Greens MP and Auckland Central candidate Chlöe Swarbrick gets candid about the gate-keeping of power and why we need to harness the power of young voters.
“The key thing to realise about politics is that… so much of it is bullshit,” Chlöe Swarbrick says. “And it’s intentionally bullshit – it’s gate-keeping. There is a lot of use and enforcement of terminology and jargon that is used to keep people out and keep certain people in positions of power and wealth and I just… hate it. I feel like it’s the antithesis of democracy.”
A member of the Greens, Chlöe is running in the Auckland Central Electorate in the upcoming election and her office is a glass-doored, green-tinted box sitting on a very busy stretch of Karangahape Road in Auckland’s CBD. In just 20 minutes of sitting inside the green box, you get a very real window into what it is like to be this specific politician.
A postie drops off a courier package, which Chlöe receives with a cheerful “Kia Ora” and then informs me it’s a ‘people against prisons’ hoodie that might, she laughs dryly, piss some people off. A 20-something man stops by with his bike, wanting to know if he can apply to have a Chlöe Swarbrick campaign sign on the balcony of his apartment. “Do you want a small one, or do you want one of the f—k-off big ones?” Chlöe says, gesturing at the two options on offer. This guy, clearly a fan, clearly someone who is very aware of who Chlöe is as a person, still wears a facial expression that can really only be described as a ‘I can’t believe the teacher just swore’ grin.
Throughout our chat, Chlöe manages to exude a Zen-like coolness while simultaneously radiating a simmering, impatient fury at just how damn slow her day job can be at creating change. It’s one of the many, many things she doesn’t like about politics. It’s not built for women, it’s not built for young people, it’s not built for getting shit done, fast. At 26, Chlöe is a Gen Z-er – a generation that is hyper aware of just how much work there is to get done before the clock (read: planet) runs out.
“One of the big things I push back against all the time is the notion that young people are apathetic. Young people are not apathetic, they just don’t believe in the system. They don’t believe it can deliver change, it doesn’t look like them, it doesn’t sound like them. Same with the vast swathes of minorities and marginalised communities,” she says.
“But the thing with people feeling disenfranchised and disenchanted is that it almost becomes self-fulfilling. People tap out of the system, which is the only system we currently have… and by doing so, they perpetuate the very system they loathe. The only way to change that is to engage in voting or political representation or running or campaigning – otherwise you simply don’t realise you’re giving a hall pass to bad behaviour.”
It was this desire to engage that saw Chlöe run for Auckland mayor four years ago. When she looks back on her 22-year-old self, Chlöe laughs at how ‘po-faced’ she appeared in all of her appearances. “I don’t know what it was about that stage of my life, but I took everything very seriously… and I do still take everything very seriously,” she says.
“I still am deeply earnest and idealistic but perhaps a little bit more approachable. I’ve probably loosened up a bit and found myself, in the form of advocacy I’m operating in. Originally, I was very conscious that nobody took me seriously – because they didn’t. That was why I came into it with such visible armour.”
It was part of what turned Chlöe into such a marketing force – she realised very quickly that the mainstream media wasn’t going to take her seriously either. “I put out policies – which were really freaking detailed – and [the media] was like, ‘Yeah… do you know if you’re the youngest ever candidate?’ I didn’t really want to be there. I don’t know why I was doing it. I just really believed in something and wanted one of my mates to do it instead, but they wouldn’t. And then I just fell down a rabbit hole.”
It would be a stretch to call parliament a wonderland but Chlöe has managed to not only make the infamously structured and old-fashioned system not only work for her, but also work for her constituents. At her latest volunteer event, her office was packed out by volunteers until it was standing room only. People give a shit about Chlöe and her politics because Chlöe and her politics give a shit about them.
“This is the campaign that I’ve always wanted to run. We have massive community buy-in… and that is what I think politics should be. From doing it as a 22-year-old who had no idea what the hell they were doing and felt like they were taking on the world alone, to now coming to a place where I’ve found myself in the midst of a far better movement… we’re in a very different space.”
