Should Deaf MP Mojo Mathers pay for her own help to participate in Parliamentary debates?
Speaker Lockwood Smith has accused Green party MPs Mojo Mathers and Gareth Hughes of inexperience in the row over deaf technology.
Smith called a press conference, with Clerk of the House Mary Harris and Parliamentary Service boss Geoff Thorn this afternoon, after Mathers revealed she was told she must pay up to $30,000 for electronic note-taking in Parliament out of her own budget.
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.
Smith said he was ''deeply concerned'' that a meeting with officials this morning has been ''politicised'' and what has been portrayed publicly ''bears no resemblance to what happened in the meeting''.
''I'll put a kind interpretation on lack of experience. Gareth is the new musterer for the Greens and Mojo is a new member and they may not realise that private meetings with the Speaker to do with …what they need, their support, naturally I always assume those are confidential.
''Jaws dropped as this first public statement appeared.''
Hughes, the Green's whip and a second term MP, has hit back saying it was ''unfair'' to accuse them of inexperience.
''I think the allegations that Parliamentary Service is not prepared to provide the technical support necessary to support our first deaf MP is simply untrue,'' Smith told reporters. Parliamentary Service has ''put a lot of work'' into providing technical equipment, such as laptops and software stationed at her desk in the House, he said.
Hughes said Mathers made it clear at the meeting that she would be raising the matter publicly.
''She made it very clear she had had lots of request from the media and was going to start talking to people and the media about it.
''I think it is a bit rich from Mr Speaker to be saying that.''
At no time were the MPs told the meeting was private, he said.
''Obviously it's a political issue. What we are talking about is the basic lack of accessibility to our parliament and democracy for hearing impaired Kiwis as epitomised by Mojo.
''We are not trying to politicise it. We are trying to see an outcome but by the Speaker making statements around inexperience and alleging all sorts of things, I think he is focusing on the politics and not focusing on the issue at hand which is actually the note-takers and accessibility.''
But Smith said he had to consult with all MPs before providing extra staff time - or "support hours'' - for the note-taking.
''It's separately appropriated by Parliament, I can't under the law simply say …lets put a bit of money in here,'' he said. ''It's something that I have to consult on… before I seek to alter any of the staffing support for member which is allocated in hours.''
He added: ''The question I'm confronted with is: Have we asked the taxpayer for sufficient support for members of Parliament and should we think about how we utilise our support to make sure all members of parliament get the staffing support they needed? Or do I go to the Government and say we need an extra appropriation because there is not enough provided for members of Parliament?''
He is taking the matter to the Parliamentary Services Commission, which will meet on March 7. He is also recommending a paper go before the triennial Appropriations Review, which looks at the support given to MPs this year.
Smith also said officials who attended the meeting were thanked by Hughes and Mathers ''for the tremendous work they have put in to providing support for Mojo Mathers. That was what was quite extraordinary about what then appeared publicly.''
Smith insisted officials have been taking support for Mathers seriously.
''We've had some issues with that, the software is not great… work is going on to try and improve its functionality.''
OUTCRY AT DECISION
The National Foundation for the Deaf has said a decision not to give special funding for deaf MP Mojo Mathers in Parliament is ''disgraceful and appalling.''
Spokeswoman Louise Carroll said the move by Dr Smith ''is probably one of the poorest I've seen from a Government in my whole life''.
She urged Mathers to take the matter up with the Human Rights Commissioner and to look closely at employment laws.
''I'm hearing impaired. I spend my whole life trying to access information that other people who can hear normally take for granted.
''This is just a gross example of it.''
Carroll agreed with Green Party leader Metiria Turei that disabled candidates would be dissuaded from standing for Parliament.
''The reality is if they don't support people to have access then how can people be constitutionally represented by their MP.''
She questioned Parliament's commitment to signing as New Zealand's third language.
''It would seem to me that this is a straightforward issue of access for a person who is disabled, whether that be a wheelchair or a communication equipment is irrelevant.
She also called for captioning on Parliament TV to allow the hearing impaired for follow proceedings.
''It's a continuation of that mindset that because we are hearing impaired or deaf that we don't have the need or the right to the same level of access.
''If you are living 50 years ago fine, but we are not. In this day and age you've got technology. Why aren't we are being given access? It's not OK.''
Labour's disability spokesperson Clare Curran said the funding refusal ''is totally unacceptable.''
"We are calling on the Speaker to immediately fund the equipment that Mojo Mathers requires to participate in parliamentary debate.
"Being deaf should not be a barrier to participating in a modern democracy. Mojo was democratically elected. She deserves all the support required to be an active and effective Member of Parliament.''
She added: "The technology improvements, including on-screen captioning of debates, will not only help Mojo but will also make parliamentary broadcasts more accessible to the hearing impaired community.
"This is a human rights issue. Mojo Mathers has a right to the technology that can allow her to participate. It must be provided right away.''
Key this afternoon said Mathers ''needs to be able to do her job properly''.
The Government would ''have a look'' at providing extra funding for the technology if approached by Speaker Lockwood Smith, he said.
''I understand Mr Speaker has been working with the Green party to try and resolve the issue,'' he said. ''Clearly we need to make sure that Mojo Mathers can carry out her function and job as a Member of Parliament to the same level that everybody else. And I'll just leave the Speaker to navigate a way through this.''
It was everyone's right to be able to communicate and carry out their job, he said. But Key believes it is a ''temporary rather than long term'' issue
A spokesman for the Green Party said the cost of the technology would wipe out Mathers' entire budget - which MPs used to pay for office support costs.
Dr Smith had said Parliamentary Services would accommodate physical modification such as wheelchair ramps, but not for staff, the spokesman said.
The Green Party will have further talks with officials to try and resolve the matter.
Mathers said the decision would deter people with disabilities from entering Parliament and dissuade parties from putting them high on their lists as they would be at an economic disadvantage.
She required a staff member to do about 1000 hours of electronic note-taking for her to participate in Parliament through a laptop on her desk in the debating chamber.
If there was captioning of Parliament, there would be no need for the note-taking.
"The House is currently not accessible for people with hearing impairments.
"There are 700,000 New Zealanders with a hearing impairment who want access to the political debate but because we don't have captioning of Parliament television, they do not have access to the political debate as it happens."
However a spokeswoman for Dr Smith said there had been no refusal to pay for the staff member to do the note-taking.
"Parliamentary Services have done everything they can to enable her to operate in the house and she acknowledges that is so.
"The only question is who pays for the additional staff member she is seeking, does it come from the member's or party's support hours?
"There is no appropriation outside of that."
Mathers had 80 hours of funding staff that she could use how she liked, she said.
"All Green MPs get 80 hours and they don't use them all."
Mathers was not being disadvantaged.
The Speaker's office had offered to take the matter to the Parliamentary Services Commission to find a solution, the spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, NZ First leader Winston Peters has offered to contribute its staff funding towards the cost of electronic note-taking.
"It is unthinkable that the Parliamentary Service insists on a working environment free from discrimination on the basis of disability yet a deaf MP is refused funding to enable her to do her job."
Other physical disabilities were recognised in the Parliamentary environment, he said.
"It is outrageous that deafness is not included."
Sign language is New Zealand's third official language.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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