Some of the safest parliamentary seats in the country are about to be taken over by newbies. They’re sure things, anointed by their parties, waiting for the public’s stamp of approval. In the latest part of this occasional series, Dileepa Fonseka talks to Vanushi Walters, a lawyer and human rights advocate who has been placed high enough on her party’s list to be assured a place in Parliament after the election
Up and coming Labour MP Vanushi Walters owes her new career trajectory to leader of the Opposition Judith Collins.
Walters was working at YouthLaw when then Justice Minister Collins suddenly froze their funding.
She still mourns the legitimate court cases which were dropped as a result. A move soon followed by an outright end to their work on law reform.
“When she [Collins] did that I remember thinking ‘they don’t even want to know’. They don’t even want to know about the systemic issues.
“I guess I was more angered by it and horrified because I knew what it would result in: which is people with good solid legal cases who had been wronged and who wouldn’t be able to access justice.
It triggered Walters’ interest in doing something with the Labour government when they came to power in 2017 and her decision to take up a position on their policy council.
Now Collins is the one fighting for a place in government and Walters is the person more likely to get one.
Walters will safely enter Parliament on Labour’s current polling. The Upper Harbour electorate she’s contesting is also up for grabs with Paula Bennett retiring and questions being raised by Businessdesk about her National Party opponent’s work history.
Entering the ‘icky’ political sphere
It’s a surprise twist of fate because Parliament was never really on Walters’ radar.
Until relatively recently she’d always thought of politics as a bit “icky”. She felt politicians were more about popularity than policy.
She saw herself more as a critic holding government to account through organisations like YouthLaw.
Even her parents thought of her a little that way.
They could sense her need for justice and fairness. Which is why she thinks they told her stories of her very politically active relatives and ancestors as she was growing up.
Her great-grandmother was the second woman elected to the State Council of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but the story she remembers most vividly was the killing of journalist Richard de Zoysa – retold to her when she was just 12 years old.
Zoysa was a second cousin of her Father and used to act in plays with her mother in school. When he grew up he became a strong critic of the Sri Lankan government.
He was abducted at gunpoint one night in 1990 and his body later found on a beach: jaw broken, with bullet wounds to his head and throat.
“To be honest [hearing it] at that age it was still a really big shock.”
Changing Sri Lanka
Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Walters moved with her family from there to Zambia then Scotland and finally New Zealand as a civil war took hold in the country of her birth and the atrocities piled up.
“We have family friends who just have atrocious stories about what happened during that period.
“My aunt would often talk about being picked up from school during one of the riots and her mother saying to her ‘do not look at anyone’ and ‘no matter what you see don’t look horrified’.”
Walters would eventually start trying make a difference back in Sri Lanka during their family trips back.
She tried to bring up human rights issues when she visited and even remembers arranging to meet a member of the Free Press Association in a hotel lobby when she was 16.
The reaction of family and friends to her attempts to change things there weren’t always warmly embraced.
“At a dinner at one stage there were lots of uncles and aunties and friends of aunties and uncles – one of whom was a senior person in the military.
“And he turned around and said ‘Who do you think you are talking to us about this? You better watch where you go while you’re in Sri Lanka’ – to a 16-year-old!
“My poor mother was kicking me under the table.”
The incident had the opposite effect of what the man intended. In his extreme reaction she saw fear. Her opposition clearly had an impact on him. She’s carried this experience with her ever since.
A sudden change
In New Zealand her father, a chartered accountant, would become the Finance Manager of the North Shore City Council and Upper Hutt City Council.
Her mother had a series of jobs, but was an economist and also worked as a teacher.
Then, during Walters’ sixth-form year (Year 12), her family’s circumstances changed dramatically. Her father had a series of strokes and heart attacks which put him in ICU.
Doctors told the family he would have no chance of recovery, but he defied the odds and would go on to live for seven more years. However, he went from a decent six-figure salary to an invalid’s benefit and her mother had to take on a full-time role caring for him.
“My Dad, you know, he loved to work. He was the prime example of someone who really loved to work and loved to do that job who then couldn’t. So I think I also saw that sense of loss from him.”
Human rights would remain a major focus during her years at University and she worked for the Auckland Refugee Council while studying law and politics at the University of Auckland.
It was also where Walters would start properly dating her husband Rhys, who she first met when she was 17.
Rhys started University studying health sciences, then came along to one of Walters’ criminal law classes and decided he’d quite like to study law as well.
The pair have three sons and Vanushi says her children were her biggest concern when the Labour Party approached her about contesting an electorate seat and this election.
However other candidates in Labour were signing up for the job with young children in tow too. Which was enough to assure her it was possible, especially as she believes the voice of someone who is a caregiver could be valuable in government.
“I guess I sort of went ‘it needs to work now for parents and caregivers to participate in democracy within Parliament’.
“And if it’s not, then we need caregivers in Parliament to make sure we’re making it work.”
Unsurprisingly – for someone who has served on the global board of Amnesty International and went on to get a Masters in International Human Rights Law from Oxford – she views human rights as an all-encompassing set of principles which should inform a lot of the things we do.
“[It’s] not just about torture, disappearances, that sort of thing. It’s also about the price of milk and whether you have access to a safe, warm, dry home.”
Her commitment to those principles can sometimes make her sound like a Green Party member rather than a Labour Party one.
Walters admits she has strong Green sympathies, but doesn’t identify with their Party because she does not think human rights are a far-left issue which should be pigeonholed that way.
“My view is that if we’re really going to make progress on a lot of those issues they need to be central political issues,” she says.
So, after years spent attacking the government through various NGOs and other organisations Walters now finds herself defending a Government’s track record rather than criticising it.
For her part Walters says she hasn’t had much of a problem defending the Government’s record on Covid-19 despite her years spent on the other side of things.
“I’m not finding it hard at all in terms of arguing that we’re heading in the right direction,” Walters says.
“As I also say: we haven’t made all the right decisions. There have absolutely been mistakes that have been made.
“There’s been learning that needs to happen, but this is a Government who are capable of doing that learning.”