For Chloe Swarbrick, there is much at stake in 2020. The Green Party list MP talks to Russell Brown about the cannabis referendum, and contesting the Auckland Central seat in the general election.
It's September 2016 and I'm chairing a talk event at Ponsonby's late, lamented Golden Dawn bar, featuring candidates in that year's Auckland local body elections. Everyone's focused on a young woman in a white, long-sleeved shirt.
She's Chloe Swarbrick, a young news volunteer at 95bFM, who is making her surprise mayoral candidacy look less and less like the novelty run most people took it for. We're into a closing round of questions from the floor and it seems that for each one she has a clear, considered answer, often with a reference to "my policy" on the issue. When her fellow candidates demur, she waits a beat, raises her hand and offers a response. She's Lisa Simpson in a bob.
There's a question about whether she and other young candidates are "in it for the long haul" if they don't at first succeed. She observes that after these campaign debates people come up to her full of praise – and then ask if she's standing next time. The "insinuation", she says, is that they won't vote for her this time.
"This is about my age," she says. "I'm 22 now, I'll be 25 next time, I'll be 28 the time after that and 31 the time after that. I'm not sure I'm ever going to be, until I'm 40 or so, the 'right age' for this."
She undertakes to "continue to work for Auckland" if she's not elected mayor: "It might be in journalism, I'm not sure if it will be in politics but only time will tell."
She came a creditable third. Within weeks she fielded offers from the Labour and Green parties to stand in the following year's general election. There were also approaches from members of The Opportunities Party and New Zealand First and more than a few fans urged her to start her own political party. She chose the Green Party.
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There were a lot of people who had a lot of reckons about that," Swarbrick recalls. "There were some who, for tribal or partisan reasons felt as though I had betrayed them when I joined the political party I did. I would have thought it was quite black and white from my policy platform where I stood on the political spectrum."
But perhaps it wasn't, for the simple reason that, unusually for a young politician, she had no involvement in student politics. While she completed degrees in law and philosophy, her only extracurricular tribe was the student radio station 95bFM, where she signed up as a news volunteer. She doesn't say it, but the truth is that some young Green activists even now don't feel she's one of theirs, or disapprove of her high profile – and that has reportedly caused some tension.
We're having a Friday beer outside 352 Karangahape Rd, a hub for successive generations of bohemian 20somethings. For years it was D.O.C., now it's the Peach Pit. She's comfortable here. Before politics, she worked back up the street at the Neck of the Woods bar for two years and ran the social media for St Kevins Arcade. Both places were venues for events for her fashion venture, The Lucid Collective, and, What's Good, the online magazine she ran. She is tribally K Road.
"I used to be a town rat with my friends when we were 15 and 16 and trying to figure out who we were," she says. "Everyone would hang out at Newmarket and we started coming to K Road and op-shopping – back when op-shopping was affordable here. I feel at home here. This is my favourite place in the world."
The Member for K Road has had a remarkable two years in Parliament. Unusually for a new MP, she got a run on the board almost immediately, lodging the Election Access Fund Bill drafted before the election by Mojo Mathers, who had failed to make it back in on the Green list. It came out of the members' ballot in February 2018 and was law by July.
But it was another deputation that fixed her political destiny. Green MP Julie Anne Genter had a medicinal cannabis bill before the previous Parliament, but, as the new associate Minister of Health, could no longer sponsor it and the job passed to Swarbrick. The bill failed at first reading, but she did well enough to be designated the Green Party's drug law reform spokesperson.
The story of drug law reform is a fitful one in New Zealand political history. Select committee inquiries and Law Commission reviews recommending change come and go, but it almost never breaks the legislative surface. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 (an anachronism now, but a welcome replacement for the draconian Narcotics Act at the time) and the lifesaving introduction of needle exchanges in 1987 stand out. Yet the past two years, within a government that has often struggled to deliver on the expectations it raised, have produced more than advocates thought possible.
There has been an Act and regulations opening access to medicinal cannabis products on prescription and allowing domestic production and export of cannabis medicines, a detailed draft bill that will form the basis of the world's first national referendum on regulating and legalising the sale of cannabis to adults, a neat solution to allow drug-checking at festivals this summer – and a remarkable amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act that will mean most people caught with small quantities of any drug can expect a health-based response rather than the blight of a criminal conviction.
