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Local government’s missing voice

Chris Ford debunks the idea that disabled people are not up to the job of entering local government - and sees some hope on the electoral horizon

Recently, there has been discussion within the disability community and wider media on the importance of local government elections to the disability community. In my work as a community networker for Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) New Zealand, I see how important local government is to enabling disabled people, like myself, to live in our communities and the role it does sometimes play in diminishing barriers to that.

However, the thing I have noticed is the importance of encouraging more disabled people to stand and be elected to local government in the first place. Currently, Parliament has very few people (if any) who identify as having lived experience of disability/impairment. On the other hand, there has been a slightly greater number of disabled people who have been successfully elected at the local body level down the years. However, as I will point out, this number has remained relatively minuscule for a host of reasons.

One of the chief barriers to disabled people entering local government has been the perception that disabled people are not up to the job. These misconceptions have sometimes been frustratingly reinforced by negative ableist commentary which has even come from the mouths of elected councillors themselves. For example, I remember the comments of Dunedin City Councillor Lee Vandervis (who is standing again in 2019 and also the father of an autistic son) who told a fellow 2016 council candidate, Josh Perry (who lives with cerebral palsy), that he was unsuited to being a councillor due to his reported view that: “He can barely breathe or speak, he’s wheelchair bound … [and] all that degree of disability means he’s simply unable to do the job of a councillor.”

Perhaps Vandervis might like to have said that to two Japanese politicians who were recently successfully elected to the upper chamber of their country’s Diet (Parliament), one who lives with a high level of cerebral palsy and the other who communicates with his eyes onto a sign board due to a neurological impairment. Nevertheless, these extreme comments are not uncommon in our community but are being slowly challenged and overturned. Indeed, one of the ways this can be done is through encouraging more disabled and deaf New Zealanders to stand for elected office at the local level.

But what are the barriers getting in the way of more disabled people standing – aside from negative political and public attitudes?

Firstly, on top of the costs for running for office, there are the higher-than-average everyday costs of living with disability. These costs can make running for office prohibitive, especially for us as disabled people coming largely from one of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in the country. An example of this is that for deaf people, there is the need to hire New Zealand Sign Language interpreters to enable their participation as candidates.

For people like me who don’t drive, there are also the costs associated with getting taxis to and from candidate meetings (and their availability as well, especially in the evenings). Furthermore, the amount of money required to run an effective, modern election campaign is considerable. Fundraising is one way most candidates usually meet these costs but for many disabled people, given our general lack of access to wealth and power, we often face huge barriers to running well-resourced and successful local campaigns for this reason alone.

However, there is some hope on the electoral horizon for disabled people as, at the time of writing, the Green Party’s Election Access Fund Bill (which calls for the creation of an Electoral Commission-based fund to meet the disability-related costs of disabled parliamentary election candidates) is about a month away from being reported back from select committee. My hope is that the wishes of many submitters (such as myself) for local election costs to also be covered by such a fund is included in time for its second reading and committee stages.

Secondly, there are the barriers that disabled candidates face in being selected for local electoral tickets. It has been proven that such tickets can be a very effective way of getting local body candidates elected as they mean resources can be collectively pooled to help achieve this outcome. I am personally aware that in the 2016 local elections, though, that one disabled candidate was denied entry to an electoral ticket largely on account of their disability. This shows that negative attitudes can sometimes stymie otherwise very effective candidates from being elected too - especially if they face barriers to nomination in the first place.

Thirdly, also speaking of the nomination process, it costs nearly $200 to lodge a deposit to stand for each elected local authority office in this country alone. For disabled people this represents a huge financial barrier to standing, especially if there is no electoral grouping supporting them. Besides, for blind and vision-impaired people and people with learning disabilities, there can be issues with accessing or understanding nomination forms, or even the nomination process itself.

In noting all these disabling obstacles to candidature, there are still a considerable number of disabled people standing in the October 12 elections. In Dunedin, I personally know of at least three standing for the Dunedin City Council itself and for a local community board. Nationally, anecdotally I know of other openly-disabled candidates standing in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, and in many other areas.

So what can we bring to council and board tables around the country? It is one very important thing: the personal lived experience of disability. I have never ceased to be amazed at the number of accessibility stuff-ups that city and regional councils and health boards have been responsible for, especially around access issues like mobility parking, footpaths and bus services. 

That’s why disabled people should be around council and board tables to influence policy decisions. At a time when we are beginning to experience an ageing (and consequently more impaired) society, our perspectives, our voices, and our wealth of knowledge should be around every elected table to help inclusive communities that will benefit everyone.

Chris Ford is the Dunedin-based Senior Kaituitui for Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) New Zealand and a former parliamentary candidate for the NewLabour, Alliance and Green parties. 

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