She’s bright, she’s bold, she’s running for mayor. And yes, she’s 22. Katie Parker talks to Chloe Swarbrick about age, experience, and why she wants to be the big kahuna.
Chloe Swarbrick, in person, is professional, earnest and engaging. She talks quickly and persuasively, holds your gaze confidently with her clear pale green eyes and gesticulates like a military strategist. She’s genuine. She’s eloquent. And she’s clearly slightly exasperated.
What to make of a 22-year-old who wants to be mayor? Do you applaud her moxie or scorn her hubris? Is she an idealistic underdog or a cynical careerist trying to launch herself with a splash? Should voters prick their ears or yawn into their paws? The media don’t seem to know. You probably don’t either.
Meeting with her at a cafe in Britomart last week I certainly didn’t. When I was 22 I was an idiot. I could barely cook an egg let alone run a city. Thankfully, Chloe is clearly smarter than me. She’s probably smarter than most people. And in the most diplomatic manner, she is perfectly capable of making that quite clear.
Chloe is also a consummate overachiever. It sounds like she’s barely sat down in the five years since she left school early at 17 to go to the University of Auckland with discretionary entrance.
She enrolled in a BA. She became a reporter for bFM, and editor of What’s Good blog. She started a clothing label. She became a patron of the arts, working with artists, hiring galleries, pinning down sponsors and selling work to the likes of Sir James Wallace. She worked at 2degrees “just banking money” because she didn’t have any spare time in which to spend it. She finished her BA and started a law degree, “never with the intention of being a lawyer, but because I wanted to know the system that I was critiquing”. She graduated, and started a marketing consultancy.
Which brings us to the present, and Chloe is running for mayor. Not a seat on a local board. Not a role in the council. Not a springboard youth position. Mayor. The top dog. The head honcho. The big cheese.
Talking to Chloe, there is no doubting her enthusiasm or her sincerity, or that her policies are well thought out and sensible. She’s also a master at selling herself: that her age is a strength; that her motivation is sound; that her litany of small businesses represent skill, rather than flightiness. But even with all her experience, all her ventures, all her clearly insurmountable drive, the question remains: why?
How do you feel about being the ‘youth candidate’?
It’s a double-edged sword. It means I have the novelty factor in the news media, and the angle is consistently that I’m 22 – that’s the headline. Obviously what that means is I am getting my name out there, which as we know is super important for name recognition purposes when people are voting. To be that first introduction to people, so then they can engage with what I’m actually talking about in terms of policy and my values and things like that.
The common thread is ‘I’m 26 and I would never vote for anybody under 30’. And I mean, that’s solely face value stuff. My age is something I can’t change. I’ve accepted it and, if anything, I do believe that it is a strength for me in that respect. I really understand these issues.
Why go for mayor straight off the bat, rather than start out as a councillor?
The whole reason I decided to get involved in this was because of the poor voter turnout, and because of my feeling that Auckland was on a precipice. We’re on a tipping point, whereby we do have the ability to change a lot of things.
In 2013, 34.7 per cent of Auckland voted last election, which is just less than 350,000. Which is absolutely dismal to me. And as a representative body, it’s crazy to me that we can have what’s supposed to be representative democracy which a third of Auckland voted for. 66 per cent of Auckland didn’t vote for our city council. Then you’ve got all of the issues with satisfaction with what our council currently does; it’s staying at 15 to 17 per cent dependent on which statistics you look at. And in talking to people about these issues, a lot of people don’t understand what the council does. But it has the ability to affect so much of our daily lives. It’s a place where a lot of change can be effected, but nobody’s really currently taking responsibility.
In terms of running for Mayor, it’s because it’s a position of leadership. And I was disappointed with the candidates who had put themselves forward and I was disappointed with the fact that none of them had sought to address that turnout and none of them had sought to engage more of Auckland in the conversation. I’ve been at quite a few debates now and all of these people, all of these candidates, are fighting over 34 per cent; they’re not seeking to engage the other 66.
Do you feel like you’re being taken seriously?
The platform of those debates is actually very different to the type of debate I’m interested in. Having been a journalist, I want to leap up and ask them questions when they veer off course from what the initial question actually was, and also fact check and things like that, but it doesn’t function like that. So how these debates actually work is there’s a question lobbed, and we have one to two minutes to actually address the question, with everybody going in order. Nobody’s lobbing questions at me about ‘are you actually serious for running’ so it’s up to me to really address that first and foremost.
