Whatever your age, stage or political view: if you live in New Zealand, you can’t ignore Chlöe Swarbrick.
I first became aware of the young MP for the Green Party when she was championed in her bid for Mayoralty in Auckland by The Spinoff. Her easy, breezy manner and heartfelt logic got me deeply interested. Smart, candid and no B***S***, I knew Chlöe was my kind of gal.
After her run concluded (she didn’t win but gained 29,098 votes), Chlöe joined the Green Party. Through a series of events, she ended up placed 7th on the party list and made it into the Beehive. While I don’t think that her age should be the focus of any discussion about her, it is worth noting that Chlöe is the youngest politician to enter Parliament since Marilyn Waring in 1975.
Swarbrick is Green Party Spokesperson for Mental Health, Drug Law Reform, Education, Arts and Heritage, Tertiary Education, Small Business, Broadcasting, Youth and Local Government. She’s also now a fully embedded Resident of Wellington. She also whipped Duncan Garner’s tush this week speaking honestly about how easy it is to access Cannabis in New Zealand within the status quo and why regulation is necessary. Boom.
An interview over a year in the making, I finally got to sit down with Chlöe in her Bowen House office (facilitated by the awesome Tim Onnes) and ask her the important questions about identity, the internet, how our generation deals with anxiety and most importantly where she buys her white shirts.
Follow her on Instagram here.
Lucy Revill: The first question I ask everybody is where were you born?
Chlöe Swarbrick: Auckland Women’s Hospital in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.
LR: What did your parents do while you were growing up?
CS: I have a pretty complex family back-story; but long-story-short, my mum has had quite a few different jobs but she met my dad Paul at working at a bank. I was born in Auckland and then we moved to Whangarei where my little sister was born.
Dad was the youngest bank manager in New Zealand at the time, which was cool. We returned to Auckland before Mum took us to London for a bit and then Dad moved to Papua New Guinea where we joined him. We then moved back to New Zealand. Back then, Dad was working in financial consultancy. Now he’s a financial planner. Today, my Mum works in social media.
LR: Wow, that’s amazing. When you grew up, what were some of those early memories, or those kind of sensory experiences that you kind of associate with your childhood?
CS: I guess for me my dad has always been a really big figure in my life. One of the earliest memories that I have around school was when I first had to do a speech when I think I was in Year 2. I decided to do it on Jean Batten and Dad looked up all these TV shows and films that Jean Batten featured in them. I remember he got me little books (I ended up doing the speech competition in school wearing swimming goggles pretending to be Jean Batten). For my Year 3 speech competition, I decided to do it on Ghandi and Dad got all the Ghandi movies from the video shop. Dad was always really encouraged my writing and speaking.
My dad’s a smoker – which is a filthy habit. I remember, ever since I was five years old when we were growing up in Hillsborough, he would always sit out in the conservatory smoking. Before bed, pretty much every night, I would come out and talk to him about the meaning of life, which was really precocious and annoying as a kid. But we were always just trying to nail down what that meant; which is funny because I later studied philosophy and I only had more questions...
One of the biggest insights that he ever gave me, when I was about 11 or 12, was while I was doing another speech. I was doing a speech on the double standards between kids and adults, and the fact that kids have bed times and adults don’t, and that adults get to wear mufti all the time (as only a 12 year old can do). I was practicing it in front of him and he contested one of my points. I was like, ‘Oh god, this is the first time that dad’s critiqued me,’ so I was like, “I’ll go away and completely rewrite it.” He was like, “No way. You have to understand that there are different perspectives in the world and that different people see things differently.” That just kind of helped me to understand from, I guess, a young age that there are different perspectives and that doesn’t necessarily make yours less valid, but it means that you have to investigate them if you want to understand the world better.
LR: That’s amazing because I feel like I only learnt that at an older age; maybe in my 20’s when I heard it referred to at university…
CS: Totally. My dad was always amazing with stuff like that. We bicker about a lot when it comes to politics. He’s been a die-hard National voter and now obviously votes Green.
LR: Does he really?
CS: He does, yeah. I remember the first election that I was really interested in was when I was 16. It was the year that John Key came to power. I remember having debates with him and still learning about politics, and really had no gauge, so I started Googling different party’s policies and all those kinds of things. It let me to investigate why my dad thought the way that he did about politics. Despite being a really wise man in terms of understanding that different people see things differently and all that kind of stuff, he’d never really challenged his own political views. It's really funny how much he has shifted, and how much of those conversations I think has contributed to his understanding of the world as well.
