Sarah Cui interviews Chlöe Swarbrick, the youngest Member of Parliament in New Zealand for the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. Friday, November 6, Swarbrick was officially confirmed as electorate MP for Auckland Central, beating the Labour candidate by just over a thousand votes. Auckland Central is the second ever electorate for the Green Party. Chlöe Swarbrick talks change, young people in politics and the results of the referendum on cannabis legalization.

On her win

Swarbrick: “The Greens have not had an electorate MP for just over 21 years. Our first ever electorate MP Jeanette Fitzsimons, the founding female co-leader of the party, who actually sadly passed earlier this year, […], Jeannette was one of those wonderful, matriarchs and stewards of the party and of activism, who took me under her wing when I first joined the party. […] She greeted all young people that came into advocacy with an immense amount of enthusiasm and wisdom. So it is a real, kind of, salient moment I think, in the year that we lost Jeannette, to have won Auckland Central, our second ever and only electorate. So that meant quite a lot.”

“But we also, in MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) history, have completely defied the usual trajectory of so-called smaller parties […] The Greens completely bucked that trend, after our first term in Parliament between 2017 to 2020, we had 8 members of parliament, and just with this election gone, have increased that to 10 members of Parliament. So we are not only the first MMP party to have gone into and come out of, and now forming government again, to have stayed above the 5% threshold, but also the only [party] to have increased their vote. So you have to say that from that moment, there is quite a sense of jubilation.”

“But on top of that, probably quite worth noting that alongside the centre-left Labour Party, which as of the special votes being confirmed, has themselves confirmed a majority […]. Typically the Greens and the Labour vote are somewhat tied to each other that as one goes up, the other goes down. But what you saw in this election was that both went up. So I think that speaks again to some fascinating, zeitgeisty thing that’s going on with people realizing a potential for change as communities, and particularly in the context of COVID-19, more of a focus on, or awareness of, how we are only as strong as our most vulnerable.”

On being a young person in Parliament

With reference to the “OK Boomer” response that went viral:

Swarbrick: I think it’s important to contextualize how this happens, because sometimes things end up whittled down into sound bites […]. I was in Parliament speaking on the Zero Carbon Bill, now Act […]. I was speaking as a member of the Environment Select Committee […]. It was also coming just after one of the really big school strikes, we had tens of thousands of young people take to the streets in one of the largest marches we’d seen in this country since the Transpacific Partnership Agreement projects.”

“So all of these things were in the back of my mind, and I also had just met with some school strikers […], who were speaking about how important it was that their voices were heard and felt inside of Parliament. And this was also coinciding with […] a burgeoning campaign to lower the voting age here, the so-called ‘Make it 16’ campaign. So all of these things were occurring, and I was speaking in Parliament about how all of these young people were taking to the streets, because they do not have a formal method of engaging in our democracy. And it also felt really frustrating that all of these actions had taken place out in the real world, yet in the kind of Ivory Tower, there wasn’t any meaningful recognition of these mass citizen movements.”

“So speaking to how these were spearheaded by young people in particular, who didn’t have a voice inside of our democracy […] and how the average age of our parliament is 50 years old. And you obviously can’t use super broad brushstrokes, but typically that speaks to your time horizons, thinking about decisions and the tail end of them, isn’t necessarily as long as those younger people […].”

And I was talking about all these things and about how I was the youngest in Parliament […], and by the way, I am still, even though we’ve just gone through another election and I am now 26 years old, I am still the youngest one in Parliament, which speaks to the direction of travel still needing to continue.”

“But, I was then heckled by the spokesperson of the opposition on Climate Change, about my age, to which I responded. That then became this massive meme, and flashpoint, which garnered very peculiarly international attention, as well as kicking off a debate around intergenerational warfare here in Aotearoa.

And I found that really interesting as somebody who has had to constantly justify their position inside of parliament by virtue of my age. And I think anybody who has ever occupied the space […] as a minority in any given space probably does, when you stick out like a sore thumb like that, prove yourself in a level and on a way that others who assume the space of the stereotype, don’t.”

“And to the point of your question around do I feel now as though I’ve gained some greater semblance of legitimacy or validity or otherwise, it’s a hard question to answer because no, not really. Not only am I young, not only am I a woman, not only am I queer, but I’m also a Green. And I think when you sit in a space in politics, what needs to be […] a cutting edge of the debate around policy and politics, and trying to ground that in people’s experiences, it is so important to not, you know, rest on your privilege. So I think as soon as it starts to feel comfortable, it’d probably be time for me to leave. So, not quite comfortable, and don’t plan on being anytime soon.”

On a career in politics

Swarbrick: “Well first things first, I don’t see this as a career. I think as soon as somebody begins to envision it as a career, that’s when you begin to become quite tied to your personal survival in this space. […] Inside of Parliament on a daily basis, you’re kind of making a decision of which one of the two sides of the seesaw, or a scale, you’re wanting to emphasize or place weight on.

One of those is change, and the other one is your career. And effectively, if you place emphasis on self-preservation, then you are of course, giving up some of that potential for change. Whereas if you are opting to stick your neck out and fight for change, to a certain extent that can be career limiting.”

“So for me, always, I have seen my role as in the space of change. But you know, I am a very working class kid, like I’m one of the first, in three generations, first woman in my family to not have had a baby by 20, first person in my family to go to university. […] Politics and parliament were just completely outside the realm of anything that was ever considered.

Like, I’m a high school dropout, who has tattoos and swears too much. Like I’m not the kind of person who was born and bred, let alone supposed to be anywhere near the institutions of power. But that’s kind of the point, right? I feel very privileged to be now in this position, where I’ve never had to pretend to be anything other than I am […].”

On protest and reform

Swarbrick: “In tandem with the point around youth, when I first ran in 2016 for the Auckland Mayoralty, which was more than anything, kind of a protest. And I was asked about that by journalists at the time, who were like “ah, you know this is just a protest surely” […], as though it was synonymous with a joke, a joke candidacy. And I had this moment when I was like, I don’t think protest is a joke, I think protest is one of the most legitimate, time honoured means to bring about a flashpoint for change, conversation and cultural shift.”

“And that was also when I first came to realize the interconnections between social, or structural rather, and cultural change. Culture, from a design thinking perspective, is about a shared set of values, […], which is why you are able to have societies which are incredibly diverse, but still inclusive […].

So when you think about culture in that way, you are able to start thinking about culture and cultural touchpoints like education, media, protests, community building, collective action, as a way to facilitate awareness, which is effectively the glue, or producing an environment that is conducive to structural change. And structure is supposedly the bread and butter of politician, but it’s things like legislation, regulation, funding, taxations, incentives subsidies […]. Even treaties, international treaties and domestic, particularly amongst the Indigenous peoples here in Aotearoa, which is not being honoured properly.”

“But nonetheless, those two things, and that space for cultural engagement, and being a journalist, and working in small business, and being a community organizer, is where I spent most of my time […]. And that’s where I feel like I have immense privilege, in coming into a role like this, falling down that rabbit hole through protest, is because I have a perspective that isn’t just focused on how, you know of course I wanna change laws, of course I wanna change the taxation system, but I realized the way that you do that is by building consensus, the way you do that is by distributing and redistributing power to communities.”

See the full interview for Chlöe Swarbrick‘s advice for young people joining politics, and on the results of the cannabis legalization referendum.

Sarah Cui

Sarah Cui is in her fourth year of undergraduate studies in Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. Her background is intercultural, having grown up in both Ottawa and northwestern China. Her areas of interest include environmental policy, degrowth and conservation. In her free time, Sarah enjoys connecting with friends, hiking, identifying plants and learning a new language.

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