A year ago today, the final results of the New Zealand general election were announced and Chlöe Swarbrick was confirmed as the MP for Auckland Central. Hayden Donnell delves into the reality-bending optimism that helped engineer her unlikely victory.
It was an hour before her election party in Auckland Central, and Chlöe Swarbrick hadn’t prepared for losing. The realisation she could be about to suffer a highly public defeat hit her with a sudden jolt of panic. I was like ‘shit, what am I going to say to all of these people?’,” she says.
Thankfully the people closest to Swarbrick had anticipated this exact problem. Her partner Nadine Walker and campaign manager Leroy Beckett held a secret summit in the lead-up to the party, where they discussed how to take the sting off a loss. Even though she’d polled at 24.4% a month before the election, they correctly suspected Swarbrick hadn’t steeled herself to concede in front of an audience of her supporters. They agreed to make certain some of Swarbrick’s best friends were at the event to make sure she was OK. “We wanted to make sure she was around people close to her who could pick her up if need be,” says Beckett.
That story would seem more like political bluster if it wasn’t so consistent with how Swarbrick has acted throughout her political career. In 2016, she moped in the courtyard of Ponsonby bar the Golden Dawn after losing the Auckland mayoralty race as a 22-year-old political novice. Though she received 29,000 votes, beating out 2013 runner-up John Palino for third place, it was cold comfort; she’d been running to win. When she joined the Greens the following year, she unsuccessfully made her case to be the party’s candidate for Auckland Central instead of the incumbent Denise Roche, even though her eventual campaign manager in the 2017 Maungakiekie electorate race, Hayden Eastmond-Mein, advised her to bide her time.
Her ambition was undimmed when the party finally gave her the Auckland Central nomination three years later. It expected her to drum up interest in Green policy and boost the party vote, but not much else. Beckett says Swarbrick had bigger plans. “When we were pitching the campaign to the party, I would argue it would be good for volunteer enthusiasm and a great platform for Green Party issues, and Chlöe would be like ‘sure, but the important thing is we can win’.”
Improbably, she was right. Swarbrick’s electorate victory on October 17 became one of the most unlikely stories from an unlikely election. Stuff’s chief political reporter Henry Cooke had promised to call himself “a big dumb dumb” if more than one electorate was carried by a non-National or Labour MP. Political commentator Neale Jones urged the Greens to focus on reaching the 5% threshold when Swarbrick was polling third. The Green MP sees her victory as a kind of rebuke to the prognosticators. “I love the realists,” she says, untruthfully. “Like, who are you to think you have any idea this is the way the world works? There are infinite possibilities even with the five million people in this country. MMP happened. Anything can happen.”
That confidence could come off as arrogance. In person, it reads more like wilfully oblivious optimism. It’s true that Swarbrick shrugs off conventional political wisdom, and even the hard realities of polling. The parameters of the possible irk her, and she refuses to accept them quietly. But for someone so ambitious, she’s plagued by self-doubt. During her Auckland Central campaign, she became so overwhelmed that she sat down with scholar and former politician Marilyn Waring for a three-hour pep talk in a park. “I cried for a bit because I was like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I believe in all this stuff, and I’m trying my best, but it’s hard’,” she says.
Swarbrick’s resistance to political realism seems to stem less from self-belief and more from a borderline irrational faith in stuff like the fundamental goodness of other people. “I know I’m earnest. I know I’m optimistic and all that,” she says. “But it comes back to the fact I believe in my community and that’s what keeps me going, because I see awesome people doing amazing things every day. I believe in teamwork.”
That faith in, and reliance on, other people is a large part of the reason Swarbrick needed to be a local MP. While many central government politicians occasionally show up at their electorate offices to check the mail, Swarbrick has supported a long list of local causes. In the year since she was elected, she has backed the campaign to save the St James Theatre, joined protesters at Pūtiki Bay on Waiheke, helped win support for the Albert St businesses affected by the City Rail Link construction, and pressured officials to relocate the central city’s vaccination centre to a larger site with doubled capacity.
These smaller-scale wins punctuate her disappointment when it comes to more fundamental change. Even though Swarbrick won her electorate, the campaign she mostly fronted to legalise marijuana was voted down at the election. The country’s mental health system is still broken. The grandest injustices of our society, from the racism of its justice system to the racism of its health sector, remain intractable. It’s hard for Swarbrick to place any hope in parliament, which won’t pass a comprehensive capital gains tax even as house prices keep rising by nearly 30% a year. But when she visits Aotea Great Barrier, she can see the pupils of Mulberry Grove School being dropped off by a school bus she fought to retain funding for. “I just love that at a really local level, you can see how quickly things can change. When those things change you have proof of concept, and you can build on it.”
Swarbrick keeps trying to chip away at those bigger issues. On any given day, she’ll post a dozen tweets and Facebook statuses on topics ranging from climate change to the Bird of the Year competition. Following her social media feeds can be an exercise in second-hand exhaustion. She attributes her tirelessness to the potential she’s seen while acting as a local MP. But there’s also another factor at play: Swarbrick was diagnosed with ADHD earlier this year, at the age of 27. Though she’s reluctant to describe the diagnosis as either “debilitating or a superpower”, she says the way her mind works delivers some advantages. It helps her feel comfortable flitting between criticising the Reserve Bank and calling for prisons to be abolished, even if it can be less of an unmitigated boon in her family and social circles. “All of the things that serve me relatively well in a political space are the things that irk a lot of people in my family. My little sister gets really annoyed when she’s talking about something to do with her baby and I’m like ‘here is the history of why that is a problem and how we can resolve that’.”
Swarbrick is adamant that anyone could be doing what she’s doing; that the only difference between her and someone off the street is that she’s deciding to give things a go. “If somebody sees me doing stuff that they like, they’re seeing stuff that they can also do,” she says. In all likelihood, that’s not true. Most people don’t have her energy. They’re not indefatigable in the face of adversity, or able to butt their heads against a series of brick walls in the belief that one day they’ll cause a crack. They’ve already been worn down by failure. The last few decades have been a ceaseless stream of huge defeats for anyone other than middle and upper-class Boomers. Millennials have watched the richer members of their parents’ generation ratchet house prices out of reach, then clutch their capital winnings to their chests like a million Gollums. Right now we’re struggling to navigate out of a pandemic because too many people are refusing to take a medicine which stops vulnerable people suffocating to death. Most days, having faith in humanity seems less like optimism, and more like an exercise in wilful ignorance.
Swarbrick won’t accept that. In Auckland Central, her campaign was based on the fanciful belief that if she worked hard enough, and made enough good arguments, a majority of people would be won over and vote for change. This political version of The Secret shouldn’t have worked. The electoral math seemed impossible, even with a great campaign. But a year ago today, she was confirmed as MP for her neighbourhood with a 1086 vote majority, after special votes were counted. Henry Cooke was forced to tweet “folks…i’m a big dumb dumb”. Political gravity may usually prevail. The math may reassert itself. But sometimes a little faith can keep reality at bay.