Photo courtesy of Twitter
In their recent parliamentary election, the people of New Zealand discarded the old white men who had been running the country decades and chose instead a host of new faces who included young women, people of colour and LGBTIQ people. They gave the Labour Party and its leader Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a second term with a resounding victory for her support for woman’s rights, equality and inclusivity as well as her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the horrific attacks on a mosque in Christchurch last year.
This week Ms. Ardern, who became the world’s youngest female head of government at the age of 37 three years ago, appointed the most diverse cabinet in New Zealand’s history, with indigenous Maori ministers making up a quarter of its 20-strong members, women taking eight posts and a gay deputy prime minister.
One of the winners at the election was 39 year-old Vanushi Walters who entered parliament as an MP from northwest Auckland. She migrated from Sri Lanka to New Zealand with her parents, Jana Rajanayagam and Pritheva Mather, when she was five years old.
Ms. Walters is the great grand daughter of Sir Ratnasothy Saravanamuttu, a member of the State Council of Ceylon and the first Sri Lankan Mayor of Colombo, and Naysum Saravanamuttu, Ceylon’s second female MP.
The Sri Lankan New Zealander worked for nine years in the community legal sector, served six years as an International Board member of Amnesty International and was a senior manager at the Human Rights Commission. She has a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Auckland and a master’s degree in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. She is married with three sons.
Here are excerpts from an email interview with Ms. Walters:
Although you were just five when you left Sri Lanka, have you kept in touch with the place and the people, including your extended family?
Yes. Being Sri Lankan is a really important part of my identity. One of my fondest memories was travelling back to Sri Lanka several times for family holidays around Christmas time as a child. Walking down the busy streets in Colombo, Christmas shopping at Majestic City and then picking up short eats and cake at Green Cabin. Dodging the waves at Mount Lavinia and catching up with extended family. All really special times. As I got older we continued to visit Sri Lanka. I remember a great trip in 2010, following my graduation at Oxford, when the whole family spent time in Sri Lanka together. My most recent trip was around Christmas 2017, my husband our three boys and I spent some time in Colombo visiting extended family. We travelled down the south coast and the kids were in heaven visiting Yala and basically lived in their swimming suits all day in Hambantota. Our eldest came home asking for egg hoppers for breakfast every day!
How has your Sri Lankan heritage influenced your values and thinking?
I grew up hearing stories about my great grandfather Sir Ratnasothy Saravanamuttu and my great grandmother Naysum Saravanamuttu, who I understand was the second woman in what was then the Sri Lankan Senate. I also heard stories of my great grandfather on my mother’s side, the Rev. Dr. James S. Mather, Chairman of the Methodist church in Sri Lanka in his time. My grandfather on my mother’s side was an eye surgeon and would work running free eye clinics and provide spectacles for people living in villages on the south coast and I knew a bit about my grandfather Dr. Sangarapillai Rajanayagam’s advocacy for women’s reproductive health rights as an obstetrician and gynaecologist. In terms of these familial ties, I definitely had a sense that leadership is a privilege and when done well, is because it’s motivated by a strong sense of service. More broadly, I grew up with an understanding of the importance of family and extended family. It’s probably part of why our household is comprised of three generations, my husband and I, my kids and also my mother. It’s a value that I’ve observed in other Sri Lankan households and I hope is something we’re passing on to our kids. I also had parents who supported and encouraged my sisters and I to follow our passions and to pursue them with energy and dedication. They really encouraged us to take on challenges and bat away the inevitable imposter syndrome whenever it came along.
Is it correct that learning about the killing of your relative, Richard de Zoysa, was part of the reason you became a human rights lawyer?
Richard was a part of the extended family as one of my father’s second cousins. I never had the opportunity to meet him but yes, his life and death both had a significant impact on me. I flew down to Wellington as an incoming MP the day after the election and received a text from my Uncle Peter with a photo of Richard and I photoshopped together side by side and felt awash with a sense of both grief and gratitude. Grief again for his story and the injustice he and those who loved him clearly suffered and gratitude for his story’s significance in my life. My human rights advocacy started because of his story but it was more than just the injustice of what happened to him and others during that period in Sri Lanka’s history. It was also a sense of awe at his courage, his mother’s courage and the courage of the human rights defenders worldwide, whose stories I then began to learn more about.
