Chlöe Swarbrick with Kiri Allan on the campaign trail in 2017; and in 2022. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Chlöe Swarbrick with Kiri Allan on the campaign trail in 2017; and in 2022. (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsNovember 25, 2022

‘I’m very effectively annoying’: Chlöe Swarbrick on five years as an MP

Chlöe Swarbrick with Kiri Allan on the campaign trail in 2017; and in 2022. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Chlöe Swarbrick with Kiri Allan on the campaign trail in 2017; and in 2022. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Yes, politics remains broken. But there is a privilege in being a parliamentarian, and a way to make it work, says the Green MP.

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Since her election to parliament in 2017, Chlöe Swarbrick has had moments of disillusionment and wondering whether she has had enough. “It sounds flippant to say it happens every week. But it genuinely does,” she said. “There are definitely some days where it feels a lot tougher.”

Elected first on the Greens’ party list and then, in 2020, pulling off the extraordinary feat of winning the Auckland Central seat, Swarbrick has gained attention in Aotearoa and abroad for her frankness, her one-liners and policy achievements against the odds. 

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But, in keeping with fellow 2017 first-time candidate diarists Kiri Allan and Erica Stanford, who gathered together this month for a special Spinoff Members event, she has always felt like an outsider in the halls of parliament. “I hate so much of the system and the institution that we’re inside of. In the chamber, climate change doesn’t exist, poverty doesn’t exist. And everyone’s just delivering Shakespearean soliloquies based on how long their whip has told them to talk for. That feels very disenchanting. But then you go out, particularly into the electorate, and you engage with people, and you solve some problems, and you get some proof of concept. And you mobilise people and you give some people some hope, and you can build on that. And that’s the stuff which kind of reenergises me.”

While still fundamentally believing, as she suggested in the documentary OK Chlöe, that “politics is fucked”, she has come to see something else. “There are parts of it that I genuinely do love, and that is the problem-solving stuff … And it also feels, I guess, as I get older, ‘more mature’, that it’s just so petty to complain about it in that way. It is such a privilege to do this job. So I’m still navigating all that stuff. I still do get very cynical and very disenchanted. But the way that I’ve kind of framed up that I do my job now is that I’m very effectively annoying. I’m very good at picking an issue and running with it and finding every single possible avenue to keep that issue alive,” said Swarbrick, banging the desk for emphasis. “And in doing that there’s some kind of sense of success that you feel in being creative.”

Chlöe Swarbrick, Kiri Allan, Eric Stanford and Toby Manhire at the Candidate Diarists Reunion event.

Swarbrick’s political journey began in 2016, at the age of 22, with a run for the Auckland mayoralty. She finished third, but in the process won over a number of cynics and attracted the attention of political parties in Wellington. Was there a bidding war? “A few different political parties approached and I spoke to a few different people but went with the Greens because, despite them not being able to guarantee a place, it was the alignment of values,” she said. “And I guess, also the ability just be straight up about the things that I wanted to do … I think that in a party smaller than two historical big ones, that is a little bit more freedom, sometimes to express stuff, to shake some shit up.”

The 2017 campaign was a painful one for the Greens, as co-leader Metiria Turei was assailed over an admission in a speech that she had lied to Winz years earlier to make ends meet as a solo mother. With six weeks to go to election day, Turei resigned. “It was emotional,” said Swarbrick. “We had 50-odd people in our office in Auckland Central. And we were all tuned in to the 6 o’clock news. And that happened. And then we all kind of cried. We were like, yeah, we can’t do phone calling any more.”

She drew on “conversations with Meyt during that process. There was one thing she said that stuck in my mind, which was: ‘no one person is bigger than the kaupapa’. You know, you have to keep moving forward. If we have a movement that lives or dies on the shoulders of one person, that’s not a sustainable movement … So it was gnarly. And I don’t know if I’ve still necessarily worked through all of that trauma. It was a hardcore campaign.”

‘Profound example of injustice and illogic’

Swarbrick has been outspoken on drug reform across the last five years. She became the most articulate political voice in favour of a yes vote in the ill-fated cannabis legalisation referendum. She fought hard for changes to allow people to have illegal drugs tested legally. Most recently she has successfully pushed the government to tighten up rules relating to the sale of a legal drug, alcohol. 

“I didn’t come into parliament to talk about drugs,” said Swarbrick. “But I’ve ended up doing a lot of that.” She inherited the medicinal cannabis member’s bill from Julie-Anne Genter when she became a minister, and continued to focus on drug laws, “the most profound example of injustice and illogic and anti-evidence legislation on our statute books.”

She said: “I think it’s very easy to forget, particularly with the flashpoint of the 2020 referendum, just how much work has been done over the last five years on this issue, with amendments to the [Misuse of Drugs Act].”

All taken together, “I feel like that’s helped to reframe the discussion around drugs, and we’re in a different place than we ever have been. And hopefully, right in time for us to look at some commitments from all political parties for the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 to be binned.” 

See also: Kiri Allan and Erica Stanford.

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