. Official recognition of dyslexia in NZ was as recent as 2007, and there are many, like UK politician Graham Stringer, who feel that it is a non-existent ‘condition’ which is used to mask the failings of bad teachers. Sheesh. More scandalously, questions of inequality have arisen, when it was notoriously revealed that 44 of private King’s College’s 180 NCEA entrants were receiving some kind of assessment help, while neighbouring, low-decile Otahuhu College had precisely zero, despite having almost triple the number of entrants. This might just possibly have been due to the prohibitive cost of requiring an educational psychologist’s assessment for NZQA to ‘accept’ a student’s need for help – to the tune of $700 a pop or thereabouts. Ouch.

They would have been labelled useless cretins back in the day.
They would have been labelled useless cretins back in the day.

My aim is not to bash King’s. Motivated parents with the means to do the best for their children should not be denigrated for doing so. Nor can I fault Otahuhu, who may well be desperate for more SAC diagnoses to help boost their results, but who are hamstrung by costs beyond the means of most parents. NZQA has belatedly come scrambling to the rescue by allowing suitably trained teachers to make a diagnosis at a much lower cost, but it still all feels like the tip of the iceberg and still too late.

Indeed, the real scandal is that government ministries are not sharing and gathering the information they need to find the solutions to educational underachievement. Or indeed a range of other issues in other areas of life – for they are often related. All you hear from both the right and the left is a depressingly predictable mantra about the true cause. For the right, it is bad teachers, beholden to unionism and lazy attitudes: a convenient scapegoat which of course usually votes left. And for the left, it is Poverty, plain and simple: an easy stick of guilt with which to berate affluent, right-wing governments. While I applaud initiatives to give hungry, poor children breakfast, I can say from experience and the data that they will not lift educational performance on their own.

On the other hand, I challenge anyone not to be moved by the visible lift in confidence and mood of a student whose perceptive oral responses in class had been consistently let down by their literacy struggles, and whose potential then comes fizzing to the surface once the issue has been acknowledged and help provided. It really is the difference between success and failure. Often this intervention comes as late as high school, at the behest of a concerned teacher or parent, and far too many miss out.

What is needed is something much more systematic. Students could be tested much earlier on their school pathway, and when you consider that our prison and beneficiary populations are over-represented by dyslexics, the return on investment to society of dealing with affected people earlier and comprehensively becomes obvious. As soon as the dots of evidence are joined together, we can move from solving societal problems to preventing them. Naysayers will question their suitability for the skilled workforce, conveniently forgetting the list of famous academics who have overcome dyslexia and the like in less forgiving eras. And to be fair, if we are going to insist on the narrow instrument of written exams as a key means of measuring people’s ability, then we should at least cut some slack to those for whom such a method is most challenging.

Whisper it quietly, but New Zealand have a bloody good cricket team right now. Whisper it, because the cricket world is still transfixed by the awful tragedy of Phillip Hughes, and because giddy optimism just doesn’t feel right for the long-suffering Kiwi fan. Yet the stats do not lie: NZ are unbeaten in five consecutive Test series, three of them won. The last, and only time, this has happened before, the bowling spearhead was a certain RJ Hadlee. And this has not been through the usual low-scoring dogfights, which we have usually depended on for those elusive victories. NZ have actually been compiling big totals, and consistently. There is now a solid middle order where once there were journeyman ‘all-rounders’ with risible averages.

The World Cup is still Australia’s to lose, I suspect, and they will draw profound inspiration from the loss of Hughes. And though they are always the team we love to hate, who would begrudge them victory in the light of their recent tragedy? But as the other host nation, NZ have an excellent chance of reaching the final, and then anything is possible.

One more thing has been irritating me in our increasingly ghoulish society. YouTube: please take down the clips of Hughes’s final delivery. I mean, it’s not as if we don’t know what happens, is it?

63 not out.
63 not out.

