First-term MPs: Golriz Ghahraman on dealing with New Zealand First, the MP walking group, and Parliament's culture

With the 52nd Parliament wrapped up after nearly three years, Newshub spoke to four MPs who have just finished their first term about their experience as a politician.  The interviews will be released throughout the week.

Green Party list MP Golriz Ghahraman entered Parliament in 2017 after years working as a lawyer, both in Aotearoa and overseas.

Born in Iran, which she fled with her family in 1990 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Ghahraman was New Zealand's first refugee to become a MP and has long been closely involved with local NGOs and groups supporting minority communities.

As a lawyer, Ghahraman specialised in human rights law and worked for the United Nations Tribunals and in New Zealand's Supreme Court. 

She is standing again for the Green Party at the 2020 election in the seat of Mt Roskill.

Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What motivated you to become an MP and why for the Green Party?

I've been in the Greens for a long time so I had been at every level of the party and done the campaign in 2014, so it was never a question for me. I finally wanted to do it because I came back from overseas - I had been working in Cambodia for the UN - and I came back and things were changed here. Our child poverty stats were being criticised for the UN and we were trying to mine in the national reserves. Slowly, as I got more and more involved, I decided actually I would like to take some of my experience up to Parliament.

When you entered Parliament, was there adequate support or did you feel thrown in the deep end?

Very much in the deep end. We do have good supporters, it's just that our caucus is so small and we get full portfolios. I have 13 portfolios as a full spokesperson which means if a new law comes through you are analysing it, you have a little bit of adviser support - which is great, we wouldn't be there without it - but then if the media wants a comment, you are in there. It is a very eclectic job but it is incredibly challenging, especially at first.

What was the most rewarding moment of the term or your biggest achievement? 

We got to double the number of refugees who will be reunified with their family members and some money to support that. At a time when some countries are ripping asylum seeker families apart, New Zealand got to - that was a Green Party Confidence and Supply win - got to say 'actually, we think you deserve to be together if you are escaping war or prosecution'. That was really meaningful to me.

It is a very eclectic job but it is incredibly challenging, especially at first.

What was the biggest challenge?

Well, apart from having 13 portfolios (laughs). I think the most challenging one that actually did turn into a win was trying to get the New Zealand troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. That's the defence portfolio and that's what I've got. I had to work with Ron Mark, who's an ex-Army man and he's a New Zealand First Minister. We are supposed to be chalk and cheese. Coming in to try and have a common ground and have those conversations, I think, was a challenge, but we got there in the end. To me, personally, being originally from Iran, it meant something to say 'actually, New Zealand is not going to be involved in the wars there'.

What did you learn about yourself during those sorts of negotiations?

What I think we all know but is challenged in a situation like that is you have to respect everyone. We are all people, we all come from somewhere and we have a right to opinions and I think if people come together with that mutual respect, where you do get somewhere. We don't agree on defence, but people voted for him too. He's a Māori man. His background is that he went through foster care and the army had saved his life. My background is that I have seen a war in the Middle East. We were able to bring those experiences and have that conversation really openly. 

Golriz Ghahraman.
Golriz Ghahraman. Photo credit: Getty.

How important is it to have a group of MPs for support?

It's so important. I think, recently, people have seen in parties where there are these factions and people have recently fallen victim to the pressures of Parliament. So, I do think the way that we've been able to support each other and it has been a class of 2017, on our side of the House at least. I have got really good friends in Labour as well and Chlöe and I are the only two from [the Greens]. The Women's Parliamentarian Network is really important, I find, and has been for me.

The culture of Parliament in terms of bullying has been in the spotlight recently. How did you find that and how did you deal with it?

We are in a really privileged position. We have a certain level of security and I really acknowledge that and I think, the thought for me, a lot of my bullying is that online stuff where it is race and gender and all of that. I just think about those communities out there, whether it is young women, whether it is people from marginalised backgrounds, and they don't have the same support that I have. It is about standing up for them. Trying to change the culture, whether it is online culture, whether it is in politics or media. So that everyone else who is in a more vulnerable position can feel safe. 

Were you able to build relationships with MPs across the aisle?

I sit on [the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee] with people from across the aisle. I was able to initiate an inquiry into New Zealand's foreign aid in the Pacific and that was with the support of the National Party members on that committee. But the Women's Network has been amazing. We just, for the first time ever, co-sponsored a Member's Bill with multiple Members. So it was women from across the House and passed it unanimously. It was on female genital mutation, so updating New Zealand's law and standing with women in those marginalised communities.

It is about standing up for them. Trying to change the culture, whether it is online culture, whether it is in politics or media.


Overall, how different was your experience in Parliament to what you expected going in?

It probably didn't differ much. I expected it to be challenging and diverse. I knew 'okay, I am going to have to go in and do speeches and do media', and that wasn't something I had done previously in law. But I wasn't expecting it to be as adversarial as it is. I think what is a real shame about our political culture is that people aren't really always listening to each other when we are supposed to be there to debate issues and come to an agreement. In a courtroom, you do debate issues and you have an outcome that falls somewhere in the middle, or whatever it is, it is after listening to both sides, that an outcome happens. I don't think that is happening in Parliament. I think it is very party political.

What would be your advice for any new MPs?

Our democracy is so precious. It is so, so important for us to take seriously the voices of all of the people who have come together and voted for us. They want us to work together. Having experienced MMP, I kinda have so much respect for that.

When you first entered Parliament, was there anyone you were starstruck by?

Jacinda, well the Prime Minister, I had known from around Auckland Central campaigns. I had campaigned for the Greens and she had been there so we kinda knew each other and it was like 'hi' (laughs). I don't know if I was starstruck but it is a really humbling experience to sit in that environment and get to speak and interact with people who have also been elected.

Who from the other side of politics would you like to take out for lunch?

Probably Nikki Kaye. It's a shame that she has left because I do like Nikki and I know her dad as he's a barrister. I think she was a really valuable member of the National Party team.

Bill English had his walk-run, some MPs go cycling, did you have any exercise routines during your term?

Yes, I was in the MPs walking group. It was run by Ruth Dyson, who has just stepped down as well so we are going to take it over. It was Priyanka Radhakrishnan, Anahila Kanongata'a-Suisuiki, Willow-Jean Prime. She was a stalwart. When I say MP walking group it was like three people. I can think of six people who regularly switched in and out. Tamati Coffey would come sometimes. 

What's your favourite food at Copperfield's Cafe in Parliament?

It is pretty nice food actually. They have theme nights. But my favourite food is probably from Where's Charlie, which is downstairs, just outside and it's Vietnamese.