In her second candidate diary for the Spinoff, the Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick recounts a moving visit to Christchurch and pays tribute to partner of five years Alex, a rock in a turbulent political tide.
Christchurch is very flat. That makes it an incredible city to cycle or walk around. It also means that when you’re standing in the middle of the red zone – 650 hectares of land around Christchurch’s Avon River damaged so badly insurers will never cover building on it again – you can see for miles through space that used to be occupied by homes and families.
I had known that 7,000 homes had been demolished in the wake of the February 2011 earthquake, indescribable destruction which took with it the lives of 185 people. But to be present in an area imbued with so much loss and heartache was something else entirely. It’s difficult to soak in something like that without becoming emotional.
My tour guide was Ashley Campbell, the head of Greening the Red Zone, who also lost her family home in the disaster. Her organisation seeks to have the Crown recognise that the land should never be built on given its propensity to flood, and should instead be converted into native bush – capitalising on a rare opportunity to create conservation land, instead of removing it.
It’s been six years since the earthquakes, and everybody I spoke to in Christchurch – students, councillors, journalists and everyday people – just want to get on with their lives. Many initially had strong opinions about things like the Christchurch Cathedral or the red zone, but now just want decisions made so that they’re able to move on.
Many point the finger at Gerry Brownlee, previously Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery (now, perhaps unsurprisingly, moved on to Minister of Foreign Affairs) for his behaviour – or rather, omissions – in leading the recovery. They felt they’d been ignored, ridiculed, or subjected to indifference.
What shook me the most in the midst of all the diggers, decisions still to be made, and rebuild to be done, was how little I’d known about how these problems persisted before I visited. It’s surprising that our country’s third largest city and its citizens receive next to no airtime for the compounding issues they still face.
Is it that the earthquake is a distant memory to New Zealanders? Because its aftermath still plagues the daily lives of nearly 400,000 people. Or is it that the botched clean-up is another story our government has managed to sweep tidily under the rug, along with the housing crisis and deep cuts to mental health funding?
In Tāmaki Makaurau, the Greens have been hitting the ground running with the launch of our ground campaigns. The Shore Greens, boasting an impressive line-up of MP Kennedy Graham and candidates Rebekah Juang, Godfrey Rudolph and James Goodhue, invited Golriz Ghahraman and me to their inaugural “Green Storm”.
It was an awesome event hosted by Michael Tavares (who would’ve made a brilliant 2017 Green Candidate but for the DIA refusing to see special circumstance in his 2015 trespass conviction for climbing and protecting an ancient kauri, thus denying his citizenship), which brought together dozens of fresh new volunteers. In the midst of that crowd, I had possibly the most touching experience of my political career so far. A seemingly introverted man approached me, and through near-tears, told me how important it was that I had talked that week in the media about my history with depression and anxiety, and how he felt that helped make talking about mental health normal and OK.
Since entering the public sphere as “politician”, with all the privilege that brings, I’ve been grappling with the balance of professionalism, privacy, and being a regular human being with a backstory, thoughts and feelings. I’m still working on it, but I’ve made a commitment to do all of this honesty and openly. If I ever lose that, I don’t think it’ll be worth it anymore, and I hope that should that day ever come, I’ll have enough self awareness to leave and make way for another idealistic young problem-solver.
Behind the scenes of this politics business, at the end of April I celebrated five years with my partner, Alex. We had worked and lived together for nearly four years when the idea came to fruition that I would run for Mayor in July of 2016.
What unfolded when I dipped my toe in this mad political experiment was something that I think would test any relationship: zero to 100 real quick, I was suddenly juggling my role in our businesses with policy announcements, interviews and public meetings; I was no longer home every night; I was squeezing every hour out of every day to learn about people’s problems and research solutions.
Ever since we started dating, Alex has been the person who supported my crazy, middle-of-the-night brainwaves, stitching together details in the background (he taught himself accounting to keep our businesses in operation – something you don’t think about when you’re a teenager caught up in doing something cool). He still does that, now also managing to be a rock of normalcy in a tide of political oddity.
I guess I just want to give a shout out to all of the best friends and folks behind the scenes who keep the world spinning. You’re the real MVPs.
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.