Parliament itself is another matter. The old-fashioned language required, the dress code… Chlöe says she has a constant fantasy that someone will try and pull her up for wearing sneakers in parliament – a space that requires ‘business attire’ – and that she will retaliate by telling them she wore this exact outfit when she worked in business.
“That’s just a lame little fantasy… which shows how messed up parliament is. All of those little things are indicative of how it is a moderating force. Being inside something that doesn’t celebrate creativity or collaboration, it is a system designed for people to fight and throw the baby out with the bathwater, because somebody else’s [party] colour is attached to it.”
I ask her what she does if she ever starts to feel like she’s getting disillusioned with the process and she shoots me a look. “I am very disillusioned,” she laughs dryly. “A lot of people say to me now, ‘Oh, you’re really cynical,’ and I say, ‘That’s why I’m here, that’s why I got into this.’ I’m thankful I came into this with my eyes wide open, but I’m also very grateful I never pretended to be anything other than what I am – which is somebody that is rough around the edges.”
“The broad binary that I use to try and explain it is every day, in the role of a politician, you get to pick one of two things to emphasis or prioritise: either your career, or change. And if you choose one, you sacrifice some of the other.”
During New Zealand’s Covid-19 lockdown, however, we got to see how quickly some change can happen. “All of these things that we had been told were politically impossible – or just impossible, full stop – suddenly weren’t. Like raising core benefits for our most impoverished people, housing people on the street, flexible working arrangements for people with disabilities or sole parents…. That exposed all of those things as simply a matter of political willpower. Everything we knew changed virtually overnight. And it can again. And it can keep doing that. And that’s a way of perceiving our politics – not as a barrier to change, but as having the facility to make it happen.”
As a way of keeping in contact with her community during Level 4 and Level 3, Chlöe did a Facebook Live video every day (much to the horror of her partner, she jokes). “It was a nice sense of routine but also that kind of documentation of what felt like a very alien space to be in… there is an importance in shared experience and facilitating that conversation. And particularly with the privilege of the platform of I’ve got, being able to remind people that they’re not doing things alone has been really important. That has kind of flowed into my mental health work as well.”
Chlöe has been open in the past about her struggles with depression but there is another side of mental health that she thinks is important to consider. “There is this real way of framing success in 2020 – and throughout the 2000s – as ‘you get to the top and then you have time to relax.’ Or that mental wellbeing is about still working your 80-hour week but you know, get a massage!? And not realising how we have commodified and individualised mental wellbeing that has made it part of the fabric of the problem.”
She cites how emotionally exhausting it can be to live in a world where you care about too many things, and how that’s the reason so many young activists get burnt out. “Hopefully this experience [with Covid-19] has enabled us to empathise with the situations of others but also realise how deeply unsustainable our day to day lives are right now. I don’t just mean on an individual level, I mean systemically.
“We’re always like ‘how do we get more women into positions of power or onto more Fortune 500 boards or whatever…’ we’re never talking about how do we change the system that makes that more plausible, because actually we expect women right now to tick all of these boxes and do all of these things in order to fit into an inherently patriarchal structure that was never designed for women… Unless we make it accessible for everybody, it’s always going to be an exclusionary process.”
Whether it’s deliberate or not, that’s been one of the side benefits of Chlöe’s time in politics – she’s managed to make it look more possible for a lot of people to see themselves in that world, who otherwise wouldn’t. There’s a reason why her volunteer events are packed out, why she has almost unparalleled name recognition in her field.
She’s managed the near impossible, making our democracy almost look democratic – and in only four years. She’s not sure how long her political career will be – “I’m not built to be a diplomat,” she laughs – but is dead-set on squeezing the life out of it while she can. “There will be others that will come through the door and that enables you to realise that the kaupapa is bigger than any one person, which means that the weight of the world isn’t just on your shoulders. And that makes me feel a lot more comfortable.”