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May 14, 2018 | by  | in Interview |
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Another Interview With a Green Party MP

I spoke to Golriz Ghahraman, Green Party MP and New Zealand’s only refugee politician, about how she deals with tokenism, why Parliament is more challenging than a criminal trial, and her take on denim overalls.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Could you catch me up on your background up to this point?
I was born in Iran, in Mashhad. My parents are a weird Middle East peace summit in the sense that my dad is Shia and my mother is Sunni and Kurdish and Azerbaijani (where we also spent a lot of time growing up). I was born a couple of years after the Iranian Revolution, just after Iran was introducing Islamic law and in the same year that Iran went to war with Iraq. We moved here just the year after it began. When we moved here we did not know if it was permanent. We applied and were eventually granted political asylum after some time. We ending up settling in West Auckland.
Professionally I went to law school in Auckland. I studied law and history, focusing on sex and gender within my history degree. I went from law school to interning at Amnesty International and that’s where I hoped to work. I came out and realised I needed to actually practice law to be effective. I realised it wasn’t so much about me having my dream job, but it’s about actually being effective to implement rights. I was going to be throwing this away if I don’t go out and learn how to actually practice law, which is what brought me to the criminal bar. Eventually I got a junior position at the (United Nations) Rwanda Tribunal. I was part of the UN system and then I went to Oxford to do my Masters because of that. Much later on I got my higher level UN job which was being part of prosecution team against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I did that and then I eventually returned to New Zealand in 2012.

So was human rights always something that you’ve been passionate about? Was that something you always wanted to make the focus of your career?

Yes that’s been the core focus of my career. The criminal courts are constantly applying human rights, so that’s always been the central to my career. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right. In New Zealand human rights are at the forefront of things like discrimination and treaty issues. Māori are so overrepresented in prisons and disenfranchised financially and can’t afford that kind of access to justice. One of the joys of my job now is working with Andrew Little and being able to have an actual vision of what the justice system is supposed to deliver. Some of the reforms we are working on are so exciting for someone who’s been at the forefront as a human rights lawyer and has actually looked into this as an expert.
Being elected as one of the only immigrant politicians in New Zealand, and obviously the first refugee MP, do you to feel a responsibility to represent those with similar backgrounds to you? Correct me if that is a bit tokenistic on my part.
I think it’s hard to avoid. My running as a candidate weirdly coincided with the Trump election and was shortly after Brexit happened. So I think it took on meaning in a global context in a way. I ended up having people reach out to me from all over the world, telling me they were amazed that New Zealand has this other way, and also from others from similar backgrounds, saying “I thought I’d never see someone like me as a politician”. I quickly realised that my fear of tokenism was very much secondary. I think it’s considered tokenistic now, but if more of us stand up so there’s lots of different faces and lots of different stories, it’s the only way to overcome tokenism. Representation does matter, so diversity matters and it ends up that identity matters. If that’s called identity politics then I’m okay with that. Just as we need more people from the Rainbow community and disabilities community to stand up. And more women as well. I’m not necessarily comfortable with the responsibility because it’s huge and different every day but I’m okay with tokenism on this one because hopefully it won’t last and more people will stand up.
Was it shocking being thrust immediately into the spotlight? Obviously you were announced as an MP after the initial election once the special votes came in.
I had actually gotten a lot of media for a new candidate, I think that was partly because of my background and my work for the UN. I think I ended up realising that media meant a platform. You could actually talk about important issues like race. Some people would ask weird questions like “How can we help other people from migrant backgrounds assimilate as well as you?” and you can be like “what do you mean?” and challenge that and it would get published. You could go “oh you mean that I’m a feminist and that I’m educated?”, well actually I get that from Iranian culture. I could bring to light that yeah it might be seen as tokenism but it’s humanising for a population. I welcomed it in the end. It’s a precious platform and people from my background don’t get it very often.
What was the thing you found most surprising about joining Parliament?
I found it far more adversarial, than the most adversarial system that you can colloquially think of, which is a criminal trial. Because in a criminal trial, yes you have the defence and prosecution, but you both understand that we are trying to establish truth, and at the end of it everyone walks away with some kind of middle ground. You accept the outcome. But in Parliament it feels like nothing is based on the debate, everything is predetermined and the debate is superfluous to our decision making process, which is terrible. It seems like you stand up and say something and it has no effect on the process. It’s certainly different from what I was used to, coming from a criminal law background.
Was there a particular shift you saw in national politics that made you want to enter yourself? Could you ever see yourself in any other party other than the Greens?
When I came back to New Zealand I became really active, and I had this kind of funny dual feeling about in New Zealand. Why have we got these ridiculous child poverty stats, why are we looking to mine the national reserves? There was also a personal feeling that I wanted to move back. I decided I need to be in one place, I didn’t want to be an expat forever, I think that’s partly an identity problem. When you are a refugee and you can’t go back, you’re almost stateless, and then I was not really connected to any one place in my adult life. I didn’t really want to get kicked round the UN system forever. I came back to Auckland, became really active with the Green party on the internal side. I wanted to be connected with the people who were engaged with the people involved with the issues I was interested in.

Do you think that the Government’s plan to double the refugee quota is enough? New Zealand is ranked 90th by the UN for refugees hosted per capita. Is the Green Party plan to increase the quota to 5000 refugees within six years still on the cards?
That’s certainly still our policy, so obviously when I meet with the Minister for Immigration that’s going to be my position. We definitely have not resolved that and Labour’s always known that’s what we want. I’m really focused on the resource side, on the family reunification because that’s an area where we actually have agreement on.

So you don’t think the level of refugees currently taken in by New Zealand is satisfying?
No we’ve never said that, so we’ve never maintained that it was. We maintain our Green Party policy on that, we definitely continue to work with our Government partners to try and lift that level where we can.
Just to finish up, Andrew Little: with or without the beard?
With definitely yup, the same goes for Jeremy Corbyn.
Denim overalls, yes or no?
Solid yes, I grew up in the nineties. I had a couple of denim overalls. I may even have some presently.

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