It was really cool; we were having a coffee on Tuesday in Auckland and we were talking about how he is now a big advocate for progressive taxation, where previously he didn’t necessarily understand that. I think it's more to do with how people identify with ideology more so than the practical applications of it.
LR: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s really interesting. Growing up, what were your favourite subjects at school?
CS: School was interesting. I got along well with quite a few teachers, but then there were quite a few teachers who just found me annoying. I used to argue with my teachers a lot. I got kicked out of chemistry once for trying to have a debate with my chemistry teacher about how everything she was teaching us was falsifiable, which is technically true, but she didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to debate that with me. But, that was the stuff that I was more interested in; the why and the how as opposed to just a regurgitation of information.
I obviously now have the privilege of talking to a lot of kids at school, because I’m education spokesperson as well as youth. I’m often presented to kids by their teachers whenever I am at a school as ‘The Youngest MP’ and it's really funny because kids think that I was somehow really good at school, or whatever; but I’m technically a high school dropout and I let them know that at NCEA Level 1 I barely got achieved. In Year 12 I dropped maths. I also have Dyscalculia which is Dyslexia, but with numbers.
I was able to do the tests but I found it really boring and wanted to do the more creative stuff. English was a key subject. I also picked up drama. Mrs Drewitt, who was my drama teacher, was probably one of the most instrumental teachers alongside Mrs Burt. I loved the teachers so much. That’s why I’m so stoked to have the education portfolio; I think teachers do the most important job in society, so we should elevate their status.
Mrs Drewitt was really instrumental in helping me to understand the value that I could add in sharing my perspective. She was a big advocate for me for getting discretionary entrance to uni; so, that’s when I started really applying myself in school. The school that I went to didn’t recognise discretionary entrance to uni, so they made me sign a dropout form and I had to give my reason for dropping out; and my reason for dropping out was going to Uni.
I often end up talking at all of these quasi-pseudo ‘How to be successfu'l’ events, or whatever they are, and I always feel very weird, because I don’t consider myself successful per-se. I guess my goal is to be elected and I got elected, but I really disagree with the notion that you find the thing that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life; I call real bullshit on that. Like, if you find the thing that you love you’ll never work harder than you’ve ever worked, but it will be fulfilling; but it probably doesn’t pay very well. It might not exist yet and you have to create it from the ground up.
LR: I think often at school you’re taught a way of thinking, which is to kind of conform to what’s required of you at a certain stage in life, with the promise of a carrot over the horizon - that things will be better. Then you learn that way of thinking. It's very easy to then get into the workforce and still have that headspace. You’re not working on the things that you want to say, or that drive you creatively; you’re still waiting for someone to tell you what to do to get to the next level - then that day never comes. Do you think that the way that young people are starting to look at the options available to them, in the world facilitated by technology, is changing how we’re thinking about the future of work?
CS: I think it's really fascinating. I think it's a double-edge sword because there is definitely more flexibility than there kind of ever has been in the workforce; but that simultaneously often means that there’s more precariousness. So, that lack of security.
Obviously it depends how you quantify it, but our generation is poorer than our parents were relative to cost of living; We have more student debt with more and more people going to university who are given the promise of a certain kind of career that’s not necessarily being fulfilled.
What excites me about the development and evolution of technology is the potential of it for collaboration and community building. That again presents a double-edged sword as well because we end up with increasingly polarised social media. People aren’t inclined to engage in critical, constructive discourse when you’re time poor and bombarded with all of this information. It's more comfortable to find the people who agree with you.
LR: It's very easy obviously with Twitter.
CS: Yeah, but even Facebook comments. It's a fascinating place online. My Dad now follows me on all of the social media platforms. He was saying to me a few weeks ago that everyone seemed really in favour of whatever I’m doing in different policy areas. I was like, “Dad you’re only looking at my social media.” Like, I’m doing a lot of work, and yes more and more people are coming on-board with certain things that I am advocating for, but there are a lot of people who disagree; it's important that we recognise that.
