Last week, Critic's co-editor Joe Higham sat down with Green Party candidate for the Maungakiekie electorate (and 7th on the party list) Chlöe Swarbrick to discuss the election campaign, the treatment of former co-leader Metiria Turei, and the fact that she sees a real need for a revolutionary change to New Zealand's current political system.
Joe Higham: How do you see the campaign going so far?
Chlöe Swarbrick: That’s is a big question. There are a lot of moving parts. I don’t think anyone can say that this election is boring anymore. You know I said a few months ago that we were sleepwalking into this election and it has definitely all changed now. The feeling I’m getting out in the community when I’m door-knocking is that the movement for change is quite palpable, but the ground is very volatile, so nobody’s got any idea how this election is going to turn out, and what that means is that every single vote counts.
For the Greens in particular, to be totally upfront, yes it’s been rough, but at the same time we’ve really pulled together and galvanised and put in 110 percent. We’ve got some of the best people, we’ve definitely got amazing policy and I’m really hoping we see those results reflected on election night.
Do you worry that with the Greens having polled around 5 percent for a lot of the campaign period, voters will look at that and be thinking, ‘we’re not going to vote for them because of that.’
There is the potential there. What we have seen is totally is right-wing commentators coming out and doing their very best to try and encourage people not to vote for the Green Party. The problem there is that that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and ultimately, if we’re talking completely pragmatically, if the Greens were not to hit that five percent threshold, our vote would be redistributed around all of the major parties, or all of the parties, rather, who were in parliament, which would ultimately be three seats for National and three seats for Labour. So that’s the thing, if the Greens hit that five percent mark, it’s at least six seats that work towards a Labour-Greens coalition. I think this is the fundamental problem with a lack of civics education, and a lack of understanding of how MMP works in this country and that’s why I’m also really concerned about the way that info-tainment means the elections get framed as a presidential one.
Does this play into the personality vs. policy issue…
There’s a lot that can be said about that, but there are certainly individuals in this election who are banging on about policy as the only thing that matters, and of course it is really crucial and important, but in terms of policy you actually need strength of character and integrity and an ability to participate in diplomacy to be able to actually institute your policy. You can have the greatest policy in the world but if you’re unable to play with others you’re never going to get it across the line so I think character is really important and again
I would say that our track record on speaking about things that were deeply unpopular thirty years ago and opening the political window so we now have all of the mainstream parties onboard with decreasing inequality and impacting on climate change is a massive win but we really need the Greens in government to ensure that there’s actual action on that and it’s not just empty rhetoric.
I interviewed Metiria Turei here (in Governor’s Cafe) about a month ago. What did you take from the way she was treated as opposed to Bill English and John Key who did similar things electorally, but were treated substantially differently?
Oh man, it sucked. It was grotesque. It was as though someone smelled blood and everyone was just trying to scalp. That was what was devastating, to use Paddy’s [Patrick Gower] word. No one can deal with that level of scrutiny on their personal life. I think a lot of people probably, when they look at politicians...okay so this is the thing that really frustrated me about it. So subsequent to Metiria deciding to step down, the commentary then became that she didn’t play the game right. I personally am not in politics because I want to play this real polished game of political chess because the pawns are people's lives. And I’m just really gutted that we ironed out one of the first inklings of humanity that we saw and the greatest irony there is perhaps the fact that so many New Zealanders that I’ve spoken with talk about hating the game of politics, but we then reward the game of politics in the way Metiria was treated, so yeah man, it’s hard…
It did seemed as though it was a really good opportunity for the country to unite against the growing levels of inequality and poverty and that seemed like…
...Well, I think what we learned was that it’s really uncomfortable to talk about poverty in this country right now, but more than that it’s really uncomfortable to talk about privilege. I think that’s because the narrative is so entrenched, you know, it’s been obviously embedded in New Zealand society for the past 30 or 40 years, where we’ve tried to adopt this faux-American Dream and co-opted individualism and the dog-eat-dog world, if you’re not doing well you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of mentality, and that unto itself...I think it’s really bad for democracy because I think how it manifests is that the people who have the most to gain by voting are the least inclined to vote because they feel the most let down by the political system, and what happened [with Metiria Turei] probably reinforced that to be honest. The people who really just want to retain the status quo are those who are most inclined to vote, which is really dangerous. I just feel like people really need to be empowered and I think they need to keep protesting and agitating for that change.
