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The road to funding for Mojo Mathers

Funding special support for MPs with disabilities is not as straightforward as it seems.

It was a no-brainer, but the rules didn’t allow it.  According to Speaker Lockwood Smith, his hands were tied when asked last month to fund a note-taker in Parliament for Mojo Mathers, New Zealand’s first deaf MP.  At a long meeting on Wednesday night, the Parliamentary Service Commission, a multi-party advisory committee, couldn’t figure out how to make it work.  Finally, yesterday, three-and-a-half months after the election, Dr Smith gave the direction for the Parliamentary Service to fund the electronic note-taker.

How did it take so long?  The Speaker has discretion, but it is not absolute.  Specifically, tight rules govern the support staff that MPs are allowed.  List MPs get two taxpayer-funded full-time equivalent staff.  Electorate MPs get three or four, depending on their electorate’s geographic size (ref).  These services for MPs have their own appropriation, ring-fenced from the rest of the Parliamentary Service.

So Dr Smith could, and did, ask Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk to find the best technological means to support Ms Mathers in her new job.  They installed a light in her office that flashes when the bells are rung to inform MPs a vote is about to take place.  They considered overhauling the House’s software systems to be more compatible with note-taking technology.  But Ms Mathers’ request for extra support hours ran into the rules and couldn’t at the time be granted.

Those rules, technically “directions” issued by the Speaker, can be changed.  But he is required to take advice from the Parliamentary Service Commission.  Between Parliaments, the commission consists only of the Speaker, Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition.  Once Parliament starts, though, it also comprises one member from each party (in addition to the first three).

These members are appointed by a resolution of the House of Representatives.  This year, that happened on 1 March.  Arguably, the Speaker could technically have called a meeting before the committee was fully populated.  But the abridgement would still have defeated the point of the commission’s existence.

So, the commission met for the first time on Wednesday night.  I, like many, assumed the rule change should be trivial.  Dr Smith put a proposal that would have given him, “as Speaker, the flexibility to meet the needs of any disabled or impaired members from the significant taxpayer funding provided for the support of all members.” (ref)  A sensible remedy, you might think.  But the commission struck it down.  At least one party wasn’t a fan.

The commission’s failure to find agreement makes a mockery of that triviality assumption.  It also proves wrong that, as many critics screamed, the matter is so straightforward that Dr Smith need not have invoked the long, legally-required process in the first place (as if obviousness was justification to abridge process).

The advice that the Speaker must take from the commission is, after all, just advice.  So yesterday, despite its inconclusiveness, Dr Smith announced that he was issuing a direction to the Parliamentary Service “to provide equipment and personnel services to Ms Mathers” (ref), taken from the appropriation normally used to fund operational services to all members (as opposed to individuals).

Not quite, but close enough
The solution, interestingly, is not the one that Ms Mathers’ party sought.  The Greens argued that the matter was one of accessibility to all members, akin to the translation service between Māori and English.  As such, it should be funded by the Office of the Clerk, which runs secretariat services for the House, including the translations.  And they produced a legal opinion from top-tier law firm Chapman Tripp to back them up.

Proceedings of Parliamentary Service Commission meetings aren’t made public, so it’s unclear how this argument went down with the other parties—or whether it was what prevented the commission from agreeing to Dr Smith’s proposal.  But with Ms Mathers’ funding in the bag, they now seem to have dropped the argument.  They hail the decision as one for all people with disabilities—though it is unclear, from Dr Smith’s statement, whether the direction applies specially to Ms Mathers or more broadly.

Meanwhile, Ms Mathers also commented that “it’s the reality of the situation for people with disabilities that it takes time to change attitudes” (ref).  Sadly true, but that’s not why it took three-and-a-half months to direct this funding.  Ultimately, the strict rules designed to keep MPs in check with their entitlements delayed the decision we had all been waiting for.  But alas, the end of the road is here.  Rejoice.

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