You've no doubt noticed the scarily vivid posters around town, pitting the "pitbull" Judith Collins against the "angelic" Jacinda Ardern in glossy, larger-than-life, traffic-stopping billboards. You'd be living under a mushroom not to know the General Election is only weeks away now.
Years ago I often fantasised about the potential of the disabled community voting as a cohesive sector of the New Zealand population. What a powerful force we would be. Back then disabled people made up 20 per cent of the population.
Now it's 24 per cent nationwide - Northland has the second highest proportion of disabled people in the country at 29 per cent. But guess what – it ain't that easy. Because, dammit, the disabled community is so very …diverse - spanning all ages, genders and ethnicities.
Sure a few key issues get most disabled people a little riled up. Jobs is a biggie and it always has been. Disabled people are well over-represented in unemployment stats and our need to eat and pay rent has not diminished over the years.
And two golden oldies that really light the touch paper for most disabled people are equitable access to education and good health services. We really are talking the basics still, sadly.
Availability of accessible housing continues to be a pressure point up here. Accessible transport is critical, particularly in a region like Northland where the rurality is vast and public transport is light on the ground.
The general election is an opportunity for the disabled community to put their issues in front and centre as a powerful lobby. The Ministers of Parliament and would-be politicians need to front up. How, you ask, can this be done effectively?
As luck would have it, we at Tiaho Trust, are holding a public Meet the Candidates meeting on September 2 at Mahitahi Hauora, on Rust Ave, from 1pm–3.30pm. We have invited all the standing candidates from the main parties from the Whangārei, Northland and the Tai Tokerau Electorate.
We have posed three questions: one on education, one on employment and one that hones in on what they think the key issues facing the disabled community in Northland.
We are delighted that 11 out of the 13 candidates responded that they will front up on the day. So come on, disabled community, come listen to what the candidates have to say and have an opportunity to ask your questions.
This election is particularly relevant to disabled people because of the referendum on the 'End of Life Bill". The issue has been hotly debated within the disability community.
There is a strong feeling among some disabled people that the proposed legislation will make disabled people vulnerable to coercion from their families and people around them to end their lives. There is concern that there aren't enough safety guards, checks and balances to ensure this doesn't happen.
Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero has emphatically expressed this concern, saying: "The overwhelming concern is that people feel that this type of regime will not provide a choice, but in fact provide a solution, the solution being inadequate support services to disabled people and inadequate choices. I would far rather, as a country, that we're talking about providing adequate services for disabled people and enabling them to live a good life, than we were debating how to die a good death."
On the other hand, prominent disabled leader Diversity New Zealand's managing director Philip Patston, who supports the Bill, believes disabled people have the right to end their lives along with other New Zealanders if they fall under the criteria of the proposed Act.
"In my opinion, disabled people are more at risk from suicide-related harm than if assisted dying were legal.
"I believe that conflating the issues of disability discrimination and assisted dying is not useful for either disabled people, or for competent people - disabled or otherwise - who are suffering from a terminal illness, and are seeking the right to choose assistance to die.
"As a staunchly active disabled person, I value equally my right to live and my right to choose to end my life in the case of acute suffering. If I were to be in a position where my suffering was intolerable, and assisted dying was available, I would want the right to choose to end my suffering.
"We as a society should not deny one right by promoting another. I believe that complex issues such as euthanasia needs to be approached on a case-by-case basis, and with love not fear."
Disability and politics isn't straight forward - it's complex. It's worthy of debate and representation at all levels of our democratic process. So see you on the second of September – all welcome!
Footnote: Contact the Tiaho trust to confirm if the meeting on September 2 is still going ahead because of the Covid-19 resurgence.
Email email@example.com or call 430 3406 or 027 277 9333.
• Jonny Wilkinson is the chief executive of Tiaho Trust - Disability A Matter of Perception, a Whangārei-based disability advocacy organisation.