It was heartening to read of the many brave souls who dived into the Manukau Harbour last weekend to try to save the lives of the family who were tossed into the water when their dinghy sank.

A father and his young son died, but the tragedy could have been so much worse had it not been for the actions of passersby, who rescued the other three children who couldn't swim and who weren't wearing lifejackets.

I'm continually amazed at the courage of ordinary people - people who haven't been trained to risk their lives or to answer the call of duty, but who do so anyway.

But I couldn't help thinking when I read the circumstances of the terrible accident that it would be so much better if we, as a community, had the courage to step in before a disaster, rather than afterwards.


Apparently a number of people on the beach remonstrated with the man when he set off in his boat with four young children on board and not one of them wearing a lifejacket. But he chose to ignore their warnings.

I know it's not the Kiwi way to tell people what to do and people are sometimes fearful of repercussions if they step into a situation. Austin Hemmings will always be remembered for losing his life as he tried to save a stranger.

But if we work together as a community there's safety in numbers. If four or five people had offered to lend the man lifejackets for the family, or to mind the children while he went out and tested the new dinghy, or just plain told him it was unacceptable to take young kids out on the harbour in such dodgy conditions and without lifejackets, a family might still be together.

I've intervened when I thought it was necessary. Once, when I saw a toddler standing up and moving around the backseat of a car, I followed the car, flashing my lights, until the driver stopped and I pleaded with them to buckle the child into the carseat in the back.

They looked at me as if I were mad, but they put the child in the restraint nonetheless.

I've also bellowed at a man to stop beating up a woman in the carpark opposite where I live - admittedly from the other side of the road (and I was calling the police as I did so). He stopped hitting her.

There was no way I could have put a pillow over my head and ignored her screams.

On the other side, I've been told off by a fellow motorist for using my cellphone at the lights - and fair enough, too.

We don't want to turn into a nation of curtain-twitching busybodies but surely, when it's a matter of life and death, we have a responsibility to speak up. That would be the heroic thing to do.

Splashing out for little gain

What is the point of Auckland Council approving free entry to council swimming pools for children 16 and under, unless children are given free swimming lessons as well?

As part of Mayor Len Brown's 10-year vision for the city, he wanted to grant free access to pools for all Aucklanders, mirroring the scheme he introduced in Manukau when he was mayor there. But after a marathon budget meeting this week, he and his supporters were forced to compromise and accept that in straitened economic circumstances free entry to pools for kids would be the best he could do.

But while it's all very nice for the city's youth to have another entertainment option, it seems like money wasted unless the free access comes with free swimming lessons.

According to a 2008 Neilsen report, only one in five 10-year-olds in New Zealand could swim 200m freestyle while breathing correctly - the benchmark for being able to swim and survive. It didn't get much better as they got older. Just two in five 12-year-olds could swim 200m and a third couldn't swim 25m.

School swimming pools are being closed across the country as boards of trustees try to balance their books and there is no longer a requirement within the school curriculum for children to be taught fundamental water skills.

Some parents are able to afford swimming lessons for their children but for many people that's a choice they simply don't have.

There are some charitable trusts stepping into the breach but they can only reach so many disadvantaged kids.

Granting kids free access to the city's pools might make councillors feel good but it isn't going to save lives.

Trust in brains

Bill English's "zero" Budget delivered few surprises but I was pleased to see the $326 million earmarked for science, innovation and research over the next four years.

It's a drop in the bucket of course, but if we are to dig ourselves out of this economic hole, it won't be through brawn, it will be through brains.

According to the president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, the Advanced Technology Institute will again give the sort of research and development capabilities that led to companies such as Fisher and Paykel Healthcare.

Scientists were behind the innovations that saw Fonterra take a place on the world stage, in fact scientists and inventors were responsible for shaping New Zealand.

We have a nation of enquiring minds and innovators who need to be encouraged.