Portrait by Fabien Voileau

The Making of Chlöe Swarbrick

For the first time, New Zealand's rising political star opens up about her fractured family background and overcoming depression.

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30 May 2017, 7:00pm

Portrait by Fabien Voileau

This story appears in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Chlöe Swarbrick tumbled into New Zealand's political consciousness late last year during her first nationally televised interview, as she campaigned to become mayor of Auckland. The interviewer implied that her age, just 22 years old, meant that her political appeal was limited to youth. Before the question had been delivered in full, Swarbrick launched into an answer that repudiated the interviewer's logic and stressed her ability to speak to and for a wider audience. "So, I slightly disagree," she began.

I'd heard her answer this question many times before. I first met Swarbrick in September last year, when I followed her around the city for a day, reporting on how she planned to win and why a 22-year-old thought she had the skills and temperament to run the country's largest city. "I have honestly never felt so aware of my age in my life," she told me then, after much of the local press and her rivals seemed to dismiss her on that basis. "I just feel like it's so irrelevant."

Swarbrick didn't win. Running as an independent, she came third in a field of 19, finishing behind the Establishment candidates of the left and the right. The result, while Swarbrick might not agree, was an incredible achievement, relying on "confidence and Google", campaign funds raised by donations and t-shirt sales—she raised about $7000—and listening to constituents and crafting their feedback into policy, or at least getting them to engage with their prejudices. "Research has shown," she says, "that if you don't shut someone down on their position and seek to investigate their rationale and get them to say it… they come to realise how weak it is, and their mind is more likely to be changed."

Swarbrick became a bit of a star during the election—kids still ask her for selfies, and customers at Olly, the cafe she owns and runs with her partner, Alex, and another friend, want to talk politics. "It was really weird having this minor celebrity, and I still struggle with that. I'm all for constructive critique, but [you get a lot of criticism] from random people on the internet. Particularly as a young woman, I think." She's gotten it from both sides: A hashtag#cluelesschloe—came from the country's fledgling alt-right, and the hard left attacked her proposal to utilise private capital in conjunction with public funds to build the infrastructure Auckland desperately needs. Some even criticized the spelling of her name. As a kid learning to write, she put the diaeresis above the "o"—technically it should be over the "e"—and it has stayed there ever since. She was unfazed by a majority of the criticism, but the assumption she rejected the most firmly was about her upbringing. From some quarters, she was portrayed as an entitled middle-class careerist furthering her own gains. "I'm definitely privileged insofar that I'm Pākehā," she told me. "I'm university educated. Dad taught me to be articulate and taught me to argue—but we've fought for everything."

Portrait by Fabien Voileau

These days, Swarbrick spends much of her time at her cafe. When she's done waiting tables, she sits at her MacBook, flashing peace signs at departing customers. When I arrived one afternoon to talk with her about her peripatetic childhood—something she'd previously only spoken to me about off the record—she spoke without the weight of a political campaign hanging over her.

Swarbrick was born in Auckland, after her mother, a New Zealander, moved home from London after agreeing with the biological father that he would remain anonymous. Her mother soon met the man Swarbrick calls Dad—he adopted her when she was three—and a little sister joined the family two years later. But the couple broke up after two years, and the girls moved with their mother back to London. The arrangement didn't last, and soon Swarbrick and her sister went to live with their father, who had moved to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. The experience was "weird, sheltered," she told me. The family lived in a compound surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire, guarded by men with AK-47s; outside the complex was "real, very serious poverty." She once saw a dead dog on the side of the road, its flesh stripped for meat. Her seventh birthday party was canceled because of rioting and political unrest. After a couple of years, the family moved back to Auckland.

When she was 12, Swarbrick learned her dad wasn't her biological father. By then, her mum had also moved back to Auckland, pregnant with her half-brother, and Swarbrick found herself spending half the time living with her mother, a woman she hardly knew, and with whom she still has a difficult relationship. "If I have to blame Mum for screwing me up to some extent, I also have to blame her for my drive," Swarbrick said.

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, her father, who works in finance, lost everything, and Swarbrick felt she had to fend for herself even as she descended into depression. "This is absolutely something that all the political advisers I talk to would tell me not to talk about," she said of that period of her life. "I was basically drinking myself to death to forget." She became suicidal, "just wanting to change everything about my life." And so she did. She was granted special dispensation to enter college at 17, began a bachelor of arts, and met Alex. She worked as a journalist—her first live interview was with former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark—on student radio, and after the BA, she pursued a law degree. The ink was still drying on her law degree when she began her mayoral campaign.

"I just want to ensure the system is one that is actually representative."

"There was no strategy," she told me of the plans she had post–mayoral race. "I had no idea how it would work out. She needn't have worried; in November, Green Party co-leader James Shaw approached her about the possibility of running for parliament. When we spoke, he called her a "highly unusual political talent." "She was able to do two things simultaneously, which was both to represent an alternative and also to come across as safe enough to vote for," he went on. "It wasn't just your radical fringe; it was also the mums of Remuera." Her mayoral-campaign positions aligned closely with traditional Green Party policy, particularly those concerning urban planning, climate change, and social justice. She decided to join the Greens, ignoring the approaches of other left-wing parties.

Because of the vagaries of the Green's ultra-democratic selection process, there's no guarantee Swarbrick will rank high enough on the party list to ensure she enters parliament come the election, but the initial signs look good. She is currently ranked 13 on the draft party list. If she retains this position on the final list, and the Greens maintain their current level of support at the polls, she will win a seat. "There are all these problems in the world," Swarbrick said, "with climate change and starvation and the growing gap between rich and poor, and the people whose job it is to literally do stuff about it are politicians." She tapped at the table with her forefinger for emphasis. "They have the resource and the power to do things, but because of the way the stereotype has developed—politicians are supposed to be these untrustworthy liars and cheats and thieves with their snouts in the trough, which results in this cyclical lack of expectation."

I asked, if elected, how she will break this cycle. She laughed and said, "I guess to some extent, naïveté and idealism." I pushed her for specific policy. "I genuinely believe that, because they are two inextricable problems, if you start taking climate change seriously, you start taking inequality seriously as well. We need to change the way that, right now, the focus is simply on growth for growth's sake. We need to stop looking at the GDP as a measure of the success of our country. Instead we need to be looking at income inequality and homelessness and housing quality and child poverty. I would like to see New Zealand be a world leader in response to climate change."

After more than eight years of a National Party–led, centre-right government more interested in self-preservation than big ideas, many on the left echo Swarbrick's assessment that "New Zealand is in trouble." The rates of child poverty are heartbreaking, and Auckland's housing market has locked out all but the comfortably middle class from owning homes. The country's "clean green" image doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny, and younger generations are crippled by student loans. Parliament is stacked full of baby boomers for whom most of these problems are mitigated by financial security. Who better, then, to tackle issues like student debt and the housing market than someone with a close to $43,000 loan herself, and who shares the same improbability of ever owning a home with the rest of her generation?

When I asked about her age, as I had when we met last year, she said she no longer sees it as irrelevant, but as a point of difference—one that's needed. "I just want to ensure the system is one that is actually representative. I'm not seeking to dictate solutions to people but to actually listen and engage in a different way. I see myself as being a different kind of politician."

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