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Louisa Wall (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)
Louisa Wall (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

PoliticsJuly 24, 2021

‘Don’t tell me how to run the ball’: Louisa Wall on forging her own path in politics

Louisa Wall (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)
Louisa Wall (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

She’s more visible than many cabinet ministers, but Louisa Wall languishes on the Labour backbench. Justin Giovannetti catches up with the outspoken MP and asks: why is she not getting the promotions?

It’s hard to imagine someone better placed to be at the heart of a progressive centre-left government than an articulate Māori woman with a stellar human rights record at parliament, who’s also a member of the LGBTQI+ community and a garlanded athlete who has represented her country in multiple sports.

There’s already one MP who fits the bill. So why is Labour keeping Louisa Wall far on the backbench?

Wall is a bit of an enigma in Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government. The party has given the 49-year-old MP no titles, she has no ministries to command or select committees to run. Despite that, she’s more visible than many cabinet members and outspoken in a caucus that’s generally reticent.

During a decade in parliament, she’s also had one of the most successful runs of private member’s bills in recent history. The bills, which come from individual MPs and aren’t a product of the government of the day, are pulled from a biscuit tin every few weeks.

From the tin, Wall’s proposals have legalised same-sex marriage in New Zealand, and are soon going to create safe zones around abortion providers, ban revenge porn and empower communities to block alcohol sales near schools.

Beyond her work in parliament, Wall has been in the public eye in recent weeks because of her public statements on China. Where the government has generally been reluctant to protest the Chinese government’s crushing of democracy in Hong Kong or treatment of its Uyghur minority, Wall has been critical and direct.

Earlier this month, she accused the Chinese government of harvesting organs from the country’s political prisoners, including the Falun Gong, and using millions of Uyghurs as slave labour. Both positions were deeply at odds with the government’s take and the prime minister distanced herself from Wall.

Despite that, she isn’t a lone crank operating from the back of parliament. In recent years, she’s amassed a growing number of responsibilities overseas that give her words added heft. A month ago she was warned that she was at risk of a Chinese cyber attack for her advocacy work. 

To those close to Wall, none of this is surprising. They describe her as well-researched, nearly immune to a backlash and utterly devoted to what she believes in. Less charitably, she could be described as stubborn.

Speaking with The Spinoff during parliament’s winter break, Wall made it clear she isn’t done yet doing what she thinks is right. She has a seat on the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee at parliament and intends to use it to support women, indigenous groups and human rights across the Pacific. That’s her mandate, she says.

“If you give me the ball, don’t tell me how to run the ball. It’s my ball, I will choose,” she says. “I’m relentless in pursuing that objective and it’ll be hard to dissuade me.”

The former Black Fern, who was named the country’s best female rugby player a year before helping win the 1998 World Cup, has a tendency to return to sports metaphors. 

With a strong background in team-based sports, including four years with the Silver Ferns, it can seem unusual to see her run far ahead of her Labour teammates. No one in the party caucus is putting out statements in support of her international positions. According to Wall, you’d be wrong to see Labour as her team.

“I’ve got team members who I’m working with, but they aren’t necessarily other politicians. And when they are other politicians, they aren’t always in Labour. On my China work, that team is the Falun Gong and Uyghur diasporas who call New Zealand home,” she says.

Louisa Wall in action for the Black Ferns against Australia in 1998 (Photo: Ross Land/Getty Images)

From gold medal to MP

Wall first entered parliament in 2008 to fill a vacancy on Labour’s list. She’d spent a decade in the party before that, showing up as a delegate at policy councils, chairing a branch of the party and fundraising. Helen Clark sent her to events in Auckland that the then prime minister couldn’t attend herself.

It was a short stint. Labour was ousted by John Key’s National Party later that year and Wall lost her seat, joining a number of MPs forced from the chamber, including current trade minister Damien O’Connor and NZ First leader Winston Peters.

She came back to fill a list vacancy in 2011 and was elected in Manurewa later that year.