She has been in the thick of all of it: working with three different government ministers, negotiating on important details, running as a go-between and meeting with officials (she was reprimanded for asking the Ministry of Justice's referendum team whether they were "passionate" about the project). But more than anything, she has been the public, facts-at-hand face of the reforms.
This has an effect in itself. Ministers have tended to progress work on the various reform projects when they're in the news, or at least being debated on social media. The more time projects spend in the conversation, the greater the incentive to crack on. Keeping this stuff in the conversation is actually part of getting it done.
So why is it so hard for most MPs to talk about it?
"Because it's f***in' scary!" she replies. "Because if you come into politics I think that the incentive structure is entirely perverse and you manage to justify it to yourself, particularly if you're part of the larger parties. This is a decision I made about joining the Greens. I have this conversation with people every so often when I'm on panels or whatever, where people say 'do you want to be Prime Minister?'. You don't join the Greens if you want to be Prime Minister. You join the Greens if you want to fight tooth and nail for something you believe in.
"I have always been very open about how I see status-quo politics as sucking. It's terrible, it sucks the soul out of people. So on the point of why other politicians don't say stuff: I've seen this multiple times across multiple issues over the past two years. If you're faced with the opportunity to do something that feels and looks and is probably transformative, and you put that proposition to an MP and they weigh up the potential of putting their neck out and potentially ruining their career, or keeping their head down and saying nothing and justifying to themselves that in the future they'll be able to make incremental forms of change – and it's better that they're there to do that. That's how we end up with the stasis."
Is she practical rather than ideological?
"There is a practical element. It comes from research. I've never been dogmatic. And for that I credit my old man. I'm open about the fact that when I was at university and first studying philosophy, I dabbled in libertarianism. That was a fascinating thing to think about. But then I realised, how can you purport to have everybody having the same liberties and freedoms if not everybody has access to those liberties and freedoms? My way of thinking about the world evolved and developed."
Chlöe Swarbrick, now 25, has evolved and developed herself. Her pre-politics chloeswarbrick.com website displayed the words "Serial Multi-tasker" under her name, and her bio read: "I work with creatives and companies to make big things happen. I have curated a boutique burger combo, shown at Fashion Week, made comedians uncomfortable, co-ordinated a national film tour, dealt artwork to high-profile collectors, and argued on-air with many politicians. My skill set lies in ideas and their successful execution. My weakness is caffeine."
The fact that she set off on one course and ended up on another isn't unusual for her peer group. Alex Bartley Catt, her partner in Lucid, now runs an AI solutions company and while some of the beautiful young crew on the What's Good masthead have stuck with their creative ambitions, others are well into white-collar careers.
Her own white-collar career began with, well, white collars. When she decided, at the urging of her bFM colleague Lillian Hanly to stand for the mayoralty ("She messaged me one night, and thought, oh my god, it's going to be so much work," Hanly recalls) she bought three white, longsleeved shirts to wear in rotation with a pair of high-waisted pants, the only pair of trousers she owned that weren't jeans. She cut her long hair.
There were, she says, practical reasons for the makeover. The long sleeves covered a number of small, personally significant tattoos on her arms that she thought would be a distraction. If she'd kept on wearing Kanye West t-shirts, she says, the media would just talk about that. But the look, which she acknowledges drew on her fashion dalliance, was also a brand. It was Sensible Chloe.
Ironically, given her professed distaste for Parliamentary politics, she has relaxed in the past two years. Her wardrobe is more casual again and although she still habitually packs a few too many words into her sentences, her manner, especially on social media, is a far cry from the occasionally painful earnestness of Chloe the mayoral candidate.
"Oh, massively. I was massively earnest. I still think I am earnest. But that was probably also because I still didn't understand the tone. If I'm completely honest, I have been growing and changing as a person. I would hope that I continue changing and evolving, because if I don't, I need to leave. And that's the bigger problem we have with all these politicians who've been around for 30 years – they've never changed. They've never looked at the world outside and said, maybe there's something else that needs to happen."
