Summer reissue: In the 2020 election, first term MP Chlöe Swarbrick will be one of just two Greens explicitly running to win an electorate. She spoke to Alex Braae about how she rates her chances of taking down National’s deputy leader.
First published June 20, 2020
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After four frantic years in politics, Chlöe Swarbrick has finally been forced to slow down. Since damaging some ligaments in her foot, she’s hobbling around in a moonboot.
We’re meeting at Peach Pit on Karangahape Road, a bar right at the heart of an inner city Swarbrick has called home for years. She’s the K Road candidate, and filled the afternoon before the interview by sequencing a series of meetings with business owners, slowly making her way up the road and taking as few steps as possible.
The injury is a rare setback for a politician who has had an astonishing run to date. After standing for the Auckland mayoralty at the age of 21 and winning almost 30,000 votes, she joined the Green Party in 2017 and got into parliament on the list. She was the youngest MP in 50 years.
Over the course of the term, Swarbrick has played a leading role in drug reform. That has included helping get a referendum on legalising cannabis on the ballot, and making changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act that enshrined police discretion over whether to prosecute, and prioritised a health-based approach to drug crime. She has also launched campaigns to improve student accommodation charging policies and standards, and put pressure on the government for more mental health funding.
Now placed at third on the list, Swarbrick is going for a seat that could define her party’s chances of staying in parliament. She’ll be taking on National’s deputy leader, Nikki Kaye, in Auckland Central – a seat that no lesser candidate than Jacinda Ardern twice tried and failed to take. Is Swarbrick really serious about running to win?
“We have to be. The reality is for the Greens that the party vote will always be the most important vote – that’s how I’m a member of parliament. But we have to realise that in this electorate, across all electorates in the country held by a National MP, this has the lowest National party vote. So I think there’s not the right representation presently for Auckland Central.”
It’s a huge call, even if National’s party vote was about 6% lower than Kaye’s electorate share in 2017. The seat doesn’t lean left so much as heavily socially liberal, and Kaye is National’s most prominent and popular liberal by far. Her personal majority is more than a thousand votes, and she has recently rocketed right up to the top of her party.
Swarbrick doesn’t believe that the recent elevation will help Kaye’s chances of holding the seat. “I found it interesting that she has held herself out as an urban liberal, but has held up a party that has supported things completely contrary to that.” Swarbrick said she hoped to debate Kaye, and make her answer for the record of the previous government.
“You have a former minister who is responsible for kids sleeping in cars. Who’s responsible for greater climate inaction. And you see those things coming from the party and its spokespeople over the last two years in opposition. Given her new position, there’s an opportunity to either drive the party in a new direction, or no longer pretend she’s different,” Swarbrick added about Kaye, archly suggesting that she’s “looking forward to more New Zealanders to have the opportunity to get to know her.”
There’s also the not insignificant matter of her nearest recent challenger – Labour’s Helen White – running for the seat again. White is ranked 50th on Labour’s list, giving her every incentive to run hard for a win as well. Why should Labour voters back a Green candidate instead?
“No party is entitled to anyone’s votes. All of us have to work for them. But we also have to explain the importance and weight of those votes within a very complicated context.”
She didn’t answer the question directly, instead pivoting to talk about why she saw Auckland Central’s issues as being core Green issues, particularly around housing and transport. “With regard to Labour and the formation of the government over the last term, I think voters are smart enough to make their own decisions, and discern who has been responsible for what.”
In other words – those voters who want a Labour government need to decide what sort of Labour government they want to see. Many on the left have been deeply frustrated by the progress (or lack thereof, as some critics would say) that has been made over the first term of the Ardern government. Green policies and ideas have consistently been shot down, while formal coalition partner NZ First has got a hell of a lot more of what it wants.
Now both of those parties are polling right up against the 5% threshold, a wall of death for minor parties in the MMP system. The only way for a party that falls below it to stay in parliament is to win an electorate seat. NZ First have Shane Jones running hard in Northland, as their most viable candidate to win a seat.