A year later, a point at which many young MPs are still finding their way around the parliamentary precinct, Wall’s first private member’s bill was drawn from the biscuit tin. All MPs outside cabinet get to put forward private bills. Many of them are passion projects, some respond to local needs. While all MPs would argue their proposals are important, some are more so than others – one idea currently in the tin would extend expiry dates on gift cards.

The Wall proposal that was pulled in 2012 would legalise same sex marriage.

“I had all my learning in one go, to be frank. It was a private member’s bill so I didn’t have much support from the whip, so I had to do it alone with the people in my office. I learned quickly that there were a lot of people opposed to the proposition of any two people being allowed to marry,” she says.

The young MP, who was in opposition after only two years in parliament, was going it alone to upend the institution of marriage. She got “thousands and thousands” of pieces of correspondence, mostly from religious groups unhappy with her proposal.

What she learned then has stuck with her. She found ways of working with MPs across the aisle to ensure a majority for the conscience vote. And she learned to ignore the hate, she told The Spinoff. At the next election, she held onto Manurewa but lost 7% of the vote.

Marilyn Waring, the National MP who famously triggered a snap election that brought down the Muldoon government, supervised Wall as she did her master’s thesis in social policy. Waring says her former student has shown a knack for cross-party leadership and for using evidence to push her positions. “You have to have courage,” says Waring. 

The marriage equality bill is now not only law, but has wide support across society. “When people have left parliament in recent years, they’ve said that voting against that legislation was their main regret. That says something,” says Waring.

Nick Smith, who retired from parliament in June, apologised for voting against the bill in his final speech.

Waring hasn’t been in parliament since 1984, but now advises the World Health Organisation and teaches. Asked if Wall’s record is unusual – shouldn’t all MPs aim to arrive in parliament and pass weighty legislation that changes the country? – Waring laughs. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful? She’s in a certain position with very limited power, but she is prepared to put her neck out and use it. She understands all that’s required in the system to make things happen.”

Louisa Wall is congratulated by her colleagues during the third reading and vote on the Marriage Equality Bill in April 2013 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Sometimes a stopover changes your life

In 2019, Wall’s love of sports and advocacy for LGBTQ issues came together to push her in an unexpected direction. 

She was invited to Tokyo to speak about marriage equality during the Rugby World Cup and her flight took her through Hong Kong. While most people use a stopover to sleep or see the sights, Wall learned about the rapidly escalating situation as the Chinese government chipped away at democratic rights in the former British colony.

“I was really aware of what was happening there. Then a few months later, China’s treatment of people there and its threats to democracy became a big international issue. The last governor general of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, issued an international statement and I was asked to sign it. I did. And that’s where a lot happened,” Wall says.

She was soon contacted and told that despite the statement being sent to the entire Labour Party caucus, she was the only MP to sign it. A group called the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) asked if she’d like to join.

“I looked at what they believe in: democracy, human rights, rule of law. Who would say no to that?” Wall says. “A lot of the work I do starts like that.”

She’s now a co-chair of the group along with National MP Simon O’Connor. The two agree about very little in parliament, but according to Wall, they work well in the group. It isn’t an unusual position in the alliance. Across the world, it has brought together politicians in odd couples that generally don’t agree, from UK Conservatives and Labour, to American Republicans and Democrats.

Along with her position in the alliance, the number of hats that Wall can be wearing on any given day multiply quickly. Even the prime minister sometimes confuses what group her outspoken MP was commenting for. “Was it IPAC or the IPU,” she once mused in a scrum, responding to a question about the MP.

Wall is the chair of New Zealand’s contribution to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international body that advocates for democracy. She’s in the Commonwealth women’s parliamentary group, and is also involved in bodies that advocate on West Papua, tuberculosis, women, human rights, the sexual exploitation of children and population control. She also keeps her arms active as co-captain of parliament’s netball team, the Parly Ferns. The last one is a little less serious.

“People have no idea what the IPU work is,” she says. “We had a digital conference and for two weeks I was in meetings from 11 to three in the morning. Then I had select committee in the morning and I’d be there.”

