Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Speaker best to have stuck to facts

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Mojo Mathers. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mojo Mathers. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It is perhaps lucky that Speaker Lockwood Smith is not an avid follower of Twitter. Had he been, he would have noticed that about 10 minutes after the deaf Green MP Mojo Mathers went public about the funding - or lack thereof - of note-takers in Parliament, his name was the topic of most tweets sent in New Zealand.

Even more ominously, within two hours the words "Sack Lockwood" were also there.

So the Speaker found himself starring in his own reality show being filmed on that remote island that rests between a rock and a hard place. Admittedly the hard place was partly of his own making.

The Speaker set about trying to rectify the damage, calling media in to explain. Basil Fawlty himself could not have done a finer job of it. At issue was whether Mathers would have to pay for two note-takers out of her parliamentary funded staffing allocation of 80 hours a week, or whether it should be additional to that.

Before the Speaker had a chance to explain that all was not as it seemed there was an outcry. Disability groups and the Human Rights Commission hauled out United Nations declarations to berate the Speaker with. Green MP Catherine Delahunty wondered why, if Parliament was now user-pays, Mathers could not get refunds for services she could not use, such as Parliament TV and the new sound system in the House.

With his usual skill at dampening conflagrations, Winston Peters came in, too, on his white steed, generously offering to provide about $6000 from NZ First's budget for its share of the estimated $30,000 cost.

Given Mr Peters' previous scorn for the Greens, at first it was thought Peters got confused by people telling him he had his mojo back and assumed she was one of the new NZ First MPs.

Peters, however, said it was because his party was so frugal it would have funding to spare which, true to form, he would rather went to Mathers than back to the Parliamentary Service.

Rather than simply set out what was happening, how and when it was likely to be rectified and what could be done in the meantime, Dr Smith first criticised Mathers for going public, accusing her of politicising theissue.

He claimed it was misrepresented and came close to implying Ms Mathers was an ingrate for focusing on what the Parliamentary Service couldn't do for her rather than what it was doing - everything from laptops with special software that sometimes worked and sometimes did not, voice recognition software, a flashing red light on her desk for when the bells rang, summoning MPs to vote. He claimed other MPs also had unique requirements which they had to fund from within their means, such as those with heavy electorate burdens.

The Speaker proposed that either alternatively, or in the interim, MPs could learn the concept of sharing. He himself had given some of his staff hours to Nationals' Christchurch MPs after the earthquake. He hinted there was plenty that could give way to fund Mathers' note-takers, sighing that he had seen the way parties spent their money. He tailed off without giving examples. But possibly he considers that the Greens could do with some tightening rather than spending their parliamentary funds on such noble items as rubber wristbands and seed packets for Scarlet Nantes carrots. Wisely, when he was asked how much extra Ms Mathers was costing the taxpayer, he declined to answer, saying instead that was not the issue.

To be fair to Dr Smith, he is more accustomed to having to defend spending any money on MPs rather than not spending money on MPs. He was hamstrung by the very rules that the public had demanded be tightened to stop MPs using money willy-nilly.

He set out what he considered to be his dilemma: that the choice was between asking taxpayers to stomach forking out even more money for an MP or paying for the note-takers through MPs' budgets.

Even if rules were made by public opinion, this was not quite such the Catch-22 as the Speaker appeared to think. Funding a relatively paltry amount of about $30,000 for a deaf MP is in no way comparable to other funding issues that occasionally wrinkle the Speaker's brow such as the international travel perks.

Had he stuck to the facts, it would have been a relatively reasonable explanation with a solution in sight albeit unsatisfactorily slow. He could even have come up with a way of speeding up that process. New Zealanders would have come away knowing that rules were rules and he could and would change those rules.

Instead, the High Commission in London must be wondering whether, come the day when Dr Smith is posted there as expected, it will be relocated to Torquay and renamed Fawlty Towers.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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