Profile with Holly Walker

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Holly Walker (New Zealand & University College 2007) is a member of the New Zealand House of Representatives with the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. She has previously worked as an analyst at the Office of Treaty Settlements in Wellington and as a media advisor to New Zealand’s Green Party. She holds a BA in English and Politics from the University of Otago in Dunedin and an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in Petone?

Holly Walker: Petone, for those who don’t know, is an up and coming suburb of Wellington, where I live. It has fantastic café culture and great shops. It has really good arthouse cinema and it’s starting to develop a bit of nightlife as well, which is very different from what it was like when I grew up there. It’s changed a lot in my lifetime. My favorite thing to do is, on a Sunday morning, walk into town along the beach and have brunch at one of the cafés. They make excellent coffee which Wellington and New Zealand are very famous for. We have what’s called a “flat white” – which most people haven’t heard of – but it’s the best type of coffee and they do it very well in Petone.

Rhodes Project: What is your preferred mode of transport?

Holly Walker: At the moment it’s the middle of winter in New Zealand. It’s cold, rainy and very windy. I couldn’t, with all honesty, say it’s my bike – given the present time. But generally speaking it’s my bicycle. During the summer months I try to ride to work as often as I can. I’m actually part of an organization called Frocks on Bikes, which originated here in New Zealand—in Wellington. It’s all about encouraging women to cycle more and to see cycling as something they can do as part of their everyday life. They don’t have to wear Lycra and have a super fast racing bike to do it. You can do it in your everyday clothes or, in fact, in a really fabulous frock. So that’s what I try to model. I use my bike, wear my work clothes and bike to work as much as I can. But, yeah, in winter, not so much.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite author?

Holly Walker: This one will be very obscure for people. When I was growing up I read a quartet of young adult novels by a New Zealand writer called Tessa Duder. They’re about a fifteen-year-old swimmer who goes to the Rome 1960 Olympics. It’s essentially about being a young, strong, talented woman during the 50s in a time when it was quite unusual for women to achieve in sports, to be outspoken, and to break the mould of traditional femininity. As a teenager, I found those books incredibly influential.  I can still return to them and read them over and over again. It’s a bit of a light choice of favorite authors – if I’m being honest – but it’s still true.

Rhodes Project: When did you know you wanted to go into politics?

Holly Walker: I think I first started to think about it after I’d finished my undergraduate study at the University of Otago. I spent a year as the editor of a student magazine.  At the end of that time, I thought I would probably go into journalism. I applied to journalism school and was accepted. But I started to have second thoughts. I was thinking about the fact that to be a news journalist, you have to be incredibly neutral and you can’t express a lot of your personal opinions about topical issues. I found that I had such strong opinions about topical issues—particularly political issues—that that career, which had always appealed to me in the past, didn’t actually appeal much anymore. So I took a bit of a risk in turning down my place at journalism school and instead came to work at the parliamentary office of the Green Party. I got grounding in politics that way and loved it. I think I got the sense at that stage that I was going to need a career that allowed me to express my views and to stand up for what I believed in very strongly. Later that year, I applied for the Rhodes Scholarship and was lucky enough to be awarded it, so then I had that fantastic experience in Oxford. Upon returning to New Zealand I came and worked for the Green Party straight away. It really felt like the right thing to be doing and the right place to put my energies. Then working here in the role of a political advisor to the members of Parliament, I saw them in their everyday work. I watched what they did in Parliament and in the community and I found that it really appealed to me. I started to think that I would like to do that as well. So I started the process of becoming a candidate and was lucky enough to be elected.

Rhodes Project: What is an average day at work like?

Holly Walker: It’s very full. That’s the first thing I would say. They are very long days. They start early and they finish late. But that is bearable because they are very varied. What I like about being in Parliament is that, although the basic structure of a day in Parliament is always the same, in terms of the hours that the House sits and the processes that it goes through, the issues that you’ll be considering, whether it’s in a select committee meeting or debating a piece of legislation in the House or asking a question to a minister, are different every day. It gives me the opportunity to understand a wide range of issues that are affecting New Zealand society at the moment.

