Sunday, March 26, 2006

Deborah Coddington: Fare play left standing at rank

Bad things happen late at night when Parliament is in urgency. Last week the Government passed an amendment to the law covering the licensing of taxi and bus drivers who have criminal convictions.

A brouhaha had previously surfaced when it was discovered that a law change last year which sought to purge the taxi industry, in particular, of sex offenders and paedophiles, had inadvertently caught drivers with decades-old convictions for having sex with their girlfriends just before they turned 16.

All agreed these people were not a threat and should be allowed to apply for passenger-carrying licences.

Transport Safety Minister Harry Duynhoven introduced an amendment to this effect, which all parties supported. But at the last minute, Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton introduced another amendment which broadened the category of those allowed to apply for licences to include anyone convicted of any sex offence which carried a sentence of less than 12 months' imprisonment. National was the sole opponent to this.

So the public can now look forward to being driven around by the following examples:

* An Upper Hutt taxi driver who indecently assaulted a 13-year-old girl; sentenced to 200 hours community service.

* Tauranga taxi driver who offered a 20-year-old woman a free ride in return for sex and was fined $200.

* A Christchurch taxi driver who indecently assaulted a 17-year-old he drove home from a nightclub, and an 18-year-old he drove home from the city, sentenced to eight months' imprisonment.

* A Tauranga driver sentenced to six months' jail when convicted for the 12th time for an indecent act.

* An Auckland taxi driver who deliberately intercepted a call from a young woman, requesting a female taxi driver, and indecently assaulted her, sentenced to a suspended six-month jail term.

* A Rotorua tour driver convicted of indecently assaulting two young boys he coerced into his van, sentenced to nine months' jail.

* A Lower Hutt taxi driver found guilty of two indecent assaults against young female passengers travelling his taxi, sentenced to five months' periodic detention.

Heard enough? I haven't even started on sex offenders convicted of serious sexual assaults, who nonetheless received less than 12 months' imprisonment, weren't taxi drivers when they were convicted but could well choose to take up driving now.

What about the growing number of perverts fined for trading, downloading, and storing child pornography? Would you like them to be driving you or your children around in a taxi?

I was on the transport select committee last year which worked hard on the original legislation. The paying public should be assured, we said, the person driving their bus or taxi had not been convicted of a serious offence.

We later conceded we'd not meant to include the few convicted under old laws. But the spirit of the legislation never intended that a vast number of offenders, convicted of serious sex crimes, be entitled to apply for a licence.

How ironic Transport Minister David Parker resigned his portfolio because he filed a false return to the Companies Office, yet no one except Wayne Mapp bothered challenging him on this u-turn allowing sex offenders to drive taxis. Such is politics today.

There are many advantages in no longer being an MP, not the least being free to criticise the judiciary. So I join those pouring scorn on Judge Spear of the Wellington District Court for awarding convicted paedophile Barry Grant Brown $25,000 because his privacy had been breached.

When did common sense die and appoint Judge Spear in its place? Why should the so-called privacy of a serious sex offender override the rights of the public to be protected?

Judge Spear might well be correct in finding that two police officers, in circulating Brown's photograph, criminal record and street address, had breached internal police guidelines. But that doesn't mean Brown's privacy was compromised, nor does it automatically entitle this recidivist child molester to walk off with $25,000 of taxpayers' money.

Brown's lawyer claimed "to this day [Brown] is recognised and abused on the street by strangers". If that is true - and I doubt it - then Brown only has himself to blame because he courted media attention back in 2001 when police, worried this paedophile would re-offend, circulated their leaflets.

Barry Brown liked to snatch little children off the street. It's Inspector Peter Cowan, Wellington city area commander, who should be given the $25,000 - as an annual pay rise for taking the initiative and possibly avoiding another Jules Mikus/Teresa Cormack tragedy. Paedophiles like Brown, thankfully, are rare, but they epitomise every parent's nightmare.