The international commitments mean that along with criticism of China, she has concerns about the Hungarian government’s moves to crack down on LGBTQ groups and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent decision to take his country out of a convention protecting women.

As Wall sees it, all these jobs are what she brings to New Zealand, along with her ongoing success at private member’s bills. She highlights similar issues as foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta as her priorities, namely indigenous rights. If New Zealanders aren’t pleased with Mahuta’s work, they can always turn to Wall.

“The issue is I get the mandate and I take it to spaces that no one has ever thought about, and I have and will use my mandate of IPAC to highlight issues,” she says. “I take it incredibly seriously. There’s also an indigenous dimension around the Uyghurs, Tibetans and other minority groups in China. I will continue to advocate in that context.”

Louisa Wall on the health select committee in 2019 (Photo: Radio NZ/ Phil Smith)

Dropping to the list

The Labour Party has not responded to Wall’s positions with promotions.

Last year, Wall lost her spot as MP for the Manurewa electorate in circumstances that still aren’t clear to outsiders. She was nominated as candidate by the local committee, but the Labour Party decided instead that Arena Williams could run for the seat, despite filing her paperwork too late. Williams, who is close to deputy prime minister Grant Robertson, got the nod for the seat and Wall chose to run on the list instead, but there were reports that she was pursuing legal action against her own party over losing the seat.

“It was an interesting process and I eventually decided to step aside and become a list MP. I think the primary point I want to make is that my local electorate committee nominated me to be the candidate for Manurewa,” says Wall, adding that the local body was enthusiastic and financially stable. However, she wouldn’t comment on what happened next.

“We got to a point where I decided to become a list MP. That’s enough said.”

Dave Tims, a local organiser in south Auckland, says Wall continues to be a presence despite moving over to the list.

“She has a real passion and heart for her people and Pasifika, and that desire to see people flourish who often miss out. She has come to our graduations, she often talks to only small crowds, she’s not going after a big profile. She gives up her nights to do that,” he says.

As Labour won a majority and expanded the size of its cabinet and control of committees, Wall’s spot on the foreign affairs committee was not hotly contested in a government focused on domestic issues.

Along with her international work, Wall is pushing through a bill on harmful digital communications that, along with tackling revenge porn, could make New Zealand the first country in the world to legislate the use of deep fakes.

“The biggest challenge for me is the limitation of a member’s bill – it isn’t a comprehensive review of harmful digital communications,” she says. One way to get around that limitation would be a spot in cabinet.

Earlier this month, Wall had to be given a slot by National to speak in parliament about suicide after Labour denied her one. Wall had been a founding member of the group responsible for the suicide report being debated and was deeply involved in the process.

However, Labour whip Kieran McAnulty said the governing party’s speaking slots were allocated to “the most relevant ministers”. Those ministers hadn’t been part of the process. Shane Reti, National’s deputy leader, gave her his speaking position when he learned that Wall was being shut out.

Asked why a Labour MP had to go to the opposition to speak, Ardern told reporters she “had no issue that cross-party slots were being shared”. Which didn’t answer the question, but implied that Ardern might have criticised the opposition for allowing her own MP to speak in parliament.

Wall’s absence from cabinet was also not directly addressed by the PM, other than to say that the line had to be drawn somewhere.

“There’s obviously a significant number of MPs who are – not because of skill set, but just simply because of the number available to take up those – not ministers. I’d say there are many more people in our caucus generally who have the skills and ability to be ministers who are not because we only have 20 of them,” Ardern told reporters earlier this month.

Is Wall being punished? “No,” said Ardern.

Cabinet members need to abide by strict rules of confidentiality and must toe the party line. Would Wall be willing to give up her positions to sit around the big table at the top of the Beehive?

“There’s merit in being an MP wherever you are in the system. Some people go in with an aspiration for a title – that’s never been my aspiration,” she told The Spinoff. “You could lead through action or because you have the job title.”

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