There is also an incredible level of access to people who are experts in their fields, whether they come to meet with us to tell us about what they’re working on or, on the days that Parliament isn’t sitting, we leave here to visit organizations in the community.  These can be businesses, schools, NGOs, etc. We have an incredible level of access as members of Parliament. People are always very happy to welcome us into their organizations and tell us about their work. I find that really stimulating because they’re doing fantastic work. It’s an honor as a Member of Parliament to be able to have that level of access, to ask those questions, and to learn all of that from those people. Full on, because of the variety of people and organizations that we come across, but it’s very stimulating.

Rhodes Project:  What is a piece of advice that has helped you in your work?

Holly Walker: When I was elected, we had an induction for new members of Parliament. A departing member of Parliament spoke at our induction. He said, “My advice to you as new Members of Parliament is to think about this as an extension of your education.  Think about it as going to university again. You will have access to world-leading expertise, whether it’s from the people who come together or the committees or organizations that you meet”.  For example, I’ve been lucky enough to do placements with different businesses in New Zealand. For three to five days, I’ll be shown around. I see all elements of the business, meet the chief executive, and meet all the key managers, who tell me everything there is to know about the business. It’s an incredible privilege that I can learn so much from. So I really have taken that advice to heart and tried to treat my time in Parliament like an educational experience. It’s a fantastic opportunity to be given, and I try to make the most of it.

I can offer you one other piece of advice that one of my colleagues gave me, which was to say that the times that she has felt the most effective in her job as a Member of Parliament and felt like the job was most manageable, were the times when she had something else in her life that she could do outside of Parliament. It’s usually something creative. In addition to the very full-on work that we do here–and this applies to many different professions that are very intense–it is very easy to live to work.  I think you can actually be more effective at your job if you have an effective balance with other parts of your life. Having some kind of creative outlet is probably really important. I don’t know if I’ve got that quite yet. I’m still new in the job and trying to get my head around it. I probably work more than I should and have fewer creative outlets than I should. It’s something I’d like to address because I think that was a really good piece of advice.

Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you in life?  

Holly Walker: At a very general level, I would say that waste frustrates me–waste in all senses of the word. In a practical sense, I am frustrated by the amount of rubbish that the human race is producing, not recycling, and unnecessarily putting into the environment. In a much more general sense: wasted potential, wasted talent, wasted time.  I guess I’m thinking of it through the lens of Parliament as well. I feel like there is a lot of time wasted on things that aren’t the most important issues we need to be discussing. That frustrates me greatly.

Rhodes Project: What would readers on our site be surprised to learn about you?

Holly Walker: When I was the editor of the Otago University student magazine in 2005, I published an issue of the magazine that was subsequently deemed objectionable by the New Zealand chief censor. While I’m certain that there are no longer any copies around, it would technically be an offence to possess one to this day. I won’t go into what the content was – suffice it to say that with the benefit of eight years’ hindsight, it was a mistake to publish it and I wouldn’t do it if I was making the same decision today. But it’s good to know that it’s okay to be wrong and change your mind later –something all politicians should be willing to do more!

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your role models?

Holly Walker: I think the number one–and probably one that people say all the time but is still absolutely true for me–is my mother. When I was born, for various reasons which have been long since forgiven in our family, she found herself on her own with a small baby. That would have been extremely stressful and difficult for her. Yet, as a child growing up, I never had any sense of the strain that she must have been under. She provided the most fantastic childhood for me that I could possibly ask for. Every need was met. All of her love and attention was lavished on me, at least until she met my stepdad a few years later! She was training as a kindergarten teacher, so she was able to use me as her guinea pig for her assignments about early childhood education. So I had this incredible experience as a child, and I really do think that that has set me in good stead for my entire life. I can’t give her enough credit for that, so my number one role model would have to be her.

When I was in Oxford I had the privilege of meeting and working with Ngaire Woods, who is now the Dean of the School of Government at Oxford University. She is another New Zealand Rhodes Scholar. I found her incredibly impressive. She is very warm and dynamic, interesting to talk to, very approachable and doing some incredible work. She certainly had a big influence on me during my time at Oxford.

I know that most of the readers on the site are international, but most of my examples are New Zealanders.  They are people like Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008. She was the first woman elected Prime Minister in New Zealand. She’s now the head of the United Nations development program.  I come from a different political party from Helen Clark, so there were things I found disappointing about her government from a policy perspective and areas in which I wish they had done more. But she did an incredible job as Prime Minister. The poise and calm which she managed in such a stressful job and the contributions she has now gone on to make on the international stage are very inspirational.

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