In her first parliamentary address, the new Green MP reveals her personal history of anxiety and depression, and her overriding ambitions for NZ.
Chlöe Swarbrick was elected to parliament as a list member for the Green Party. She wrote a candidate’s diary for the Spinoff during the recent campaign. Read her entries, and those of fellow new MPs Kiri Allan and Erica Stanford, here – along with their maiden speeches.
E te Māngai, tēnā koe
Tuatahi, ki te mana whenua o tēnei rohe, Te Ātiawat
Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa
Congratulations on your position. I’m immensely proud to enter this 52nd Parliament at such a time where you’ve actively sought to make the House more family friendly – to create a new normal. There’s been some critics of our having babies welcomed into this Chamber – it’s a place of work, they say. Children don’t belong in the midst of arguing. I think perhaps these critics may take for granted a nasty, adversarial culture – I personally hope the presence of babies helps remind us all of the gravity of our task and the lives our decisions impact.
I want to acknowledge my colleagues from Maungakiekie – new electorate MP Denise Lee, and my friend and new Labour MP, Priyanca Radhakrishnan. I also want to acknowledge my incredible new Green colleague who I’m honoured to enter this House with, Golriz Ghahraman.
Mr Speaker, four years ago, I started hosting a little current affairs show on Auckland’s number one alternative radio station. I spent a very long time interviewing politicians of all stripes on daily issues, but the underlying questions were always essentially the same:
How much do you understand this problem, and the lives of the people affected, outside of your briefing notes? And why should they trust you?
With all due respect, the answers were pretty much never satisfactory. There was an innocuous response mechanism seemingly bred into politicians, and with it, it’s like they’d become out of sync with the orbit of everyday people’s lives. I don’t think I would be alone in saying I couldn’t see myself, my friends, my whānau-in-politics.
Mr Speaker, young people don’t have a monopoly on political disillusionment – we just listen to better music while feeling it. It’s hard to engage in a system that doesn’t look or sound like you, that talks down to you, disparages your participation, and you can’t change.
The issue is, regardless of whether people choose to participate in this system, it governs their lives. Institutions didn’t have to look like they do – they’re the sum of the people engaged and involved. Democracy doesn’t have to feel broken – it’s a means, not an end.
Mr Speaker, the result of a few too many late night Google spirals and discussions with friends who’ve always entertained my left of field ideas saw me running for the Auckland Mayoralty. I tried to make it about the people of Auckland, to such an extent that I had a few people email me about the design of my posters, telling me that my name wasn’t big enough to read. But the slogan was, and it read: This is your city. I cut my teeth debating previous leader of the Labour Party, and my city’s new Mayor, Phil Goff.
A journalist asked me if my candidacy was a protest. I said yes, it kind of was, and they took that to mean it was a joke.
I don’t think protest is a joke. It’s a method of organisation, of bringing people together around common purpose. It’s a legitimate means to achieve tangible, meaningful outcomes; to make things better. To change.
We have a history of standing for things: peaceful resistance at Parihaka, women’s suffrage, nuclear free New Zealand, anti-apartheid. Our country’s political history is rich with protest.
So it shouldn’t really be any surprise to many in this House that a few weeks ago, freshly minted as an MP, I attended a protest.
My Dad texted me the next day telling me that he’d heard people on talkback radio saying mean things about me. I had to call him and remind him that I’m in the Green Party. Whilst we’ve been ahead of the policy curve – leading where all others eventually follow – change is almost always uncomfortable.
Change often come from the top. Change most frequently comes in the form of a groundswell – for the people, by the people. The very reason I stand in this chamber is because of the combined efforts of thousands of Green party volunteers and activists across Aotearoa. I’m here because of the staunch, tireless dedication to a kaupapa that recognises the wellbeing of our people and our planet as being inextricably linked. I’m here because of the tenacity, good humour, and support of my campaign team, who turned up, day in and day out, month after month after month. I’m here to supplement the mahi of our lean, mean, Green caucus. I’m here to try show people that politicians can look a little different, sound a little different, do things a little different. To drive home the message that politicians works for people – the mind boggling notion that politicians are people.
Mr Speaker, anybody paying attention saw that this was a rough, and generally rather exhausting campaign. A week before election day, at my final debate, I broke down in tears.
We were asked to speak on New Zealand’s shameful suicide rate, particularly with regard to our youth. Our rangatahi. Another candidate took this as academic, speaking in numbers and fiscals. They were abstracting the lives and loss of my friends.
As I cried, I couldn’t help but realise that this mental health epidemic rippling through our communities was the logical end point of austerity; the consequence of decades of economic and social reform that have shredded communities, safety nets, care.
It turns out, Mr Speaker, lives are more complicated than what’s on a CV. I spent a lot of my teenage years struggling with anxiety and depression.
