Hubristic or transformative? Chlöe Swarbrick wants the co-ledership. Photo: Toby Manhire; image: Tina Tiller
Hubristic or transformative? Chlöe Swarbrick wants the co-ledership. Photo: Toby Manhire; image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsFebruary 3, 2024

The Swarbrick gauntlet

Hubristic or transformative? Chlöe Swarbrick wants the co-ledership. Photo: Toby Manhire; image: Tina Tiller
Hubristic or transformative? Chlöe Swarbrick wants the co-ledership. Photo: Toby Manhire; image: Tina Tiller

An audacious challenge has been laid down by the likely new co-leader, representing a threat not just to the National-led government, but to Labour, writes Toby Manhire.

Three New Zealand politicians in the post-Key era stick out from the pack for doing what the rest could not. For flouting, somehow, political gravity. 

Jacinda Ardern almost single-handedly reversed a hapless Labour Party’s fortunes in the weeks before the 2017 election. David Seymour, having led the charge on the end of life choice referendum, went on to turn Act, a cadaverous figure of fun on life support, into a party with seats at the cabinet table.

The third? Chlöe Swarbrick. Her victory in Auckland Central in 2020 made her just the second Green MP to win an electorate. Her victory in 2023 was more remarkable still. It was the first time a Green MP had retained a seat, and her example had inspired a second and a third Green constituency victory, for Tamatha Paul and Julie Anne Genter in neighbouring Wellington patches. And all achieved as the tide turned blue across the country.

Fittingly enough, Swarbrick, who threw her hand up to be Green co-leader yesterday, was recruited by the person who created that vacancy. After an impressive tilt at the Auckland mayoralty in 2015, Swarbrick was courted by both Labour and the Greens. James Shaw, who in recent days has garnered deserved accolades from across the political spectrum as he prepares to exit politics, travelled to Auckland after the local election on a recruitment mission. He was knocking on an open door – she’d always been a Green voter, she said at the time, although to be fair she hadn’t been a voter for long, and hesitated before nailing her colours to a party mast.

Chlöe Swarbrick in 2016, photographed by Nicole Semitara Hunt.

Back at that Auckland election, many – myself included – were initially sceptical about this 22-year-old rookie who, infuriated at the political malaise in the city, had decided to go directly for the top job. She quickly proved that she was no novelty candidate, however, but thoroughly informed and formidably good at arguing her case. Not only precocious, but preternaturally capable. Already she was the “well researched radical” (though what does this imply about radicals more generally?), the “nerd and policy wonk” she described yesterday when announcing her candidacy. “Effectively annoying,” is another way she’s summed up her political persona.

Swarbrick got better at it, too. Elected to parliament at seventh on the Green list – the youngest MP since Marilyn Waring – she hit the ground running. Across issues ranging from drug law reform to housing, poverty to climate change, she proved herself more adept than just about anyone at articulating complex ideas, the match of any rival in debate, and quick enough – OK, boomer – to grab international headlines. 

In 2020, she found herself the de facto spokesperson for the yes camp in the referendum on legalising cannabis, in part filling a vacuum, and in part because she was comfortably the most effective and eloquent voice making the case. That work continued into advocating into the house for reform of the Misuse of Drugs Act. “I didn’t come into parliament to talk about drugs,” she’d later say. “But I’ve ended up doing a lot of that.” 

There is conviction, yes, but at the same time an increasing grasp of political stagecraft, an ability to motivate peers and build a squadron of volunteers, a knack for communicating compellingly in bars and in halls, on television and social media. No surprise that both of our TV breakfast shows booked her as a weekly guest.

At the same time, Swarbrick wore her heart on her sleeve, talking about mental health and sexuality, for example, which at once made her connect with younger voters and exposed her to the bilious excesses of brave social media users. Swarbrick is regularly disenchanted with politics – “politics is fucked,” as she once put it – and has considered chucking it in. “It sounds flippant to say it happens every week. But it genuinely does,” she said at a Spinoff discussion with Erica Stanford and Kiri Allan in late 2022. “There are definitely some days where it feels a lot tougher.” Those moments of disillusionment, and sometimes despair, will have figured in her decision to run for the leadership, and she’ll have resolved to throw herself into until the next election at least. 

Though not universally adored in the Green membership – some whose suspicions of James Shaw saw him temporarily ejected from the co-leadership are sceptical of Swarbrick, too – the only way she will not win the co-leadership by a country mile is if she wins it unopposed. Her pitch, mirroring that of Marama Davidson, is unambiguously lefty. Launching her campaign yesterday she reeled off an unalloyed leftwing list of priorities and promised a “truly transformational” politics, in a not so subtle allusion to the last Labour government. Though business audiences may not warm to Swarbrick as they did to Shaw, she has proved her ability to reach across the ideological aisle in parliament and in Auckland, where she has forged an unlikely buddyship with Mayor Wayne Brown while regularly criticising parts of his performance. 

“It’s really cooked,” Swarbrick told me last year, swatting away a question about leadership, “that we have this perverse focus on whoever’s at the top of the pecking order as being the only person capable of achieving that change and dictating to their underlings. I don’t think that politics should operate like that.” Cooked, maybe. But the unshakable reality is that a new leader, a co-leader even, can, sometimes, seriously shift the needle. Swarbrick, like Ardern or Seymour before her, is one of the few capable of doing that.

As a new co-leader she will have one crucial advantage: name recognition. Over recent years Swarbrick has consistently ranked between 2% and 3% in preferred prime minister polling. That would be unremarkable were it not that she has never been the leader of the party, and routinely polled above the two people who were. She will climb in that preferred PM number, too, even before Green members vote. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her nipping before long at Chris Hipkins’ heels. 

Swarbrick yesterday set her ambition high. She wanted to see the Greens “leading movement of the political left”, to be the major party, even, in a left coalition. An audacious goal. Hubristic, even. But also, I’d wager, a real possibility. Swarbrick will face new challenges, not least in striving to ensure climate change retains the prominence that Shaw gave it and in dealing with any emergencies that might spring out of a caucus full of green Greens. But she has been consistently underestimated since she first dipped her toe into politics nine years ago. National and its coalition opponents are unlikely to underestimate her potency as an opposition leader. Less certain is whether Labour will underestimate her very real potential to threaten their primacy on the left. 

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