Well past time for action

Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds has garnered much attention for her imminent part in the new government’s plans to scrap the mega polytechnic Te Pukenga.

However, it is another Bill in her name on the Order Paper which might, potentially, be the more far-reaching.

As well as being Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills, Ms Simmonds also hold the disability issues portfolio, in which capacity she has taken over stewardship of the Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill — a piece of Labour legislation which she strongly criticised while in Opposition.

She was not the only one. The select committee submissions period had to be substantially lengthened due to the huge number of individuals and disability advocacy groups wanting to tell the government in person that the Bill was almost wholly inadequate for purpose.

The Bill aimed to "accelerate progress towards a fully accessible New Zealand", but disabled people begged to differ, arguing that its proposals would not effect any meaningful change and that the likely outcome of law changes they had advocated for over many years would amount to a likely ineffectual committee being set up as it would have no enforceable standards to compel defaulters to meet.

After hearing from 523 submitters, the government made several amendments to the Bill, but few of them were substantial: the Disabled Persons Assembly went so far as to call the reworked legislation "so insignificant as to be insulting to the many disabled people and allies who presented to the social services and community committee".

The DPA is an overarching body which aims to effect positive change for all disabled people — and given that an estimated one million New Zealanders have some form of disability, ranging from eye sight and hearing deficiencies to rare and serious conditions, that is a not inconsiderable part of the total population.

When it speaks, governments should listen and Labour did: the Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill was quietly put to one side before the election.

Each incoming government has to go through the business left over by the previous government and decide what to keep and what to discard. Most gets trashed if there is a change in the ruling party although the National/Act New Zealand/ New Zealand First coalition has opted to keep a surprisingly large amount of Labour’s extant legislation — including, happily, the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill which has lingered on the Order Paper unadvanced since 2016.

That one, coincidentally, is in the name of the Minister of the Environment, one Penny Simmonds, but it is unlikely to receive the same level of attention in the new Parliament as the Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill.

National had, reluctantly, supported the latter Bill to go to select committee in the hope that it would be substantially amended and greatly strengthened, but it, too, emerged from the process profoundly disappointed.

In a minority view appended to the select committee report back to the House, National agreed with submitters that it did not go far enough. Specifically, its MPs noted that New Zealand’s disabled community had hoped for a regulatory body similar to those which enforce accessibility standards in countries such as Australia and Canada.

Calling the Bill "fundamentally flawed", it opposed it in the report issued in June and would have voted against it at second reading, when the House debates and votes on the Bill and any changes suggested by the select committee, had it made it that far.

That remains an open question. The Bill remains paused while officials consider those aforementioned overseas regimes and whether they could be applied in New Zealand.

More specifically, they need to consider whether the Bill will need to be totally rewritten, or whether it can be salvaged at the committee of the whole stage, when amendments to it can be lodged and passed.

Ms Simmonds — and the entire disabled community for that matter — will want to get this right and ensure that the proposed law change really is fit for purpose.

But the disabled community, which has heard promises for a decade or more of law reform in this area, will not want to endure yet more delay.

Quite frankly, they have been badly mucked around and this deserves to be a legislative priority for the new government.