Sports minister Jonathan Coleman ignored Halberg concerns

By Dylan Cleaver

Jonathan Coleman, the Minister of Sport and Recreation, received a letter outlining dissatisfaction with the Halberg Disability Sports Foundation. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jonathan Coleman, the Minister of Sport and Recreation, received a letter outlining dissatisfaction with the Halberg Disability Sports Foundation. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A letter written to sports and health minister Dr Jonathan Coleman by two parents of disabled children reveal the depths of dissatisfaction with the Halberg Disability Sports Foundation, yet the MP has declined to meet with them.

Sandra Hickey and Lise Baldwin, writing as the co-founders of Parents for Young Disabled Athletes (now known as the Chariot Project), said families faced "enormous barriers" in getting their children "participating in quality sport on a regular basis", despite Sport New Zealand's $1.5 million investment (2013-14) in inclusion.

"Sadly, the biggest barrier we and many others have come up against has been the Halberg Disability Foundation itself," they wrote.

The letter highlighted the discrepancy between revenue and grants, highlighted in a Herald on Sunday report today.

The letter also accused the foundation of misleading the public and sponsors.

"[The HDSF] continually misrepresent to the general public about how they 'enhance the lives of physically disabled New Zealanders by enabling them to participate in sport and recreation'. They do not provide nor ensure ongoing, long term, quality and regular sporting participation ...

"As parents and citizens concerned about the unethical behaviour of [the foundation] we ... feel we have been silent for long enough."

They requested to meet with the minister to elaborate on their concerns, but were "brushed off" by Coleman.

Coleman, who is also Minister of Health, said at the time he would not meet with the letter's authors, and noted:

"My officials advise that the Foundation is absolutely committed to enhancing the lives of physically disabled people by enabling them to participate in sport and recreation."

When asked today if he was aware that concerns about the foundation had continued to grow and whether he would now be willing to meet with the parents he would only say:

"Sport NZ works closely with the Foundation to help ensure the settings are balanced.

I understand that Sport NZ has also been in contact with the Chariot Project in relation to this issue over recent months."

Hickey founded the Chariot Project, an adaptive sports club for young people with a physical disability, in 2012, in part because of her belief that HDSF is failing its constituents.

She told the Herald this was not an attempt to secure more traction for her organisation and, if anything, it was likely to harm her due to the clout wielded by HDSF in the sector as the dispensing agency of contestable funding from Sport NZ.

Halberg foundation CEO Shelley McMeeken said Sport NZ use them as the lead agency because they "are a national organisation who work across the spectrum".

She said concerns about the organisation were due to a misunderstanding of the scope and role of the foundation.

"We don't have $2.5m to spend, we have $2.5m to work with. We can't do everything. We have a limited resource. From time to time we won't get it right," she said, describing the foundation's role as connectors.

"We connect with the families, find places [they can take their children to engage in sport] and then try to make it happen."

Sport NZ said they also invest $650,000 per annum in Community Sport core funding that primarily goes to support the work of their disability sport advisors.

"Our investment in HDSF is designed to maximise participation in sport and recreation by physically disabled New Zealanders, particularly young people, by supporting partners to build a sporting system which understands their needs and provides the right opportunities," said Sport NZ chief executive Peter Miskimmin.

Asked specifically whether he was aware of the criticism towards the foundation, Miskimmin said: "There is always some tension when it comes to contestable funding, but we have confidence in HDSF and the work they are doing."

Not everyone is so convinced that the model is working.

Said marathon legend Allison Roe: "Knowing how important sports involvement is to health and wellbeing, a lack of [sporting] opportunity for young people with a physical disabilities on a regular week-in week-out, year-round basis in the same way as available to non-disabled peers is a shame.

"It is a challenge that needs a closer look. There is a sizeable investment into disability sports and with growing numbers of children with disabilities perhaps the time is right to examine how that investment can be used to best advantage."

Today, the HDSF put a statement on their website, which says in part: "A report in today's Herald on Sunday misleadingly suggests the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation pays only a tiny proportion of revenue to disabled children and their families. Today's claims are unfair and unbalanced ...

"The Foundation's main role is to provide a nationwide network of Disability Sport Advisers. This team of dedicated experts works full time, assisting physically disabled young people and their families, by connecting them to sports and recreation opportunities. We do this by working alongside schools, clubs and sports organisations.

"Like any effective organisation, our most important asset is our people. It should not be surprising that staff wages are among our highest costs. Without staff, we simply can't operate."

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