The Greens, by contrast, have two co-leaders in seats with large Labour majorities. James Shaw has traditionally done well in the Wellington Central party vote, but has also repeatedly been crushed by Grant Robertson for the electorate – not that he’s ever really gone for it. Marama Davidson has announced that she will be running to win in Tāmaki Makaurau, a seat she has placed third in twice. This time around, she’ll be running against both minister for Whānau Ora Peeni Henare for Labour, and former MP and Waipareira Trust chief executive John Tamihere, who recently became co-leader of the Maori Party.
Swarbrick is a candidate who – perhaps uniquely among the current group of Green MPs – has the ability to secure a large number of electorate votes of people who wouldn’t give the Greens their party votes. She demonstrated that in the electorate of Maungakiekie in 2017, with her personal vote tally doubling what the Greens achieved there in the party vote. Swarbrick says she got approached repeatedly during the advance voting period by people who said “I’d voted for you in Maungakiekie, and given Jacinda my other vote.”
Just how she came to be standing in Maungakiekie last time around, despite having much stronger connections to Auckland Central, is down to the complicated internal democracy of the Green Party. Swarbrick notes that after her mayoral run, several parties tried to court her with offers of good places on the list. The Greens, by contrast, made it clear that there were absolutely no guarantees of a list spot, or even an electorate candidacy. It is understood that the Waiheke branch in particular within Auckland Central wanted to stick with then-MP Denise Roche in 2017, despite a challenge from Swarbrick.
The party jealously guards itself against the idea of any one politician becoming bigger than the wider movement, and candidates are required to get the explicit backing of the wider party before running to try and win an electorate – the standard approach for all candidates is to campaign for the party vote only. Only one Green MP has ever held an electorate seat – Jeanette Fitzsimons in Coromandel in 1999. That victory came with a nudge from Labour leader Helen Clark for supporters to give her a tick.
While Swarbrick’s elevation up the party rankings has been rapid and remarkable, she isn’t universally beloved within the party. The GreenLeft faction – a relatively small but hearty activist group – released a preferred list of 12 candidates, which didn’t include Swarbrick at all. Neither were co-leader James Shaw, or conservation minister Eugenie Sage.
It seemed to reflect a real dissatisfaction among the left for the more slow and steady, consensus-driven approach that the Greens have taken in government. That’s also a broader criticism that often gets made of the party, that they haven’t achieved enough of what they say they want over the term. And in fairness, many would argue that the exact problems the last government presided over still exist. Swarbrick said “every single member of the caucus would agree.”
“We have fought to go a whole lot further, and do a whole lot more quicker, but haven’t got to that point because we’ve had to negotiate. But that comes back to the point about MMP politics. Nobody ever gets everything they want when you have to negotiate through multiple parties.” She also argues that the Greens have had a disproportionate influence “as eight MPs in a 120 member parliament”.
She also made a point about the conflicts that arise between activism and government, describing the Green caucus as the parliamentary wing of an activist movement. “We’ve had more momentum in the past three years than arguably what we’ve achieved in a number of other terms – but again, notably all of that has been built off the advocacy and activism of the past two decades, and the work that has been done outside parliament.”
The commitment to internal democracy in the Greens means that even some fundamental decisions about electoral strategy need to go to the party first. For example, the question is put to Swarbrick about what she’d do if Jacinda Ardern happened to be having a cup of tea at Verona, and invited Swarbrick to come along too. The answer?
“That decision wouldn’t be down to me. That would be down to the whole Green Party. I’m a footsoldier, and as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t about me.”
Regardless, the next 90 days will see Swarbrick frantically campaigning for a rare Green electorate victory – and about half of that time she’ll be walking with a heavy limp. She believes she has a chance at an upset, but has a policy of not taking anything for granted when it comes to her political career.
“I never planned to be a politician. The fact that I’ve also managed to survive this long within parliament without blowing up my job, because of the way I engage in controversial issues or whatever else – it’s surprised not only me but a lot of other people I’m close to.”
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