First Sri Lankan born New Zealand MP makes maiden speech

First Sri Lankan born member of the New Zealand Parliament, Vanushi Walters, made her maiden speech to Parliament yesterday (Wednesday).

In her speech she made brief statements in Sinhalese and Tamil, including a reminder that human rights belong to all.

“Richard was my father’s second cousin, a journalist in Sri Lanka, killed in 1990 as a result of his courageous criticism of the then Government. The cloak that morning arrived like a wave of outrage. Surely people weren’t being tortured and killed by their own Government, and if they were, the cloak demanded I do something about it,” she said in her speech.

Speaking dressed in a saree, Vanushi Walters thanked all those who helped her along the way, those in New Zealand and in Sri Lanka.

Full speech:

VANUSHI WALTERS (Labour—Upper Harbour):

My congratulations, Mr Speaker, on your reappointment. I want to acknowledge your guidance through the induction, and I look forward to your guidance this term.

There’s a moment just as you wake. It doesn’t happen every morning, but on those mornings when something significant has changed in your life, there’s an inch of time after waking, when you take a breath before the cloak of your new identity washes back. It was there the morning after election, with warp speed like force, and left me awash with gratitude for the trust placed in me as the first Labour Party member to hold the Upper Harbour seat. I can’t claim the privilege of being the first MP of Sri Lankan descent. Thanks to the speedy work of the Parliamentary Library, I quickly discovered that that privilege belongs to the Hon Annette King. However, I am the first Sri Lankan – born member of New Zealand’s Parliament, and I’m incredibly humbled to be joining a values-based not to mention enormous Labour caucus.

I’m also proud to serve under the leadership of the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, or, as my kids call our extraordinary Prime Minister, “your work friend”. She’s someone I deeply respect and admire.

That experience of the inch of time and the rush of a new cloak of identity have become markers for my memory. I felt the rush waking up as a six-year-old in an apartment at the crest of The Terrace, connecting with the fact that I was now not only a Sri Lankan but also a New Zealander, my family having arrived in 1987. I felt the rush waking up the morning after my mother told me Richard de Zoysa’s story. Richard was my father’s second cousin, a journalist in Sri Lanka, killed in 1990 as a result of his courageous criticism of the then Government. The cloak that morning arrived like a wave of outrage. Surely people weren’t being tortured and killed by their own Government, and if they were, the cloak demanded I do something about it.

It was a story and a feeling that began a 27-year journey in human rights advocacy for me. There is still so much to be done for human rights protection in many countries around the world because

[Tamil/Sinhala text to be inserted by the Hansard Office.]

which means in both Tamil and then Sinhala, human rights belong to all.

The rush of the cloak was there when I first nervously woke up as a qualified lawyer. It was there the morning after my father, Jana Rajanayagam, had several strokes and heart attacks, after being the finance manager of the Upper Hutt City Council and then the North Shore City Council. In an instant, he was physically unable to work, and, thankfully, received Government support through those tough times. I remember when I woke several years later, the morning after he died. The cloak didn’t rush back that morning, but arrived in slow motion with a new kind of inescapable weight.

The inch of time and the rush of a new identity was there the morning I woke up, after two hours of intermittent sleep, and looked at the most miraculous thing—our first baby and then our second and then our third. The cloak on those mornings carried vibrant new colours. I never could have imagined that inch of time and the rush of the cloak as a marker of the human experience we all share.

I look around at the diversity in this Parliament, which will serve us so well this term, but, oh, as well as our beautiful differences, we share so many remarkable similarities in human experience. During my time in community law with Amnesty International and at the Human Rights Commission, I’ve had the privilege of hearing many people’s stories. I often think about their morning—what it might feel like to wake and take on the cloak of parenting and advocating for a child with special needs or to wake and connect with the prison walls around you.

In recent days, I thought about what it’s like for those who wake and reconnect with their health status, with their immigration status, with their employment status. We might not be able to relate to the weight of all the cloaks others wear, but we can relate to that feeling from the inch of time to the rush of the cloak—it’s our door to connection, conversation, understanding, and respect.

In this House especially we have an obligation to consider deeply the impact of everything we stitch to, or fail to stitch to, the cloaks that New Zealanders wear.

There is another experience we all share, and it’s something described well through a conversation two of our boys had in the backseat of the car. We had just come home from a concert and the conversation went a bit like this. Elliott: “Did you feel it?” Luka: “Feel what?” Elliott: “The electricity.” What they were discussing was that feeling you get when you hear that special piece of music or you’re watching that movie and the storyline and music rise to catch your heart. We’ve all felt it; some of us get to feel it often. I’ve felt it marching with women’s rights activists in Nepal and Manila, watching a mum catch her breath with pride as her daughter speaks quietly but with conviction about being discriminated against during a mediation.