The reason I talk about this is not because my mental health history has necessarily made me a stronger person, or given me any insights into the world. Rather than making me special, a history of mental illness makes me very normal, because these conditions are pandemic in our society. We in this House have the power and the platform to help define normality, so I think we have a responsibility to present ourselves as we really are, with our flaws intact.
I understand that’s no small task when in this universe – we’re supposed to be poised to jump at each other’s jugular at the faintest sign of weakness. But things like kindness, as I’m so glad our new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has put on the agenda, is not weakness. It’s human.
I ask that we remember and reflect the people we’re serving – it’s our job to empower them, not insulate ourselves to their scrutiny.
Too many of those we serve and represent are navigating insecure housing and insecure work. When you don’t know your neighbours or your co-workers to any depth, and you have a problem, you’re not inclined to talk about it. You internalise and individualise it. It’s your problem. It’s therefore a problem with you. Without strong communities, without mainstream recognition of the power of collective action, we don’t hear each other’s voices and we don’t put our finger on systemic issues that we need each other to help solve.
Mr Speaker, there’s this old joke. A fish is swimming up a river and it sees a dog standing on the bank and the dog says to it ‘How’s the water?’ and the fish replies, ‘What’s water?’
The most fundamental realities of our lives are often the hardest to see, and the hardest to talk about.
Kids from all over Aotearoa get brought here on a school trip, and they sit up in the gallery and they watch Parliament and their teachers tell them: ‘This is politics.’ When Question Time is on the news, everyone sees the yelling and screaming and and they’re told ‘This is politics. This is what politicians do.’
But what happens in this room is largely theatre. Politics is what happens when all the people in this room go back to their offices and close the doors and make decisions.
The consequences of those decisions saturate our lives. These decisions inform who is rich and who is poor, who gets sick, and who gets better. They decide what we eat and what we drink and the quality of the air that we breath. They decide who has a future and who does not. The consequences of political decisions are so pervasive in our lives we don’t even see them any more.
We in this room get to choose the rules. That means that those falling through the gaps are either there by systemic neglect, or, by design. It means that we the Green Party, as one moving part of the new Government, have an incredible opportunity, and duty, to fix things.
Mr Speaker, when I was eleven years old, Mrs Nabi, my form one teacher, made a point of telling off one of my friends. It was a decile 3 intermediate and I was one of a handful of pakeha kids. My Pasifika mate was looking down at his desk – she pointed out that this is what Pasifika kids are taught respect looks like. But to those suspended in the Pakeha world, where eye contact is respect, would see this as rude. Because of this, she said, brown kids were treated not only as naughty, but as disrespectful, particularly by those who may not understand cultural cues. That’s what systemic racism looks like, she taught us.
With that lesson, I started understanding that the system was designed for people with skin like mine. That’s what the echoes of colonisation look like. If we’re ever going to heal those wounds, we need to look at them in broad daylight. It’s the same with any and all history that we may try and bandage over – it is uncomfortable because it requires attention.
Mr Speaker, I am who I am because of my family. We don’t all share the same politics, but I was raised on a diet of robust and challenging discussion.
Dad – you gave me a toolkit of resilience. At seven years old, writing my first school speech on the double standards between kids and adults, as only a petulant seven year old could – you taught me the value of putting myself in other people’s shoes. You showed me how a perception gives someone their reality, and how nobody, not even a grumpy seven year old, was the centre of the universe.
Mum – I owe you my love of art, my love of reading, my love of theatre and film and creativity. You’ve shown me how one can take control of their narrative – our futures are not confined by our histories.
To my little sister Grace and my little brother Ollie – I’m stoked to be your big sister. Grace, I’ve appreciated how little you care about anything and everything politics; you’re my sounding board for why anybody should give a damn about the politics that plays out at the periphery of their lives. Ollie, I love learning with you – it’s so cool to be granted the ability to try and improve the education system just as you’re about to start intermediate school.
To my best friend and partner, Alex, who’d have imagined, when we met nearly six years ago outside Philosophy 101, that this is where we’d end up? Thank you for being my anchor amidst turbulence in life and self-discovery, for being my home when I didn’t have one. Thank you for pushing me to be myself. Thank you for putting up with me as I follow each and every new passion.
If I can accomplish one thing during my time here, if I can change one thing, I want to change people’s awareness of what politics really is, because if we can change that, everything else can change. I want to start that work here, today, by asking people to begin to look critically at the reality around you: look at our culture and our society and our economy and ask yourself if these systems are just and fair. If they’re not, who profits from unfairness, and who pays the price for injustice? Because politics is not me standing here giving this speech. Politics is all around you. Politics is water.
Politics lives in our relationships, in our conversations, in what we believe and what we’re willing to fight for. Mr Speaker, I stand here on the shoulders of giants – like Green pioneers Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald – and I’m here to fight, both from my privileged position inside these walls, and out protesting on the streets with the people I’m proud to represent, until nobody ever needs to fight again.