I do have people from the audience come up afterwards and saying, ‘what you’re doing is awesome, your passion is obvious, your policies are great. I’m not going to vote for you, but what are you going to do next time?’ Because right now, particularly with the voters who are already there and who’ve voted in every single election and who own homes, they just don’t see the reality of a 22-year-old sitting as Mayor. But at my meetings, that’s a very different thing. So I am being taken seriously there.
When you think about being Mayor, does it freak you out to think you’d be working with people who might have trouble taking you seriously?
No, not at all. For the past few years my partner Alex and I have started multiple businesses, so ever since I was 17, I’ve been sitting in meetings with people who are twice or triple my age and convincing them to work with me and then – this sounds so pretentious, but – blowing them away. Because the thing that’s really interesting about being younger is I have to be better than everybody else to be taken seriously. And that’s the really intriguing thing about my policy as well. It’s the most detailed. It is the most thoroughly researched and anybody who wants to ask me any question about how it’s practically going to work, I’m able to answer that question. Because the back end of it is hundreds of footnotes that I have personally researched myself, hours and hours and hours, and then I’ve talked to researchers and academics.
Being 22 and doing all of this, do you feel like you’re making a sacrifice?
I don’t feel like it’s a sacrifice, no. I love what I’m doing and, it’ll sound clichéd no matter what way I say it, but I do love this city and the potential [it has]. The track that we’re on, it does frighten me. And it is one where we’re not going to be able to afford homes, and also the opportunity is going to keep shrinking and shrinking and shrinking, and we’re all going to be forced out of this city. And I see a real potential for change.
How can you make up for your lack in council experience?
One of the really interesting things in talking about council experience is everybody is proposing to bring something different to the role. So you’ve got Goff on the one side, being like ‘I have decades of experience in central government’. And then you’ve got Crone on the other side, being like ‘I have business experience’. And local government is different from central government in so far as it’s very on the ground, it’s supposed to be interacting with local boards, it’s supposed to be about communities. And it’s very different from a business, in so far as there is a CEO.
The role of the mayor is, for all intents and purposes, to be the visionary. The role of the mayor is to unite people, it’s to communicate with the general public what the council is doing and to bring the public into what the council is up to. I think that I will be able to do that quite well, because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past five years across a multiplicity of things. So I mean, obviously in journalism, questioning the status quo and the way that things work, but also in uniting dozens of people to bring together community projects that are fully volunteer based, and sitting down with people twice, or triple, my age, to get them to invest in some project I’m doing. Absolutely I think I’ll have the skill set to do it.
Do you have political aspirations beyond this?
To be completely honest with you, I never wanted to be in politics before this. If you’d asked me six months ago, I would have said ‘no way’. The thing that prompted me to get into this was just, this is my city and I’m sick of complaining about stuff, I want to do something about it and I want to take ownership of these problems. And for so long I felt that I could do so much more outside of politics, whether that be as a journalist, in social enterprise, or in community projects. And I’m not looking at central government, definitely not. If I don’t win this election, then I will remain in the public sphere and I will keep doing stuff that drives our city forward. Whether that be returning to journalism, or continuing with community projects or social enterprise. But I’m not sure where politics will go if I don’t get in.
Do you think you have a chance of winning?
I think what we were talking about before, the fact that everyone’s right now fighting over 34 per cent [means] I have 66 per cent to play with. I honestly, truly, really want to engage those people, because this city is those people. 40 per cent of Auckland’s population wasn’t born here, half of our city’s population is under 35. These people need to be a part of the conversation, because it’s not only their city too but, in terms of the young people, they’re going to inherit it.
Are you finding the media frustrating?
Yeah, I am. And in a lot of respects, it feels as though certain publications are kind of going out of their way to ignore me. And that is quite infuriating. So many different publications that I’ve engaged in a dialogue with – because they wanted to do pieces – I’ve sat them down and talked about my policy and what I want to achieve and why I’m doing this and why this is so important and pivotal for Auckland. And they’ve taken all of that and reduced it to ‘she’s 22’. And that’s the most infuriating thing. Again it’s that doubled-edged sword whereby I definitely still see my age as a strength, but I would like my policy to be talked about more.
My policy works, it’s good, it’s better than everybody else’s [but] it’s not being talked about. And it’s because everyone’s just accepting the status quo. And that’s frustrating.
Do you ever feel like it would be easier if you were a guy?
Interestingly I expected a lot more sexism, obviously having witnessed it with the likes of Jacinda Ardern, Helen Clark, and any other woman who’s in the limelight. But I haven’t really experienced too much blatant sexism. In terms of whatever the undertones are, I can’t comment to those because I’m probably pretty blind to them. And that’s probably just because I’m headstrong and I’ll just keep doing it.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.