Why did you decide to go into politics instead of continuing your human rights work?
I don’t see my new role as diverting from human rights. The decisions this government will be responsible for both here in New Zealand and in terms of the role we play internationally are necessarily tethered to the protection and promotion of human rights. I’m hoping to bring a human rights lens to the complex decisions that no doubt lie around the corner as we continue to implement our COVID response in particular. It will of course be a change and one that I wasn’t necessarily aiming to make a few years back, however I, like so many New Zealanders and many people internationally, have a huge amount of trust and faith in our Prime Minister and our Labour leadership and believe that my values sync well with our Government’s, which presents a rather extraordinary opportunity to help lead change from the inside.
In the recent election, New Zealand elected many young women as well as LGBTIQ people and people of colour into parliament. How can such diversity influence policy making?
It has been something pretty special spending time with the new members of Labour’s caucus these last few weeks. What you quickly get a sense of isn’t just the diverse life experience and backgrounds now in the mix within Labour’s team but also the extraordinary level of skill and critical thinking they bring. The pool of Labour MPs in 2020 is an affirmation of the fact that we can and should be asking for both diversity and demonstrable skills in those we elect. All credit here to the people of New Zealand for voting us in. The impact of having diverse experience in the room, not only as we craft legal and policy solutions but as we connect with New Zealanders about their thoughts, ideas and concerns will be significant. In a nutshell it means we’ll be better able to craft policy solutions that will best respond to the lived reality of New Zealanders.
The world admires Jacinda Ardern for her leadership qualities. What is it like to work with her and what have you learnt from her?
I first met Jacinda several years ago. She was an MP who held the Youth portfolio in opposition and used to visit our offices at YouthLaw to discuss issues effecting children and young people. Back then she was just as she is now in terms of her values set, her depth of knowledge and her carefully considered but decisive judgment. I joined the Labour Party when Jacinda assumed the party leadership role as I trusted completely her ability to lead well, with compassion and clarity. She is an extremely down to earth person who never fails to acknowledge the work and effort of those around her. She reaches out to ensure that all views in the caucus are expressed and reflected and carries the respect of our team 100 percent. I’ve also been so impressed with her ability to be firm and decisive when needed and the way in which she faces the tough decisions head on.
We think of New Zealand as a tolerant country but have you faced any discrimination either in your work place or in society as an immigrant from Asia and as a woman?
New Zealand is a wonderful country and it’s actually quite difficult to put into words just how much it means to me to be a Sri Lankan New Zealander. However like many countries in the world, there are continuing issues relating to racism and discrimination (both casual and systemic) that we need to address. I’ve faced a few in the past. In terms of addressing racism and discrimination my focus has been working with colleagues (in community law and at the Human Rights Commission) to address discrimination on a case by case basis, to advocate for better data collection so we can benchmark change and to identify mechanisms and attitudes which allow discrimination to exist at a systemic level and argue for strategies to address this. Now with my change of hats, I hope to stay connected to much of that work but as part of a team within Government.
Any parent with young children in a high stress job must face many challenges. How are you able to maintain a work-life balance?
With a huge amount of support from my family both close and extended. My husband, who is a lawyer as well, works from a home office and has downsized his workload while we adjust to all things political life. My mother Pritheva lives with us and she is a huge help and such a pivotal part of our household. No doubt there will be a lot to get used to but there are some wonderful moments as well. Our eldest came out campaigning with me several times and it’s great to be able to talk to them about democracy, decision making, ethics and values around the dinner table.
In a cricket match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand, who do you cheer for?
I have perhaps a habit of cheering for the underdog or the visitor. So here in New Zealand I’m more likely to cheer for Sri Lanka and if I were watching a game in Sri Lanka I’d be more likely to cheer for New Zealand. In terms of my own cricket abilities, I played for the second eleven team at high school but must admit I was always last in the batting order.