Kerre McIvor
Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre Woodham: Change always upsets diehards

Mojo Mathers follows a line of notable 'firsts' in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mojo Mathers follows a line of notable 'firsts' in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

When Elizabeth McCombs was elected as the first female MP to New Zealand's Parliament in 1933, all sorts of changes had to be made.

The "No Women Permitted" sign had to come down over Bellamy's dining room; the wording of the swearing-in had to be altered; and the Governor-General, in his speech from the throne, had to refer to "Members of Parliament" rather than "gentlemen".

Presumably one or two of the men's dunnies had to be refitted as powder rooms. You can only imagine the harrumphing that went on in gentlemen's clubs and public bars around the country.

Still, the male MPs would have taken comfort from the fact that they managed to protect their holy of holies from feminine encroachment - McCombs was forbidden from entering Bellamy's bar.

Not much changed for 50 years. When former Finance Minister Ruth Richardson chose to continue breastfeeding her baby while working, a special room had to be made available for her and there was much grumbling about that.

I can recall suggestions that she should pay for the room herself - the reason being that it was her choice to have children while serving as an MP.

It wasn't until the 90s that a childcare centre was established at Parliament.

Maori MPs seem to have had rather more success at having their requirements accommodated, although it was a struggle. Four Maori seats were established to encourage Maori to vote and, as early as the 1880s, interpreters were provided in the House.

Between 1881 and 1906, there was a Maori Hansard; Sir James Carroll, the first Maori to win a general seat, was acting Prime Minister in 1909 and 1911 and the Young Maori Party were a force to be reckoned with.

However, any success was hard-won and compromise was the name of the game then - as it is now. So it's not surprising that there's been resistance to Mojo Mathers, New Zealand's first deaf MP, getting the equipment she needs to do her job effectively.

The hearing-impaired and the disabled are a big part of our community and deserve to be represented in Parliament.

Mathers hasn't let her lack of hearing interfere with a rich, full and productive life. Hell, I'd rather have her in Parliament than a number of other MPs I can think of who have functioning ears but choose not to listen.

The row the Greens have had with the Speaker, Dr Lockwood Smith, is unfortunate.

Smith seems genuinely aggrieved that he's been accused of obstructing Mathers. He says he's put in a request for extra money to assist Mathers; the Greens say he's told her to find the money herself.

Smith is pedantic and a form-filler-outer from way back.

In his defence, I can imagine he would have seen no option other than going through official channels to try to find the extra money for Mathers - he's not your "we'll sort it out with accounts later" kind of chap.

I don't believe he's trying to thwart Mathers in her attempt to do her job, but the Greens seem intent on painting Smith as a mean man.

No doubt the issue of the extra support will be sorted out shortly and I hope it's in Mathers' favour.

The comments I heard and the texts that came into my talkback show indicate there's a long way to go before some people understand difference in this country - being deaf doesn't mean a person is stupid. Or unable to communicate.

One caller said Mathers was faking it. She couldn't really be deaf, the caller said, because she could talk. Dear me.

There will need to be adjustments from everyone - including Mathers - for her term as MP to be successful.

I hope that in this regard Mathers proves a success - as she has in so many other fields.

- Herald on Sunday

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