She is full of praise for Parliamentary staff, in particular her executive assistant Tim Onnes, who has learned to schedule meal breaks into her days (she's bad at eating) and Green Party policy adviser Holly Donald, who encouraged her to commit to work on the Misuse of Drugs amendment. But there's also a sense that, like, say, Marilyn Waring (the two have been paired on stage before), she is if not quite a political loner, then politically singular. What does seem particular about Swarbrick is her commitment to whatever she's doing at the time. She admits to once overcommitting to the point where she once ignored a burst appendix and wound up in hospital for a week.
"That was one of the biggest learning experiences for me. They told me that I'd get chronic fatigue if I didn't slow down. I was running a few businesses, working at b, finishing my law degree and I had this moment where I was in a hospital bed going 'oh s***, I haven't replied to all these emails, everything's going to fall over'. Then I got out of hospital and realised nobody cared.
"I've unpacked a lot of this with my therapist."
She's habitually frank about the fact that her mental health has been poor at times in the past. For most MPs that would seem a risky thing to do, but appeals to transparency pepper her speech; it's almost a tic. She'll often preface a personal story or a particular stance with "I've always been open about this." It's a millennial kind of openness.
She goes inside to get us a second round of beers and the whole time she's away her phone, sitting on the table, lights up with messages.
The next time we meet is for the Canvas photo session. A number of things have happened in the interim. She has publicly committed to another term of politics, and will contest this year's general election as the Green Party candidate for Auckland Central (she lost out to longtime candidate Denise Roche in 2017).
The first iteration of the draft bill we'll vote on in the cannabis referendum has been published – she couldn't get expungement of past convictions into it and crucial elements around licensing and market allocation won't be added until April, but "it represents, I think, the most progressive consensus we could get."
The cross-party group of MPs considering the bill has had its first meeting and she's hopeful that will be a good-faith process.
"I'm really worried about the red herring, moral panic way the Opposition has decided to portray this, at least in Question Time – because it's not what's occurred behind the scenes. But from what I've seen, there has been a willingness to speak in good faith on a one-to-one basis. I just hope that scales up."
And there has also been … "OK Boomer".
Swarbrick's droll riposte to a Parliamentary heckle from National MP Todd Muller during her speech on the Zero Carbon Bill was, depending on your social defaults, either a momentary deployment of a current internet meme or a pre-emptive strike in a generational war. Amid a tide of global news coverage, Fox News loudly reported it as the latter, which has drawn "some really interesting mail from the United States of America," she says.
"It's funny, because the reaction I received from those who were particularly inflamed was indicative of how there is a certain sector of society who has literally never been offended before. Someone made the point to me that because of the dismissive nature of the terminology, it's probably more offensive to some than if I had said eff off boomer. Because that's quite pointed and easy to dismiss."
She'll have bigger fish to fry this year. Her Auckland Central candidacy will give the Greens a higher profile in Auckland, and she'll be a key voice in the referendum debate, although she says she's "trying to navigate how best to step back so that it is genuinely something that is owned by the public. So that we make way for a greater diversity of voices."
It might also be the last election she contests. It's far from impossible that she'll be looking at a post-politics career before she's out of her 30s.
"I think she'll stay in politics for a while, but I don't think that's where her strengths actually could be," says Hanly. "As her mates, we just want her to do what she wants to do. The other thing with Chloe though is that if she thinks it will positively benefit society, she'll do it. She'll be where she can make the most impact with the strengths she has."
But the Chloe factor may endure without her. It was certainly tied up in this year's wave of 20something candidates in last year's local body elections: the likes of impressive new 22-year-old Wellington councillor Teri O'Neill. And it's not only on the left: the National Party recently selected a 17-year-old as its Palmerston North candidate. Further afield, 29-year-old consultant Sean Topham has just helped Boris Johnson to victory. He went to law school with Swarbrick.
Bright young people come out of higher education with their minds flying – and almost all of them disappear into offscreen roles in the public and private sectors, taking their energy with them. How would it change local and national democracy if there were more Chloes in the mix? It could be that Chloe Swarbrick's legacy turns out to be not only in policy but in showing there is more than one kind of political career.