LR: I think it's really good how you sometimes retweet people who disagree, or their statements, and then you come back to them and you have something that you rebut, which has a basis…
CS: I think it's respect. I recognise obviously that I have the privilege of not having to deal with huge massive amounts of emotional labour because it's not typically me that people are targeting. It gets quite difficult when it is those ad hominem type attacks.
LR: That’s a polite way to put it.
CS: When people are attacking an idea, and even when there is an ad hominem attack included in it, I will typically engage with that person and offer them respect. Usually they return that respect; but if you reply respectfully and then somebody continues down the cesspool line of chat then I’m like, ‘No, out of this.’ I just think that a lot of people expect hostility and expect polarity, and it doesn’t have to play out that way.
LR: So, you went to uni early and did your Bachelor of Philosophy?
CS: I did, yes. I did a Bachelor of Arts originally in Philosophy and Psych but dropped out of Psych when I found out it was basically all numbers in undergrad. I then started working at student radio station BFM. When I was part way through my BA in Philosophy became really interested in critical theory, which is studying the nature of society and why things are the way they are; where there’s injustice and how you can correct that. The most common sense structure in society is the law, rules and regulation. So I said: “Okay, I want to study law,” which was kind of a very weird decision to make. There are an increasing number of people who are studying law who don’t want to be lawyers, but for me it was just an alternative to doing postgrad in Philosophy.
LR: Did you want to be in politics?
CS: A lot of kids now ask me, “How do you become a politician?”, which is a funny one, because I never wanted to be a politician. I help them reframe the question because I think if you’re asking how you become a politician you’re asking the wrong question by looking at the status. I think you have to be asking, “What change do you want to enact? What do you care about?” There’s a breadth of different things that you could be doing to enact that change. You could be a teacher, you could be a statistician, you could be a vet, or you could be a counsellor.
An MP is one of the ways you can enact change, but I also think that the way that our political institutions are structured are such that people become captured and enamoured by the position. The priority for them is maintaining their position; it isn’t making any meaningful change.
LR: Do you have times where there’s overwhelm? For instance, everyone loves that moment when they wake up and they’ve had a few drinks the night before and you feel really anxious about stuff! What things do you do in your personal life to help maintain a sense of space and order?
CS: I’m in a really privileged position where I am able to go to a psychologist on a weekly basis. I’ve been open about the fact that I have a history of anxiety and depression. Anybody who has that will know, like it's not a linear process and like ‘bang’ it's gone. I’m on anti-depressants. I try and make space to exercise. During the break I read, which is really nice because I read fiction.
I also find that trying to find space for meaningful conversations with good people, and getting outside of the beltway make me feel better as well. I feel really deeply fortunate that the friends I have are in a variety of different jobs. I’ve got friends who are lawyers; one of my really good friends is a midwife and another is a nurse. I’ve got friends who have dabbled in teaching. I’ve got friends who are artists, musicians and thespians. All of those people come from such different perspectives that it always just brings you back to reality. My little sister is one of my favourite people to talk to, because she really couldn’t care less about my job.
LR: Do you feel like you’ve been on a journey with your electoral campaign for mayor in Auckland, now as an MP and your relationship to how you let people in has changed over time?
CS: I do definitely. It's a funny one. It's obviously a massive privilege and it's really lovely and cool being recognised for your work, but at the same time, kind of alluding to the question that you asked earlier around people projecting onto me and seeing that somehow I’m successful or whatever, I feel like I’m just an average person who’s totally going to screw up at any given moment.
I said it in my maiden speech: it's really funny when you’re a kid and you are going through the motion of growing up and you look at adults and you’re like, ‘They have a clue, they know the meaning of life. When I grow up, I will be sorted, I’ll be finished, I’ll be there.” But, then you grow up and realise nobody knows what the hell is going on. It's same with going to the workforce. Like, people, sure, get to know their environment, but people are just doing the best that they can with the resources available to them. No-one knows everything.
What I find really cool and exciting about the job that I do is that New Zealand is such a small place that change can happen quite quickly if people do get on-board with it and you can manage to convince people.
LR: I absolutely found that with having my blog, because there was a space for there to be something in Wellington. If I was in London for example, it's just so saturated by bloggers. There’s no way that it would have attracted the kind of attention that it did. It is very exciting that you can have a change to be heard, because there are fewer voices to be heard above.
CS: I also think there’s like an appetite for collaboration as well, as opposed to necessarily always butting heads to compete.
