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Chlöe and Jacinda go back to school

Better than algebra! The Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick and Labour’s Jacinda Ardern talk personal aspirations and politics with students at an Auckland inner-city school. 

Jacinda Ardern told the students at ACG Senior College this week she got saddled with a nickname when she entered parliament: “Socialist Cindy”. She hates being called Cindy, although her mother has been known to do it. Still, as nicknames go, it’s not so bad. The Labour deputy leader, now aged 36, was, after all, once the leader of the International Union of Socialist Youth.

Chlöe Swarbrick, still not 23 (until Monday!) and an aspirant MP for the Greens, said she’d never had a nickname.

There they were, the pair of them, guests of honour at a political forum organised by Senior College, the private school by the central library catering for years 11-13. Most of the students were there and a good number of them will be eligible to vote in September. This was, make no mistake, a campaign meeting.

(No National? Education minister Nikki Kaye spoke there last Friday and said she was considering the merits of a “social standard”: a formal measure of a student’s engagement in non-curricular life to sit alongside their academic grades. It was apparently quite popular.)

Swarbrick said she got into politics after interviewing politicians for bFM and discovering they talked a lot of nonsense. So much nonsense, she would end up banging her head on the wall. Ardern said she had probably been one of those politicians, so she takes some of the credit for Swarbrick’s career choice and she’s good with that. Swarbrick did not start banging her head on the wall again.

They were so friendly and the students were so polite: no heckling or anything and no difficult questions either. Drug reform? Sexual health issues? Corrupt politicians? Oddly, they didn’t come up. If you ask me, one reason young people are less inclined to vote than old people is that they don’t realise how exciting some of the issues can be.

Jacinda Ardern posing for a photo with 2016 student leader Teresa Lee, who represented her in the Youth Parliament last year. Photo: Simon Wilson

It was strange, watching Ardern and Swarbrick do the big smiley BFF thing. The Greens and Labour have a Memorandum of Understanding, so you don’t expect trash talk. Okay. But they’re feeding from the same trough, these two. Every party vote the Greens get is potentially a party vote Labour didn’t get, and vice versa. And while it’s obvious enough they have party differences, at a personal level that’s not really true of Jacinda Ardern and Chlöe Swarbrick. You could probably find tissue paper that’s thicker than the political gap between those two. And yet both belong to parties that are desperately keen to command the liberal vote in Auckland. They have to disagree, or at least distinguish themselves, somehow.

So how did they do that in front of these keen-eyed first-time voters?

Casually trying to out-charm each other, that’s how. They’re both really good at that: the smiles, the easy banter, the relaxed warmth, the heartfelt concern. They sat on a couch for most of the hour, although towards the end Ardern jumped to her feet with the microphone and then Swarbrick followed suit and she even got quite passionate. “You should be voting for something,” she pleaded. “You should be inspired to vote.”

Ardern said she thinks of parliament as “a place to do good” and that, initially, she thought it helped that she was young and a woman. She got noticed, got selected, got media attention, I think she meant. But then she’d go to meetings and they seemed to think she would make the tea. “And you get asked different questions: ‘Are you married?’ Just last week a journalist wanted to know if I was pregnant.”

Swarbrick said young women were constantly being asked to “legitimise” being in politics. Men didn’t get that.

From left: The Greens’ Chloe Swarbrick with student leader Sophia Hunt, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and student leader Lara Cable.

A student asked, did they want to be prime minister? Both said no. “I used to work for Helen Clark,” said Ardern. “She had no life. She got four hours’ sleep a night. Getting a break, for her, was walking on a treadmill while she had a cup of tea. So, no, I don’t want to do that. I’m happy to give 95 percent of my life but there’s a little bit of it I want to preserve.”

Then she zapped it up a few notches. “And you know, I want to eradicate child poverty. And do other things too. But if I can help make that change in this little corner of the world, I’ll be happy.”

Swarbrick didn’t try to top that. She was frank about not wanting to be in politics forever and hoped she’d have the self-awareness to know when she had stopped being effective. For her, the Greens were the right fit: action on climate change and action on social justice had the same wellspring and the same targets. “The biggest polluters are the companies that gain the most from perpetuating injustice.”

Arden flattered them. “You’re the most powerful voters,” she said. “The 18-24-year-old age group, it’s the most powerful because it votes the least. Did you know there were 125,000 young people registered to vote last time, who didn’t show up. If you all vote this time, the impact will be enormous. You change the government on your own.”

From left: The Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick with student leader Sophia Hunt, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and student leader Lara Cable. Photo: Simon Wilson

Swarbrick warned about not getting obsessed with the trendy issues. Changing the world, she said, isn’t just about people who are wealthy enough making good personal choices. Social movements have to involve everyone and changed behaviour has to be possible for everyone, not just the wealthy. “Things like buying organic. You can’t go to South Auckland and tell them that’s what they should be doing.”

Ardern dug in on child poverty. How was it, she asked rhetorically, that New Zealand was one of only four countries in the OECD that doesn’t measure child poverty? (The others are South Korea, Chile and Turkey.) “In politics,” she said, “what gets measured gets done.” That’s true, and not just for politics.

Swarbrick said she’d always liked something former Greens MP Sue Bradford said: “If you were born today, what kind of society would you want to be born into? You should vote for the party that you think will deliver that society.”

They both talked about mental health. Ardern said we have the worst youth suicide rate in the OECD “and that devastates me”. She plugged her party’s commitment to “comprehensive youth-based public health services in all schools”. Swarbrick said it troubled her enormously that “reported mental health problems at the University of Auckland are up 30 percent since 2011”.

Another student asked them, how do you answer the charge that a socialist government will destroy the country?

Ardern said, “Who thinks that? Who’s heard that Labour mismanaged the economy last time we were in office?” A few hands went up, but not many. “In fact,” she said, “the last time we were in office we held the net crown debt at near zero. During the nine years of that term we had the biggest sustained growth recorded since World War II. And we did it with extremely low unemployment. But what is different is the priorities. We will spend money to fix chronic problems, rather than give me a tax cut.”

She added, in relation to the parties in parliament, “But beyond that, we all operate with a pretty established set of economic guidelines.”

Swarbrick had her own round-up speech, and this was the impassioned bit. “I’m sick of hearing about how we can’t let environmental policies undermine the economy,” she said. “We need an environment or we won’t have an economy at all. And you know what, we’ve got to stop obsessing on productivity.”

She finished with a flourish: “The top 1 percent owns three times the wealth of the bottom 50 percent. But things can change!”

There was quite enthusiastic clapping, though no cheering or catcalling or anything like that. The selfies afterwards, for both of them, took a while.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz


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