Debacle for Simmonds avoidable

Penny Simmonds responds to complaints about changes to disability funding policy. PHOTO:...
Penny Simmonds responds to complaints about changes to disability funding policy. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT TV
It is something which befalls every new government, and every new Cabinet minister lives in dread it will be them — being the first minister on whose watch something goes catastrophically wrong.

Of course, there is never a good time to make a mistake — and especially not when you are the steward of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money — but early in a new term is exactly the wrong time to stuff something up.

The Opposition is lying in wait, frustrated at having lost last time and desperately wanting to make an impression, and every resource it has will be deployed to make your life as much of a misery as possible. Former Dunedin MP David Clark for one, who endured this gauntlet at the start of the last Labour government, knows exactly how excruciating being under the blowtorch is.

This week it has been Penny Simmonds who has been the "lucky" minister to be in the spotlight, the Invercargill National MP being subject to intense questioning about changes to the policy governing purchasing equipment and modification services for disabled people.

The bomb exploded on Tuesday when the House reached question 11 of 12 — by which time, usually, most have stopped paying close attention — and Labour’s Priyanca Radhakrishnan asked Ms Simmonds about the changes.

Labour was baying in full chorus as Ms Simmonds tried to explain that Whaikaha — the Ministry of Disabled People — was working to manage a forecast overspend in the disability support system, and it was doing so by "prioritising spending towards supports accessed by disabled peoples".

Cue a war of words which has left Ms Simmonds looking an increasingly beleaguered figure by week’s end.

She does actually have a point. When the previous government set up the ministry it kept in place flexible rules which were in place during the Covid-19 period, and Ms Simmonds has various examples of potentially questionable funding decisions.

But Ms Simmonds was never going to win this perception battle, as over the next two days Labour rolled out a succession of distressed parents of disabled children who would be left disadvantaged by the changes, and most disability lobby groups added their angry voices to the chorus — all this despite Ms Simmonds’ repeated assertions that "no disabled person will lose access to funding for essential services, equipment, or support".

They too have a point. If society is judged, as politicians are wont to say, by how it looks after its most vulnerable, anything which smacks even in the slightest of making the lives of the disabled and their caregivers — which are hard enough already — even a little more difficult is, correctly, going to spark outrage.

This issue is going to roll and roll, no doubt much to Ms Simmonds’ frustration, because it was entirely avoidable.

Much of the ire stems from the fact that Whaikaha did an appallingly slipshod job of advising those who access funding for disability services about any impending changes. Much of the rest will stem from the fact that Ms Simmonds was aware of the policy change but either a) failed to spot that it was likely to cause consternation, or b) did spot that potential issue but failed to deal with it adequately.

Neither of those scenarios are good for her, especially as many more detailed policy changes are looming, not only in the disability sector but in Ms Simmonds’ other portfolios, environment and tertiary education and skills.

But one good thing did come out of this dark situation: well ahead of the May 30 Budget — and possibly in an effort to head off all this trouble — Finance Minister Nicola Willis confirmed the sector will receive a funding boost.

Which is nice, but it would have been better not to have caused a lot of people a lot of anxiety in the meantime.

Trainwreck time

It is every MP’s worst nightmare — being up on your feet but having nothing to say. And it befell National Southland MP Joseph Mooney on Wednesday, after he failed to see the memo providing him with his follow-up questions subsequent to his asking Question 1 to the Minister of Finance: "Has she seen any recent reports on the New Zealand economy?".

Sadly, Ms Willis’ answer did not afford Mr Mooney enough time to find his script — which he was furiously rummaging in his papers to find — so when it was time to ask his first supplementary question, Mr Mooney was caught out on his phone scrolling through his emails looking for what it was meant to be. Eventually, to much laughter, he stammered out "What other reports has the minister seen?".

"Thank you to the member. He's allowed to ask me any question he likes about the IMF report," Ms Willis replied gracefully.

And it’s goodbye from him

Grant Robertson delivered a rollicking valedictory on Wednesday. As you would expect from a gifted public speaker there were plenty of laughs, but also some thoughtful moments and challenges left for the new government. Here are some favourite moments.

"I was poached from Marian’s office by Heather Simpson to come and work for Helen Clark ... In the five years I worked with Heather I received four emails. Take that Mr Ombudsmen. She set incredibly high standards and is the best political operator I have seen in this building. She had a Southland sense of humour I appreciated. One day a mysterious stain appeared on the carpet immediately outside her office door. Her EA Stephen Woodhouse and I were staring at it when Heather appeared, grunted and said ‘well I guess now you know where the bodies are buried’. I have always presumed that was a joke."

"In Parliament there were a couple of highlights in the nine long years. One of those was the passing of a Bill I drafted with the help of staff member Marcus Ganley to ensure that Waitangi Day and Anzac Day were given full recognition, and “Mondayised” ... the Bill lay in the members’ ballot for several years and eventually I gave it away first to Darien Fenton then to Dr David Clark, who of course had it chosen immediately. In an interesting twist of fate Dr Clark was ‘unavailable’ on the day of the Third Reading of the Bill and so I got to move it as it passed. I am pretty sure David was OK with me locking him in his office for a few hours."

"As we got into lockdown we settled into routines. There were only seven staff actually working in the Beehive. I was completely alone on the seventh floor. Of course, no shops were open and at the beginning we hadn’t been to the supermarket. Like some kind of latter-day Bruno Lawrence in the movie The Quiet Earth I roamed offices in search of food, eventually stealing the bread from Kelvin Davis’ freezer."

"So, Mr Speaker, that is my final, simple message today to you all. Hoatu he tumanako ki a rātou, you gotta give ’em hope."