Obviously last year I ran in the Auckland Mayoralty, and someone said, “you admitted that was a protest”, and it was like, “what do you mean I admitted that was a protest?” The connotations of that is, protest is not legitimate. Protests is totally legitimate. Collective action is totally legitimate...
It’s a dangerous trend isn’t? Protests being delegitimized…
Yes. It’s eroded the democratic levers to change things and yeah, you can have a legitimate protests with a legitimate outcome and that outcome would absolutely be disrupting the political system and last year that would’ve been becoming Auckland Mayor, and protest is a legitimate way to get there. I still think that’s got a lot to do with the psyche of NZ and the media plays a massive role in that, and either reinforce it or begin challenging challenges to the status quo. For example, a few years ago the TPPA protests, there was active scouting of people who fitted the stereotype who were put on the front pages, and headlines were things like: “protesters disrupting traffic” and not ‘New Zealanders protesting their rights and freedoms for the future of the country.’
Do you see that as symptomatic of the view that the media push which the public have just lapped up?
Particularly amongst some major parties there is some politics by polling, and politics by focus group too, and the thing there is that it’s reactionary and never sets the agenda. We have this feedback loop of perpetuating things but keeping them as they are, so I would say, and I genuinely believe this, for the majority of New Zealanders, perhaps 60 or 70 percent of them, things aren’t going to change all that much in their lives whether it’s the red team or the blue team who are in power. But for the other 30 or 40 percent, or at least for a lot of them it’s genuinely life or death. For a lot of them their life will be materially and immeasurably improved if the political system changes, but those are the people who have been alienated by politics, so it’s a chicken or egg scenario. I think the only way we’re going to change is to completely change the political system or to see a revolution. I don’t think I’m the best person to lead that revolution, but right now the system we have and whether you choose to participate in it, I think we need more, for lack of a better word, ‘normal people’ standing as politicians because that is the only thing that...if you have this tsunami of ‘normal people’ engaging in politics and standing to be politicians, then it’s fine to be human in politics, but right now because all of the politicians that are kind of archetypes are good at playing the game, that’s what we’ve come to expect.
Is that just a pipedream or do you see that as a genuinely realistic prospect?
I think that’s what the Green party are here to do. So around 20-30 years ago Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rob Donald fought for MMP. They were fighting for MMP off the back of some pretty knarly reforms in the 1980s, and this recognition of the fact that when you have a first past the post system, i.e to make monopoly parties, when you have those in a market place, they set controls on what can happen and what can change and I think in order to have accountability you have to have choice and I think that’s why MMP can be, and should be, brilliant, is because you have what we’ve come to dub as a misnomer and is another one of these self-fulfilling prophecies, is the ‘minor-parties’. They essentially exist to hold the major parties per se to account so our whole process of democratic selection of all of our candidates, which literally any Green Party member can put up their hand and say they want to stand really paves the way for transformative politics or at the very least transformative selection of candidates.
I wanted to ask you about your remarkable political success - 7th on the Green Party list at 23 years old, already run an Auckland Mayoral campaign, opened businesses, etc, etc. Do you look back and think about those successes or are you solely focused on your political future?
I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a successful person at all to be honest. I’ve failed a lot, you know? And I think failure is important and it’s important to bear in mind that if you want to do anything that’s interesting or different, failure is inevitable along the way. I don't think we’re primed enough in our education system for that, and if you push the boundaries you’re going to get knocked down and then have to get back up again - oh my god I’m quoting Bill English now - well he’s actually quoting someone else! Yeah so, I guess in terms of my trajectory, I left home when I was 17, I didn’t do year 13 at school, I was in a very odd headspace as a teenager. I’d had, and I’ll speak completely openly seeing as it’s already out there in the ether, I have had issues with anxiety and depression and basically just felt like a I had to try and find out who I was and that was probably the driving force there. It’s very weird now being at the front, because for a very long time I was trying to lift other people up, and I saw myself as trying to orchestrate and build communities, particularly among arts and culture in Auckland because spaces are being gentrified and artists were being forced out. I thought that was really dangerous to society, so yeah, none of it was really planned, I just fell down this rabbit hole!
What would you take from your Auckland Mayoralty race that has helped you in this campaign?