Kerre Woodham: Wee mites whose appeal belies the tragedy beneath

On Thursday I flew to Wellington for the launch of the Child Cancer Foundation Appeal week commercial. It's an animated cartoon, which is a first, featuring the voices of Mikey Havoc (he's the rabbit), Tem Morrison (he's the bull) and me - I'm Maggie the Morepork. I won't go into details, because I have no doubt you'll see it over the coming week. There are loads of charities and plenty of good causes, but when you're asked to help out children with cancer, there can only be one real answer.

It took less than an hour to record my part of the commercial, which was nothing, so I was glad to be given the opportunity to MC the launch of the ad.

There I met the children who have been the faces of the Child Cancer appeals over the past two years.

Lexi was the wee girl who danced last year, and Connor, an adorable, curly-haired moppet of a 4-year-old, is the star this year.

And stars these kids are. So are their families.

Every day they live with the monster of cancer as a menace in their home. Their lives are thrown into turmoil and never the same again.

There are the practical issues - how much time can you take off work? Who'll look after the other children when you have to take your baby in for hospital treatment? If you're on a tight budget, how do you afford the petrol, to drive to a city hospital, week in, week out?

And then there's the emotional devastation. How do you live with the terror that your child might not make it? How do you deliver your child up to health professionals who have to hurt her to help her? How do you endure the agony of watching your child in pain?

Every day, there are ordinary New Zealanders discovering just how extraordinary they can be when their child needs them. They discover limitless strength and an ability to cope that they never knew they had. It was a privilege meeting these families.

And making a donation to www.fightthemonster.org.nz (see link below) is a way of acknowledging their daily struggle.

When you meet a beautiful 4-year-old girl who's had a kidney removed, and endured ten weeks of intensive treatment and five months of chemo, when you've held a baby with leukaemia who has the smile of an angel and the eyes of a very old soul, then life gets some perspective.

Kerre Woodham: Giving birth is a risky business

Most new mothers start off believing they'll have a straightforward, natural delivery to the accompaniment of parping dolphins and the soothing chimes of Tibetan temple bells.

Oh, sure, there are some craven souls who think their fannies are there as men's rumpus rooms, rather than birthing canals, and who will insist on caesareans so they stay bright, tight and real. But for most of us, those living in the real world, we approach pregnancy and childbirth as we would an exam. We want to do it well, we don't want to cheat. We want to pass with flying colours.

Buckets of raspberry leaf tea are drunk and sweet-smelling unguents rubbed into those hard-to-reach places to ensure the birthing process is smooth and straightforward. But you can't, as the Rolling Stones put it, always get what you want.

A stroll through any old cemetery provides evidence that there's nothing natural about childbirth. Things go wrong, and although medical intervention in this day and age has helped to minimise infant and maternal mortality, mothers and babies die even in the 21st century.

Which is why the Jennifer Crawshaw case is so extraordinary. This week a jury found her not guilty of manslaughter and there was some pursed-lip mutterings from the midwifery council that the case should never have gone to court. The police defended their decision saying their expert legal and medical advice was that there was a serious departure from the care one would expect from a health professional and that as a consequence, a child died.

For the College of Midwives and Crawshaw's lawyer to claim that because the parents hadn't complained, the police shouldn't have investigated, is patently absurd. The only question I have of the police is why the parents weren't up in the dock with Crawshaw.

The mother was so determined to have a natural birth that she overrode the concerns of her midwife and doctors. Her half-baked notions of how a birth should be were more important to her than her child's life. I find that incomprehensible.

Crawshaw's comment that the dead baby was a loved and beautiful little girl whose passing was one of life's true tragedies, is unctuous waffle. Her passing, as Crawshaw put it, could have been avoided if the mother had diverted from her birth plan, and Crawshaw had had the fortitude to insist on medical intervention.

Crawshaw may love her job, but sometimes love isn't enough. Common sense, mental toughness and the ability to react to intense pressure may be better attributes for a health professional than a well-stocked collection of relaxation CDs.