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Auckland’s Breakthrough 22-Year-Old Mayoral Candidate Is Gunning for Parliament

Chlöe Swarbrick got into local politics out of protest, but her campaign went so well she's taking a serious swing at becoming an MP.

by James Borrowdale
14 November 2016, 12:00am

Image by John Silas.

Chlöe Swarbrick. Image by John Silas.

The last time VICE spoke to Chlöe Swarbrick, the 22-year-old was on her way to third place in the recent race for the Auckland mayoralty, beating many well-established politicians, despite almost no funding and non-existent political infrastructure. The initial impetus behind her campaign was born out of protest at the status quo, a feeling that the outcome of the race was meandering towards a predictable outcome with none of the important issues—housing, public transport, growing homelessness—addressed in a meaningful way. But as her campaign progressed, it became about more than that: it became about winning.

Her campaign attracted nationwide attention, and it's no surprise that she was approached by national political parties enquiring about the possibility of standing for national office. Chloe just announced that she had affiliated herself with the Greens and—pending their internal vetting and democratic processes—intends to run for Parliament. VICE caught up with Chloe to ask what she learned during her mayoral run and, bearing in mind recent international democratic results, what she believes the left has to give.

VICE: Hey Chlöe, how are you?
Chlöe: Good, just tired. It's been a long week.

The last time we spoke, you told me what attracted to you to local body politics was that there was more of a chance to make a difference. What's changed?
Yeah that was totally the case for me. Local politics is incredibly attractive because the change you can make, you can make it within a community and you can make it quite fast.

At the same time, after the American election, the international context for politics right now is an incredibly intriguing one, and that's one reason I intend to stand for the Greens next year. There's an international dissatisfaction with the way things are—I'm not sure if that's quite hit New Zealand. I do think a lot of New Zealanders do seem to be—not necessarily content—but not quite with the same impetus for change right now and I find that quite intriguing when we're faced by facts such as one in 100 New Zealanders are homeless and environmental issues such as the Havelock North water incident this year.

Essentially I was just faced by a choice at the end of the mayoral election and decided that, with the platform that I've been privileged to build, I wanted to try and contribute to a positive change and this is the best way I saw to do that.

So how did this happen? Were you approached?
A few political parties messaged me throughout the campaign, just saying it was going well or whatever, and James Shaw, co-leader of the Greens, was one of those people. I can say it openly now: I've always voted Greens, so that was really cool. After the election, I sat down with him and a few other MPs and just sort of discussed what the Greens were up to. I totally didn't intend at that time to commit myself to that position, but it was just weighing up all the options and where I could be of the most use. It felt weird to disappear.

Who else approached you?
I'd really rather not talk about all of the individuals and parties that approached me just because I don't know if it's necessarily all that relevant. I've made my decision with the Greens and I'm quite keen to keep the focus on that if we can. I know it sounds like a super-political answer, but this politics game is such a new thing for me. It's quite a weird transition to go from being someone who entered the mayoral race off the back of being, for lack of a better term, extremely pissed off with the way things were looking and the way that Phil Goff was going to waltz into office without being challenged on too many things—I just wanted to draw people's attention to it. It's an unusual thing now to be hoping to stand for a political party.

What do you hope to achieve?
I can only speak about what I'd personally want to achieve—obviously the Greens have a broad base of policies and values that they hold, and I align with all of those and that's why I've affiliated myself with the party. But personally, I'm hoping to fight for the likes of housing; I see increasing inequality and that's obviously evidenced by the homelessness and the housing unaffordability and that teachers can't afford to live in Auckland. I'm also interested in criminal justice and arts and culture, particularly in maintaining that support and funding for public broadcasting, just so we have that effective check and balance on the powers that be.

If you could be a minister, what would your portfolio be?
I think it would probably be Corrections—that'd be one I'd be really interested in, because I think there's a lot of reform that needs to happen there. Housing and social development are also incredibly attractive to me.

You mentioned the American election before, is it difficult to have faith in politics after that and Brexit... and now Leonard Cohen is dead?
Yeah, that's a really sad one, but that was, thankfully, not the will of the people manifesting. With regards to Brexit and Trump and the rise of the alt-right, I think that what that demonstrates is that people are unhappy with the way things are. People were voting for change, any change, and that's manifested in wanting to kinda burn the place down. The left has not been able to adequately articulate and communicate progressive change to people so instead people are, unfortunately, choosing destructive change because the alternative looks a lot like the staus quo.

On the left is obviously where you feel comfortable?
Yeah, and it's interesting the amount of comments I've read and even a few messages I've received people dishing up their preconceived notions about what the Greens represent and who they are. I've waded through a number of them about the Greens being hippies or not being able to get themselves together.

I think what that showcases is that there's a lot of dogma in New Zealand politics as well; people aren't super willing to engage with what they perceive as the other side of the spectrum, despite the fact conversation without those prejudices might come up with some incredibly collaborative and productive results that work for everybody. I still don't know where I'd define myself on the traditional spectrum, but definitely in terms of it being good for defining where I am right now, yeah, of course I'm on the left. I believe in justice and equity.

What did you learn about politics during the mayoral run?
That it can be incredibly nasty. People like to make judgements about things, so as we discussed the last time we spoke, my age is for some reason or another still a defining feature—from that they infer my life experience, my history and all the rest. There's a lot of judgement that people like to make when you enter the political arena. Another thing that I learned about—not necessarily about politics, but the landscape related to it—is that if you move away from the online trolls and talk to people in real life, every person I spoke to who disagreed with me when I gave them respect I got it back, and very frequently ended up having incredibly productive conversations. There's probably something to be said about the demarcation between the online and real life.

And what did you learn about yourself?
I'm not really sure. Probably just that the bid for the mayoralty—despite being born out of protest, I guess—was the most meaningful thing I've ever done with my life. That's because I got to interact with so many people and their positions and viewpoints and their passion and their lives as well. It was just something incredibly potent and something that I felt a huge level of privilege and responsibly for. Trying to institute change knowing that all of these people believed in me was unlike anything I've ever experienced.

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