LR: Absolutely. There’s also the tall poppy syndrome. Some people get really threatened believing, “There’s only three opportunities, I must have one.”
A: But, that’s the thing about finding space as well and innovating outwards. Like, I remember coming in here when I was first elected and kind of getting a feel for the way that people get settled into the institution and the way that things are done. I was just like, ‘Things don’t have to be done that way.’
A classic example is, when you’re debating whatever issue. Medicinal cannabis is a great example. At the start of last year I went directly to the traditional demographic who would be cited as disagreeing with that kind of stuff. I was said, “You guys are smart and you have common sense and here’s the arguments for it; surely you would be on-board with it.” They were like, “Yeah.”
That’s kind of the thing right? Is I think that people are relatively open-minded; we just don’t necessarily give them the benefit of the doubt as far as that goes. But, in terms of relationships and stuff, I feel like I’m quite a shy person, so it's been very funny getting used to having to do all these talks and stuff. I feel like I’m very good having a one-on-one meaningful conversation, but I cannot have really surface level conversations with a lot of people.
LR: It's very draining too. When I began doing blogging, I wanted to be with everybody and involved in everything: going to every event and making sure I was seen or known. As time has gone on I’ve been burnt a few times by people, which is totally normal; and so now I kind of tend to gravitate more towards those old friends I’ve had for a really long time, and they don’t – as you said with your sister – they don’t see anything…
CS The fancy stuff.
LR: Yeah, you’re exactly the same as you were before; you just have different stuff, or different shit you need to get done.
CS: I still definitely find myself making new friends, which I find really cool. I guess what is really neat about being in the position that I’m in, is that when I travel around the country and particularly go to places like universities and stuff, I’m not that much older than people; so I can kind of hang out with them in that kind of way. But, also I’m not interested in trying to embody what I think I should be and trying to be a stereotype, or whatever; because it's like what is the point? I don’t care. I don’t want to be here to do that stuff.
LR: I think that’s massively important and I think that’s where, for example, I reckon Gen-Z is awesome.
CS: That’s another reason that I feel quite privileged; is that I don’t feel like I pretended to be anything when I was elected, so now I kind of have nothing that I have to hold myself to, except for that integrity, if you know what I mean.
LR: With social media, it's like the biggest place where you can pretend to be somebody else.
CS: I have said quite a few times to young people I speak with that it becomes so draining being two people.
LR: That’s such an important message to tell kids.
CS: If you’re having to maintain that dual persona, you end up losing yourself somewhere in it. The other things is that social media does become very curated. I’m really interested in where the conversation goes around what we share. There’s the notion that we should share the boring stuff, but then we’re sharing everything; so what is that?
LR: Anything you do in your work should have some sort of value; even if that value is that it makes somebody laugh on the loo for five or ten minutes.
CS: Totally, and develops empathy, or whatever.
LR: I can completely agree with that. You used to have the ‘you’ at home and the ‘you’ with your friends; but now there’s like a Super ‘you’ that’s the ‘you’ you are on Instagram where you’re maybe a sexy lingerie model and you’re 15.
CS: Yeah, totally.
LR: That’s such an interesting thing to talk about. What are you looking forward to for this year?
CS: On a personal level, I am going to try and do all the great walks this year; so that’s really cool. I did a little bit of Able Tasman at the start of January, which was awesome. I actually wasn’t fortunate enough to travel New Zealand a whole lot when I was younger. The first time I was ever in Wellington was when I did a summer school paper at Victoria University. I also went to Nelson a few times because my grandparents were from Nelson; and I’ve visited Whangarei because that’s where Grace, my little sister, was born. But, other than that, didn’t really travel the country; so I feel really fortunate to be able to get out and explore it. It's awesome. So, I’m really looking forward to that.
Speaking about spaces to have creative energy, that was what was great about the break, and reading different books; because I really subscribe to the notion that if you are trying to be creative about something, then if you’re only looking at the models of creativity within your sector, then you’re only going to end up emulating stuff.
LR: Absolutely agree.