My campaign last year would not have been possible, even five years ago, if I wasn’t surrounded by a team of incredibly talented young people who had skillsets learned from the internet and were able to disseminate information through the internet. In that way we were able to subvert existing channels, which mediate who gets legitimacy. My best friend Tom, he had just graduated from film school and he was one of my biggest supporters and made all of those videos for me that we put on social media throughout the campaign, and that was predicated on realising that the mainstream media was going to completely ignore me and if they were talking to me it would only be because of the novelty of my age in order to strip away my complexity and make me a known quantity. So if the media is going to ignore us we can try and reach people in other ways. Nowadays politicians tell you what your problem is and it’s no longer a conversation anymore.
Do you think that plays into the disillusionment of youth in politics?
I think it plays into disillusionment with everybody but I think a lot of people look at politics and don’t see how this shouting match in these leather seats and in this lush little room in the Beehive, no not the Beehive, in the Parliamentary buildings, is actually going to impact in a tangible way their everyday life, so I genuinely think it’s the role of activists to show how things could be done differently, and that’s only going to change when the face of our politics changes.
So do you see the use of social media, stripping away the bias of media channels, as part of that?
Well I’m totally bias, and I’m upfront about that. What’s really funny is I have so many people apologising for asking me what they perceive as really controversial questions, because they’re supporters. Things like the rough few weeks we’ve had, or the MMP threshold or whatever, but that’s the point - you have to be able to ask anything you want to your politicians. I think I see my role with regard to that bias is just to acknowledge my world view and just go, look this is the way I think about things and this is the way my moral compass plays out in this scenario but I'm not dogmatic about it, because I think dogma is really dangerous to democracy. I think open-mindedness is vital to us developing and this is totally related to what we were talking about in relation to the polls, politics is very polarising now, and people see it as something that’s not really very personal. It’s just the colours that you were and they never, well the majority of people anyway, never challenge why they vote the way they do. It has a lot to do with tradition in families or identity and that’s probably another classic irony is that the people who proclaim to loathe identity politics are probably those that are inclined to practice it. Politics is not discussed because we’ve depoliticised political spaces and private spaces as well so it’s assumed that when you talk about politics you’re going to end up in this shouting match, just talking past each other, which is frequently what does happen, but I don’t think it’s what should happen. We should be able to discuss politics, politicians and issues, in a constructive creative, and meaningful way, without yelling past each other. That’s the thing, when polarisation becomes so deeply entrenched it’s dangerous, you know? That’s how we end up with Donald Trump.
So just going back to the last question, how important do you see the lack of a medium between let’s say your snapchat and the audience help your message. On the news, for example, they disseminate the message but it inevitably goes through a filter, so how important a role do you see that playing for you, especially among the young?
I think that’s really crucial. The subversion of...and this is a poor metaphor, but it is one that has been used historically, is that the media are gatekeepers to what is supposedly legitimate, and social media and that direct interaction with regular people is, I think, really crucial and it will become more and more important. Politicians, more and more, are becoming divorced from the people they represent because, especially those that have been in the house for decades, don’t know what it’s like on the outside. That was actually the best advice that Jeanette Fitzsimons gave me. She said, you have to maintain levels of normalcy if you become a politician, because otherwise you just don’t know what life is really like. Also if you stay there for so long, every day Aotearoa New Zealand feels quite foreign and these are the people who are making the big decisions about the country, but they’re doing it in an ivory tower.
So, and I guess you’re going to say climate change, so apart from climate change, what is the most important issue facing NZ today?
Inequality. So inequality is at the highest it’s literally ever been since we started collecting data in the 1980s. Climate change and inequality - action on one is action on the other, as long as it’s meaningful action. If you look at the biggest polluters, whether individuals or countries, they are by and large the wealthiest. If you look at the most vulnerable people to the effects of climate change they are generally the least wealthy. So basically we have this situation where if you imagine this hill, and the water is rising, the wealthy who are helping to cause the water to rise, have the resources to continue to move up the hill, which really leads us to this landscape where only the wealthy survive. What we need is a wholescale recalibration of the economic system. One that appreciates both the people and the planet.
I’ve been speaking to a lot of politicians in this election campaign and asking them whether, if they could be able to make their party’s change to either student loans or student living costs and allowances and not the other, which one they would choose? Essentially which one is the most important?
It’s immediacy versus long term impact on one’s life in my opinion. So you can only change one?
We can walk and chew gum mate, we can do both. But if we had to choose one, then the immediacy of student living costs is most important because that's the thing, I know people who have dropped out of uni because the financial pressure of being inside the university institution and to have to survive on two minute noodles and having to survive in this cold, damp flat, is just implausible for them. It isn't’ a good quality of life, so right now, if I could only choose one, it would be to improve the quality of life for students in this country.