Two women who entered parliament at the age of 23, albeit 42 years apart, discuss their parliamentary experiences
Read an extract from The Political Years by Marilyn Waring here
When Chlöe Swarbrick is introduced at events, she finds herself hailed as the youngest person to be elected to parliament since Marilyn Waring.
“I’m very sorry. I apologise,” said Waring, when Swarbrick told her as much last week. “No one should have to wear that.”
The Green Party MP and the former National MP (now AUT academic) came together at the Spinoff office in Auckland following the publication of Waring’s new book, The Political Years, which chronicles her time in parliament, as MP for Raglan, from 1975 to 1984. They discussed their experiences of being thrust into a general election campaign, of confronting the institution of parliament, and the people within it.
The cover of the book features the governing National Party caucus of 1978, a sea of MPs among which Waring is the solitary woman. “In fact, from 1975 to 1981,” said Waring, “I was the only woman MP in the North Island.”
An occasional thorn in the side of her own party, Waring’s decision to cross the floor and support the opposition’s nuclear-free NZ bill was cited by Prime Minister Rob Muldoon as reason enough to call a snap election.
Asked by Swarbrick how she had been received by her caucus colleagues in 1975, Waring said she was “never received at all by some of them. There were a number of them who wished to goodness I didn’t exist and wasn’t there at all.”
It was a large caucus, she said, so there were “a lot of boys elbowing each other for room and sound space and all of that kind of thing. Not a greatly cerebral activity.”
Her willingness to express an opinion had not endeared her to many of her colleagues, whom, she said, were governing as if they were still in the 1950s.
“Something like two thirds of the first cabinet had all served in the second world war. Everybody was governing for yesterday. These guys just had no idea about what the world was about,” she said.
“Dear George Gair [a liberally minded National MP] used to say to me, ‘Dear, you were just always so far ahead of us.’ And I used to say to him, ‘George, I was just current. You weren’t. So, yeah, I was totally a different gender. A totally different era. There weren’t all that many people in the caucus with degrees. People didn’t like evidence very much.”
On the latter point, said Swarbrick, “I can tell you that that still exists … Evidence is anathema to politics.” That was compounded, she said, when “you add in the ingredients of hyper-partisanship in a soundbite medium environment which is becoming ever more difficult in an overly saturated media environment, where everybody’s competing for space.”
Four decades ago, Waring had extracts of her speeches published in daily papers, she said. “I didn’t have to contend with the madness of, you know, trying to work out what sensational 15 seconds that I put together even to be heard … It’s very different for you, and I think much, much harder, in this contested, mad sound space.”
“One of the most frustrating things to me is operating in such an inherently colonial, adversarial environment where people are only concerned about winning or being right,” said Swarbrick.
“There’s no real concern palpably that I can feel on a day to day basis to do the right thing.”
“It’s really unhealthy to have to get up every morning to go to work to fight … It’s really unhealthy for everybody, you know, that whole atmosphere.”
Despite the four decades that separated the two 23-year-olds’ arrival at parliament, one “real similarity with where I was”, said Waring, is in having to “be across so much” – the volume of work and expectation was heightened when serving multiple constituencies, geographical and demographic. “You’ve just got to be a sponge, every single piece of information you can get, and you’re already working in overdrive, all the time.”
Amid that “sheer adrenalin and determination”, Waring suggested, was this: “I’m Chloe, I’m 24 years old, looking in the mirror, and I need to be able to keep engaging in the mirror for the rest of my life. And I’m going to have to live with this for decades longer than anyone else who’s in there. So you’re conscious of that?”
Swarbrick added: “The thing that really gets me is on a day to day basis at public meetings is I’ll be asked, ‘How long to do you want to be there? Do you want to be prime minister?’ Like, you don’t join the Greens if you want to be prime minister. You join the Greens because you want to fight tooth and nail for something.”
When she’d been similarly asked of how long she’d stay in parliament, Waring later said, “I had an answer, which was: Every day you have to face that question. And there will be moments of principle that might come, and there’s no choice, you have to walk.”
Swarbrick added: “I have kind of come to the conclusion that I’m not really interested in just being in parliament for the sake of being in parliament … Looking at colleagues and looking at how the structure of the place indoctrinates you. The incentive structure is entirely perverse.
“People do absolutely come in believing in something. But when you’re faced with the opportunity to create transformative change on the one hand, which is often complicated and nuanced and you have to explain it, versus keeping your head down and thinking that you can just continue to tweak around the edges and do the incrementalism, people will opt for that one because they know that that is the pathway that to date has secured them a continuing position and power. So, it’s frustrating.”
“But you know you have a whole life,” said Waring.
“I know I do.”
The nuclear-free cause, with which Waring will forever remain associated, has been invoked by the prime minister as an inspiration, or template even, for the fight against the ongoing climate emergency.
“Some people have been saying we don’t have the same sort of precipitating ingredients as if we had somehow greater consensus around nuclear-free,” said Swarbrick.
“It just takes a bit longer,” said Waring.
“I think it’s there. It’s very old fashioned, but, really, really deep in my heart I trust the people. You know, they let you down sometimes. But in this country, in this really special country, I still think you can trust the people.”
“I’m hopelessly earnest and idealistic,” said Swarbrick. “I just think if we could have people all the more engaged in democratic decision making, and aware of what was going on, outcomes would be a whole lot better in general, and there’d be greater levels of accountability. I’m a massive advocate for devolving power, down to local government.”
Swarbrick’s final question addressed the pugilistic prime minister in whose party Waring served: “If you could have one last conversation with Muldoon, what would you say?”
“I really don’t know that I’d have anything to say to him. I had very little to say to him in the eight-and-a-half years I had to work with him. So, nothing much, at all,” she said.
“I wouldn’t waste my breath.”
The Political Years (BWB) can be purchased at Unity Books
The Spinoff politics section is made possible by Flick, the electricity retailer giving New Zealanders power over their power. With both spot price and fixed price plans available, you can be sure you’re getting true cost and real choice when you join Flick. Support us by making the switch today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.