Steve Braunias continues his ping-pong political series as he squares off against Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick.
Chloe Swarbrick laid her cards down on the table tennis table as soon as she arrived at my Te Atatū estate. She'd just got in the door when I asked her about the balance on her AT Hop bus card – the Green MP and Auckland Central candidate doesn't believe in owning a car; easy to imagine the fervent and idealistic 26-year-old as Amish, fumelessly heading hither and yon on a horse and buggy – and she immediately got out her wallet and emptied its contents on the table where we were about to play ping-pong. It's my conviction that this great and revealing sport acts as psychological assessment of everyone who plays it. Weirdly, it acted on Swarbrick before she picked up a bat.
"Here's my Fuller's ferry card….Here's my Oyster card when I'm in the UK ... Here's my driver's licence when I was 16 or 17 and very angry with the world," she said, then got more and more cards, standing at the table and covering it with every card from her amusing wallet, a replica of the one Samuel L. Jackson's character Jools carries in Pulp Fiction – its stitching reads: BAD MOTHERF***ER. Her life - her movements, her past - flashed before us in cards. Her life was an open wallet, her life was on display, no secrets, no guile, no editing.
It was the way she conducted herself throughout our encounter, too. She talked and talked and talked. My daughter came home from school and I introduced her. Swarbrick just kept on talking and talking and talking. She seemed just as totally incurious about anyone else in the room.
She has beautiful eyes ("They're blue and green and grey, depending on the light") and a genuine charisma. When she walks into a room, fame walks with her. Her rival candidate in Auckland Central, Labour nobody Helen White, foolishly scorned Swarbrick as "a celebrity". Yes, how awful for a politician to have stardust ... Like the famously and globally stardusted Prime Minister, though, Swarbrick would have got nowhere in politics without substance, and she applies herself to everything she does with intelligence, sincerity and serious graft.
She's campaigning hard – the battle is all uphill; Labour look stronger with each day someone from National say something - to take Auckland Central. She's consistently owned every interview or debate concerning the cannabis referendum. She has a certain manic force about her. I asked her whether she had formed any unlikely alliances with opposition MPs during her first term in parliament; she said she'd worked closely with National's MP Nick Smith on the Election Access Bill and mentioned that he'd said to her, "You've got to be here at least 20 years if you want to do something." I said, "Are you planning to stay in politics for 20 years?"
She laughed, loudly and joyously, and said, "God no." And then she said, "I throw myself fully into things and don't really have a Plan B. Because I came from nothing, I've had nothing and I've risked a lot in the past and things have been completely screwed up."
I asked, "What things?"
She said, "When I was 16, 17, I was really deeply depressed and self-medicating with alcohol, which is really dangerous for a young person. I felt my life was on a precipice and decided I had to change everything about my life or I didn't know what would happen. Things were very dark. I left school, I left home." My cat jumped on to the table tennis table. "Kia ora!" said Swarbrick and continued, "I very much subscribe to one of the Buddhist philosophies: that life is suffering. Which sounds dark and depressing but I don't actually think it has to be, it's just recognition regardless of whatever you do, things are going to be hard, so you may as well pursue the fulfilling route and that's effectively what I've attempted to do since those dark years."
The path to a moral life, to working on a set of principles on behalf of socially constructive causes - I thought this was a magnificent speech. Swarbrick didn't want to give the impression it had a twee or happy ending. She said, "I have chronic depression. I take medication for it. I experience some very dark moments and I have a propensity, which is deeply unhealthy, to find my self-worth from work." Life is always suffering.
She talked a bit about more about the dark years ("I dated good men, I dated not-so-great men"), about growing up with her dad ("We're very close"), about being too shy to dance until friends gave her support ("it's about self-loathing") – again with all the cards on the table. I don't know if I've ever met such a candid politician but all this personal talk was getting away from the most important thing: the table itself. We needed to play. I asked, as a segue, "What is your sporting background?"
"Mostly martial arts," she said. "I did karate for seven years and Muay Thai for two."
The photographer had arrived. I asked whether she could throw a martial arts shape for him to capture.
She laughed and said, "I could punch you in the face?"
I took a step back and she started raving. "But I've been a lot more into weights the last few years and I ran the half-marathon around the bays in Wellington from the Westpac Stadium, which is so weird, it's like an apocalyptic zone, then to the airport and back, it was pissing down with rain, the sea was heaving, I had so much salt in my face that I couldn't see so I had to cry so I could see, and I've also got Raynaud's disease, which is when your blood flows really terribly in your extremities, so when I'm cold, I get really cold."
Her vivid report made me feel like I was with her, weeping and freezing on a glum day in the capital but really I just wanted to pick up a ping-pong bat in my basement room in tropical Auckland and see how she'd shape up. I picked up a ping-pong bat. She did likewise. She said she'd never really played before. I said, "That matters not. How competitive are you at games? Do you play to win?"
"When I have a lot invested in the game," she said, "I'm extremely competitive."
I said, "How do we get you invested in this game?"
She said, "Teach me the rules."
"Very well," I said. "You have to the hit the ball over the net."
I threw her a ball. She caught it and then hit it over the net but also over my head. She said, "Okay."
I threw her another ball and said, "It has to stay on the table."
She hit it over the net and it stayed on the table. She said, "Okay."
This time I returned it with my bat and said, "The ball has to bounce on the table before you hit it."
She waited for the ball to bounce and then she hit it over the net and on the table. She said, "Okay."
I said, "You're good to go."
We warmed up for a few minutes, then played our first game. She had no idea how to defend, nor any notion of angles and neither did she seem able to move from the spot. I won 21-9. But she showed particular talent with her backhand. I said, "Play to your strengths. Those backhand shots – you really snap at the ball when you do that and it moves fast."
"Yes," she said. "I like those shots. I'm good at air hockey, so."
She was good fun, she continued to laugh, loudly and joyously but she concentrated more intensely in game two, her backhand snapping shots were devastating, she started playing the angles and had me running every which way. She showed no mercy and went for the kill – verily, she played like a BAD MOTHERF***ER.
Swarbrick (born 1994) was doing an OK Boomer on her hapless opponent (born 1960). She took an early lead, I clawed it back and was ahead 13-11. Then she clawed it back and was ahead 17-16.
"Playing it low," she said, "is where it's at."
One of her backhand missiles whizzed a millimetre over the net and had me swiping at thin air.
"Yes," I said.
Another missile had me whacking it over the net and over her head. "How do you do those shots?" I asked.
"It's like punching," she said. Essentially she spent the entire game punching me in the face.
It got to 19-19. I was quite puffed. I have a certain grace when running hither and yon, and move like a deer but she was sending me left, then sending me right, then left, then right – the last opponent to do this to me was the Prime Minister.
I said, "You're unplayable when you're good."
"That's the thing, though," she said. "It's sporadic."
"It's not consistent, is it? Very inconsistent."
"I keep over-hitting."
"Yes, you sure do," I said.
My tactic was to enable her self-loathing. It may or may not have worn her down but finally, exhaustingly, thrillingly, I got what I wanted – KO, Boomer - and won 22-20. But she had proved herself a worthy opponent who had made a stunning debut. She learned fast and on the job. I really hope she wins Auckland Central. She'd be a great representative for New Zealand's youngest electorate. She wouldn't rest for a second. She'd throw everything she has at pursuing the fulfilling route.