The electricity didn’t seem to stop when I stepped on board the majestic Rainbow Warrior II for an interview as a climate campaigner. It was there, buzzing through a pile of hundreds of letters that sat on the floor of a hotel lobby in Mexico, saved by a former prisoner of conscience, sent by strangers to win him his freedom, and they had. It was there with unhelpful giddiness, when I walked in to sit my final exams at Auckland University and then at Oxford. The electricity danced across the room in Johannesburg as young human rights activists talked, cried, and shared visions of hope about the future of human rights.

It was there, embodying possibility, listening to stories about my great-grandmother Naysum Saravanamuttu, the second woman to be elected to the State Council of Ceylon in 1931. This is a feeling we should all have, in the work we do and in the relationships we hold. This is the great ambition for all New Zealanders: not only to ensure that we look out for each other when times are tough and we must but to support and connect people with the things that will bring that electricity. Young people should know that as we address the challenges of the coming years, there is a place for their hearts as well as their heads and their hands in the future of employment.

When I was a young person, I went to hear Dame Cath Tizard speak at a women’s rights conference. She talked about visiting a primary school where a five-year-old boy put up his hand and asked, “When you were young like us, did you want to be Governor-General?” She replied “no” and asked him: “Why? Do you want to be Governor-General when you grow up?”, to which the little boy spat out, “No. I’m not a girl.” While Dame Cath was New Zealand’s first female Governor-General, to this little boy she was the only one he’d known. The story has always reminded me that not only can great change happen in one generation but, time and time again, it does, and there is much that still needs to be done.

We have an obligation to continue to address racism and discrimination. Where voices aren’t represented at decision-making tables, we have an obligation to shake the tables. We must not only hear the loud and organised but fiercely listen for piercing silences and work to bring the marginalised and disempowered from the periphery to the centre. We have an obligation to protect all human rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights, and, because rights are meaningless without the ability to access them, we have a connected obligation to ensure sound access to advocacy and to the courts.

We have an obligation to do more, and then more again, to address climate change. We have an obligation, as we turn the corner towards the 200-year anniversary of the signing of Te Tiriti, to fulfil its articles. We have an obligation to examine the edges of policy and law, where education impacts justice, where justice impacts employment, and where employment impacts health, and to design bridging policy solutions that recognise lives aren’t lived in select committee silos; they’re just lived. This is how we really disrupt the churn of poverty.

For a month at the start of 2017, I went to work barefoot. I had heels in my bag, just in case I had to explain why the general manager of YouthLaw Aotearoa hadn’t bothered to construct an entire work outfit, but, other than that, I went barefoot. The intention to connect more meaningfully with where I was and the bare foot worked. I thought more carefully about the land, the building, the community, and I noticed things on walks I never otherwise would have taken. I say this to perhaps warn the wonderful people of Upper Harbour that you may see me doing the same over the coming years. Don’t worry—there’s a method to what might seem a bit of madness.

Upper Harbour, what a huge privilege to have your trust. I intend to be a strong voice for you on the things that matter, including transport, community safety, housing, employment, and supporting our small and medium sized businesses.

To Rhys, my husband, I suspect there aren’t enough thankyous for all that’s to come. I’ve learnt and loved so much because of you—the way you slow your pace to keep company with the slowest walker; the way you sit in silence considering a question with care before you respond; and for all you are to our family, including the dad jokes, the music, the calm seas. To our boys, Elliott, Luka, and Sacha, for the electricity and brightly coloured cloaks you’ve brought to our lives, thank you. To my family and friends, thank you, but especially to ammē, my mum, Prithiva Ferne Rajanayagam, for the visible support and for all the invisible support that makes standing here possible.

My deepest thanks to Claire, Jesse, and Antonia for nurturing the seed of an idea. To our Upper Harbour team, especially to Andy Hopkins—where are you?—Jan, Dev, Lise, Chris, Ros, Brad, Tiliata, Meresereisa, Leilua, Mark, Marion, Craig, Jade, Vivian, Robyn, Noy, Shane, Brooke, and Brendan, thank you. To Sir Bob Harvey, Chris Carter, and Lal Senaratne, my thanks for your mentoring and your belief in me and the campaign.

I want to make special mention of my early mentors: Lecretia Seales, whose keen intellect was matched by her courage; Margie Taylor; Ced Simpson; and Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, all of whom have had a significant impact on the decisions I’ve made in my journeying.

To the Parliamentary Service staff and all who work in these buildings, who play such a critical role in our democracy, this work we do is only possible because of your hard work here, and, I suspect, often your good humour.

Finally, to my parliamentary colleagues from all walks of political thought, I suspect there’ll be times when we glance across the room and connect unexpectedly on a value that brings all of us to this place. We have a collective obligation to nurture that. While the reality of politics is our corners and a three-year term—at least for now—the truth of sustainable and significant change requires that we hold on to those moments of connection and construct some political scaffolding around the values and ideas we all need to take root and to grow for Aotearoa.

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.