In 2010, Kelly Vincent, who uses a wheelchair, was elected to the South Australian parliament. Renovations had to be carried out to enable her to access the chamber, and they were underway the moment her election to the House was confirmed. There were no questions raised whatsoever about finding the money to ensure that Vincent was able to do her job as a Member of the Legislative Council.
In 2011, Mojo Mathers, who is profoundly deaf, was elected to the New Zealand parliament. In order to participate in the debates in the House, a critical part of any MP’s job, she will need an electronic note-taker. And the Speaker of the House, Lockwood Smith, has refused to fund it.
Green MP Mathers made history when she became New Zealand’s first profoundly deaf MP in November.
She will give her maiden speech in the House tomorrow, which will be translated by sign-language interpreters.
But Dr Smith has told the Green Party that Parliamentary Services will not pay for the staff member to do the note-taking which Mathers needs to take part in debates. Prime Minister John Key this afternoon said the Government would ”have a look” at providing extra funding for the technology, if it was approached by Dr Smith.
Lockwood Smith is a member of the ruling National Party. As Speaker of the House, he is supposed to be impartial. However, in this instance, he has used his powers to ensure that a member of an opposition party has been silenced. Mojo Mathers has already been prevented from speaking in Parliament because the technology wasn’t in place.
It’s not as though Smith couldn’t have forseen this eventuality. He had a clear indication on the day of the election, back on 26 November, that it was likely that Mojo Mathers would be elected, and her election was confirmed on 10 December 2011, when the official results were released. So he has had over two months to sort the matter out. But he just didn’t get around to it. Now his excuse is that the Parliamentary Services Commission doesn’t have the funding appropriation to pay for electronic note-taking. But as Idiot/Savant says, the appropriation for translation services is available, through the appropriation of the Office of the Clerk (source – pdf). Amongst other things, the Office of the Clerk is funded to:
[provide] to the House of Representatives of professional advice and services designed to assist the House in the fulfilment of its constitutional functions, and enabling participation in, and understanding of, parliamentary proceedings.
Translation services for MPs who speak in Maori are funded from the vote, and it would be entirely appropriate to fund electronic note-taking for MPs with hearing impairments from it too.
I suspect that what’s really worrying Smith is that if he has to find money for electronic note-taking from this service, he will also have to make cuts elsewhere, and that might affect his own National party MPs. The National party is having a great time making huge cuts across the public sector, but funnily enough, when it comes to tightening the belt themselves, they don’t seem to be quite so keen.
I am starting to see in Smith a resolute defender of the patriarchy. In his first term as speaker, he was lauded for imposing more discipline on Question Time (one, two) and he himself took pride in restoring some of the daily ceremonial to parliament (source). But recall the way that he wouldn’t let Hone Harawira offer a statement in Maori before taking the oath. It has become the accepted practice for MPs who oppose some or all of the words in the oath to make a short statement first, and then to take the oath to fulfill the form required by our law (source). But Smith refused to allow that practice to continue when it came to a radical Maori man taking the oath. And now he won’t allow a woman with a disability to participate in Parliament.
It’s all about sticking with the way we do things around here, that is, the way that suits men with white skins and able bodies. Heaven forbid that we should try to do something different, try to find a new way of organising our government that celebrates diversity instead of privileging those who are already powerful.
The one bright note in all of this? Comments on the Stuff website about the story are running hot and fast. In just six hours over 550 comments have been made, the great majority of them in support of Ms Mathers.