Trevor Mallard on Parliament’s new playground

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard discusses the new playground at Parliament and his second phase of parliamentary engagement.

The jokes write themselves: A playground at Parliament? There already is one in the debating chamber!

To Speaker Trevor Mallard, however, the playground is no laughing matter - instead, it's part of a serious attempt to engage the public and make Parliament more accessible to the people. The slide and balance beams accompany a series of reforms to parliamentary rules, allowing MPs to bring their babies into the House and keeping Parliament's cafe open on non-sitting days.

The play area has also come under fire from Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero who pointed out that while Mallard wants to make Parliament more accessible, some children with disabilities won't be able to access the playground.

Security or inclusivity?

It all started shortly after Mallard was elected Speaker after the 2017 election. "It was part of a package of things that came out of a discussion that I had with Willow-Jean Prime's mother," Mallard said.

Prime's mother took care of the first-term MP's youngest child while the latter was in the House. "Her mother came down regularly with her and we talked through some of the things inside the buildings and what could make the place better [for children]," Mallard said.

"It coincided with work that I'd been doing in parliamentary engagement around how can we take the Parliament out to the people both physically and online, but also bring more people into the building. Building up the number of tours, improving the school education [programme], opening the cafe up on non-sitting days, the playground and the kids' garden around the back are all part of a package that are designed to make Parliament feel like, our House is your House."

All that said, the decision to build the playground wasn't an easy one. "There's an enormous dilemma with a Parliament because you've got this mix of wanting to be open and accessible and engaged with the public and then you have security concerns," he said.

"What most parliaments have done is put a very strong outer barrier around the parliament and effectively the grounds are inside the barrier. We've taken a different approach and our security barriers are at the entrance to the buildings as opposed to at the entrance to the grounds."

Since the playground opened in late November, "the feedback's been 95 percent positive," Mallard said.

"It has been well-used. It appears to be becoming an after work meeting place for people with kids. There's no other playgrounds within at least a kilometre. People who have families tend to go there."

Playground not accessible

The five percent who haven't received the playground positively have valid concerns, Mallard said. Most of them are upset that the playground isn't as accessible to children with disabilities as it could have been. Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick wrote to Mallard after the playground was announced in June 2018 to ask that it be made more accessible, but the design and consenting had already been done at that point, Mallard said.

"She had raised that with me but she had raised it with me after the time that we had gotten the approval," he said. "It was an awfully long process because while we are masters of our own destiny with the Parliament, we are still subject to historic places and council rules. It took quite a lot of design work and quite a lot of negotiation to get it and we were committed to it at the time that Chlöe made the approach to me."

"Rather than go back and start the process again, I took the decision to get the damn thing up."

"It's gutting that kids with certain mobility disabilities aren't able to access and use the playground at the moment," Swarbrick said. However, "I don't want to attack Trevor on this. I think it's really critical to appreciate first and foremost that he has gone above and beyond in trying to make Parliament more accessible."

The point is to make clear that Parliament needs to be more accessible and that accessibility is a blind spot for most people, she said. "It was raised during the second reading of the Election Access Bill that if we had a person with a wheelchair who was elected to Parliament, there is currently no place to put their wheelchair [in the debating chamber]."

The lack of accessibility would hopefully be rectified in "phase two" of the project. "I'm very hopeful that in phase two we'll be able to address that concern," Mallard said.

He has been in contact with Tesoriero about what accessible playground features could look like.

Beyond that, phase two will also involve more seating. "What I didn't appreciate was that parents want seats and actually, if it's a happy little place, quite a few people who aren't parents will also come. It's a nice place to go and eat your lunch or just have a bit of a rest."

In the absence of enough seating, people have been using the balance beams as seats, "which sort of takes away some of the utility of the playground for kids".

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