CS: The classic example is, if you’re a graphic designer you have to look at architecture, music and fashion and all of that kind of stuff. I’m really stoked about doing a tour of the country this year, meeting different communities. Typically when I give a speech at any event I am invited to, especially the ‘Improve your life’ kind of events I bring down the vibe a bit. I’m like, “What is this bullshit? What are you actually looking for?” All these people come to this place if it's an event and they’re looking for a granular thing, or a tangible thing that they can take home and try and implement in their lives. But, so often you have all these people who end up being like real jazzed about something, and they just go back home and it diffuses. I feel like there has to be something in that room that you can create a plan with those people and then execute it. We want to create localised change through these events coming up in 2019 so people can leave with a way to make a tangible change in life. I’m really excited about that.
I’m also really excited about work in drug harm reduction and mental health, which has taken a long time and it's been quite nitty-gritty; so that’s been really cool and a lot of that is coming to fruition.
LR: That’s such a funny thing with policy; people think that tax is hard stuff. Tax is easy the stuff, like that’s all technical. The hard stuff is domestic violence.
CS: Totally. You’re making value judgments. Particularly when you’re talking about drug policy; sensible drug policy is often counterintuitive. If you’re talking about how people are harmed by consuming drugs, illegal drugs are unregulated drugs. You have to provide a way to regulate and to create less harm. I’m also going to try and do the Queenstown Marathon; I really want to.
LR: The whole thing, or just the half?
CS: I did a half marathon last year; I actually did the Wellington half marathon because Auckland didn’t align with my calendar. It was pouring down with rain and the wind was so intense; so around the coast, past the airport, it was insane. It was raining so heavily and I had so much salt in my eyes that the only way that I could see was if I cried. It was ridiculous. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever done; like pushing your body to that point and just that connection between your mind and your body. It's so weird.
LR: Do you feel like having audacious goals for yourself is important when you have big things you need to achieve at work, because obviously keeping up with a regular exercise regime sometimes is hard enough, but it kind of counterbalances; you’ve got big pressure, but then it's like you’re putting a lot of shit into you back and that stops you feeling like you’re giving the best part of yourself to something else completely.
CS: The reason that I do the exercise goals is because otherwise I would find myself not exercising and I’m just like, ‘What’s the point?’ It’'s very easy to put it off if you’re not going to be held accountable to yourself. I would really love to be still doing martial arts. I did karate for seven years and Muay Thai for two years, but the classes just don’t work for this schedule and being everywhere.
Goals are a funny one. I do think that a level of accountability to yourself is important, but I also have never been a big one in terms of like New Year resolutions per se. It's funny having the time, and it's also having the time at the start of the year, to go through my entire year and look at it in the macro and go ‘This is kind of the block of time that I have stuff to do,’ and kind of try and carve that up. But, then it also feels like, ‘Holy moly, this 12 months is just going to blitz by.’
LR: The final thing and this is a really personal thing, but where do you buy your white shirts, because I really like them?
CS: Like, shirt shirts?
LR: Quite obviously it's probably the one white shirt that’s been used many times in publicity shots. I find it really hard to find a really good white shirt and it's such a great look for a photo because it's always just like…
CS: Yeah, totally. The funny thing is that when I first ran for the mayoralty, I had $200 and I needed to buy a white shirt. I had nothing formal. At the time I went to a local suiting place in Auckland; but now get most of my white shirts – and I only have about four or five – from Kowtow – I’m not sure how you say it. I try and buy always either second hand or New Zealand made ethical. I was really stoked when I bought togs from there. They were like, “These are made from recycled bottles.” I was like, “Could I be more green? This is ridiculous”.
LR: I think that’s fantastic, because I’m really passionate about ethically made clothes.
CS: Fashion is the second most polluting industry on planet earth; it's ridiculous.
LR: That’s so cool. Any other New Zealand brands that you love?
CS: I wear, as most female politicians do, a bit of Juliette Hogan as well. I love Miss Crabb. I am so gutted that they’re closing. I need to go to the Ponsonby shop before they’re fully closed. I mostly wear Kowtow and Ingrid Starnes. I have quite a few tee-shirts actually. A lot of my friends who are artists do shirts and stuff as well, so this tee that I am wearing today is by my friend Roydon who’s a graphic designer. It's mostly just Kowtow and Ingrid.
LR: Do you buy 27 Names?
CS: Yes, I do buy 27 Names. My black pants are 27 Names. Also clothes by Jordan Gibson at Checks. I love New Zealand made clothes.
LR:I feel like I’ve got the real scoop now…