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OPINIONPoliticsOctober 28, 2020

All these new queer MPs are fantastic news. But where are their disabled peers?

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Our back-patting about electing the most inclusive parliament in history has one glaring omission, writes Henrietta Bollinger.

In a sea of red votes, Aotearoa New Zealand looks to have elected the most rainbow parliament in the world. As a queer constituent, I have to believe this means something.

It also has me reflecting on the long and ongoing journey towards queer rights in this country. I remember my mother telling me of being approached by The Salvation Army in 1986 with a petition against homosexual law reform, which she refused to sign. I have deeply personal memories of Skyping my then-girlfriend the day marriage equality passed in 2013, both of us mentally absorbing that our lives had finally been given an extra degree of recognition and safety.

The presence of so many out rainbow community members in parliament is on one level an individual achievement on each member’s part. But it also shows that we are beginning to create the conditions in which people of diverse sexualities (though not yet across the gender spectrum) can take part in public life with the assurance of relative safety. This change has come about during my lifetime, and is something that could not have been dreamed of just 30 years ago.

New Green list MP Elizabeth Kerekere is takataapui Māori, bringing with her strong connections and mana in both communities. Explaining why she felt it was so important that people like her are in parliament, she said that “everybody must be at the table to have those conversations”. I have to agree with her on this. A parliament you see yourself in is one you might believe is looking out for your interests.

There is a temptation to see the mere presence of minority politicians as an end in itself: the proof that we have somehow arrived at a place of equality and inclusion. But this feels fragile. It feels fragile for queer people. It feels fragile for the sole voice in parliament from the Māori Party. While I’m celebrating, I’m also aware of work still ahead.

For minorities, power is something that is never assured – in fact, it is held tenuously by the those who have fought their way into spaces hostile to them for the past 250 years. For people entering these spaces, their inclusion is always somewhat conditional. The presence of “diverse” people in power is never allowed to fully disrupt the monoculture; their presence does not disrupt the way work is carried out, its pace or expectations. It equally does not push too far beyond previous experiences of what leadership looks like. It is conditional in the sense that a minority’s presence is easiest to accept when it can be folded into the comfortable Pākehā narratives of enfranchisement our institutions have long rested on: that we are the first country to give women the vote, that we are the country of the “fair go”.

There are many ways – particularly as a Pākehā person – that I’m not well placed to speak to political disenfranchisement. In other ways, my experience of it is personal. While I celebrate one element of my identity – my queer identity – so openly represented at the highest level of politics, that achievement draws my attention to the glaring absences in our supposedly representative democracy. Most obviously, it is my lack of representation as a disabled person. As a disabled voter, I know of only one of our elected representatives who openly identifies as disabled.

While there have been the examples of individual success such former MPs Mojo Mathers and JB Munro, and the presence of current MP Golriz Ghahraman, who has multiple sclerosis, we are yet to reach a place of abundant representation, the disabled community is no longer tokenised.

In 2018, I worked in parliament on community engagement around the Election Access Fund Bill. The bill was the brainchild of New Zealand’s first Deaf MP, Mojo Mathers, who wanted to remove some of the barriers that had stood in her path to parliament. After Mojo left parliament it was sponsored by Chlöe Swarbrick, who stewarded it through to the third reading. The bill was aimed at establishing a fund to meet Deaf and disabled candidates’ disability-related costs of standing in a general election. It will come into effect in 2023, which means we have not yet seen its enabling potential enacted.

We are yet to create the conditions where disabled people have the same opportunities to become public figures. This is a stark gap in our supposedly representative democracy, given that disabled people make up just under a quarter of the population. We are, within ourselves, a vastly diverse community in need of representation that reflects this. During my time in parliament I felt this absence , but also saw the tangible results of the work of Deaf and disabled people to change things. Mojo’s legacy was more than this bill; she left parliament with proof that Deaf and disabled could be effective leaders there.

Beyond ensuring our own seat at the table, a greater presence for disabled people in parliament would shift the way we “do” politics and what we expect leadership to look like. This has the potential for supporting the presence of other minorities too. A parliament that understands leaders as not isolated individuals but interdependent community members is a parliament that has as much space for a disabled politician as for a parent of young children. A parliament built on collaboration can’t find any better legitimacy than Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

This new parliament has been dubbed “New Zealand’s most inclusive ever“. In another 30 years we could have one that is the most inclusive in the world – but we have a long way to go. We’ve achieved much already, but we must push our political imaginations further still.

Keep going!