Zibibbo: Om Nom Nom

I’ve often felt that restaurant reviewing is just top notch smugness and self-indulgence: either the reviewer is an amateur blogger, and therefore unwittingly (or wittingly) advertising his swanky lifestyle; or a professional critic, who gets paid to eat out and then moan about it.

Still, what the hell, eh? And Zibibbo, a mainstay of Wellington fine dining, was a splendid first choice. I’d been meaning to give the a la carte the full Bob treatment, after a fascinating and delicious beef degustation evening during Wellington On A Plate. And so after working up a raging appetite with a cheeky swifty or two, four emaciated souls ascended the steps in search of gastronomic perfection. Or a nice steak at least.

Like a few other old favourites dotted around the central city, Zibibbo has taken its presentation in particular up to a very high level. The tapas tasting platter for two is sensational: arranged in little square pots like a chessboard, there were smoked fish rillettes, a perfect parfait and a delicate salmon mousse, piped into tiny cones, among the highlights. The ladies both opted for creamy whitebait fritters. At this point in the review David Burton would solemnly state that his ‘guest’ pronounced that her lamb was succulent, but he can keep his prissy fake modesty to himself. With half the bottle of vino guzzled, everyone took to sampling everyone else’s wares. That’s the Kiwi way.

The famous tapas tasting platter, and not a Georgie Pie in sight.
The famous tapas tasting platter, and not a Georgie Pie in sight.

The mains kept up the good work. This time the boys opted to play safe with beef fillet on smoked aubergine puree and truffle arancini, and Canterbury lamb with a jus. The girls both settled for the daily special of seafood paella. The flurry of forks in all directions confirmed that a little bit of everything does you good. I suppose I should have snapped them with my camera, but people who take photos of their dishes in restaurants are right up there with pretentious losers who eat quinoa kinwaaa when they don’t need to.

Now try and imagine each of these culinary delights being explained to you in a sonorous, dramatic voice, and you might be able to picture the highlight of the evening: our waiter. The guy redefined the word overqualified. Every interaction, even the topping up of water glasses, was delivered in a booming baritone, with RSC articulation.

“You’re an actor, aren’t you?” I finally ventured.

“Alas, no. But I do work in radio.”

And I was left with the selfish, but fervent hope that the pay in NZ radio remains rubbish, so that more patrons can enjoy such entertaining and witty wait staff. More stuffed than a Portobello mushroom, the sweet course was of course completely unnecessary, but by now we were in the grip of a full-on crush on Mr. Radio, and he effortlessly talked us into the dessert tapas tasting platter: think limoncello parfait, meringues and unabashed om nom nom.

If Gregg had had our desserts, this would have been his facial expression.
If Gregg had had our desserts, this would have been his facial expression.

Despite actually remembering to use the bloody entertainment book discount card this time, the bill still just tipped over the $400 mark. It had been worth every cent, but still seemed on the high side. Then I was reminded by my friend that we had quaffed three bottles of wine between four in an hour and a half. Crikey!

Next week: will Courtenay Place Maccas pass the taste test?

And finally, a plea for sanity among Wellington foodies: can we stop this rampant silliness over Lewis Road Creamery? Please? In particular, the chocolate milk. IT’S CHOCOLATE MILK, PEOPLE!! I know it’s better than regular chocolate milk, but the constant run on the stuff at Thorndon New World is barmy. It will not give you an orgasm.

Phallic marketing: disgraceful.
Phallic marketing: disgraceful.

The apex of dairymania was reached last week when a friend bid $40 for three bottles of the stuff at a charity fundraiser. I like to think that the lady in question was simply being overly generous for the charidee, but the look of pure lust on her face when the cartons of chocolate cocaine were plonked on her table told a different story.

Whatever next? Lewis Road could bring out their own brand of cornflakes, to go with the milk, and glazed-eyed wombles would hypnotically proclaim it the most divine cereal yet made. Eeh, there’s one born every minute.