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PoliticsJuly 30, 2017

Chlöe Swarbrick on the baying for Metiria’s blood and escaping echo chambers


For the last fortnight the Green Party has found itself in the unfamiliar position of dominating campaign headlines. Chlöe Swarbrick takes a (brief) pause for breath to reflect on it all in her third candidate diary for the Spinoff.

I’ve kind of lost all semblance of time. It turns out that crossing the threshold from regular human being to general election candidate can put you in a time warp. Saturdays and Sundays no longer serve as bookends to the week, but become valuable campaign time. You think and plan in terms of where people congregate. Mornings are for transport hubs, lunchtimes for suburban and town centres, nights for community events.

The past few weeks have soared by. I’ve been popping up and down all over Aotearoa, mainly visiting universities and high schools, and talking to masses of young people, many of whom had been feeling disillusioned or excluded by politics.

At Victoria University. Photo: Tim Onnes

I’m aware, however, that frequently these places, especially campuses, are a bit of an echo chamber for political discourse. I’m really keen to find a way to reach outside that, to somehow talk to the 91,000 young people who aren’t currently in work or training. The best punt my campaign team and I have had so far is to seek invitation into the places and spaces of people who’d typically declare themselves non-voters. We’ve had a massive response, and I’ll be visiting a lot of flats over the next few weeks for potlucks and politics.

In the midst of all the campaigning, however, came a bit of watershed moment for New Zealand politics. At our annual general meeting, Greens co-leaders James Shaw and Metiria Turei respectively announced our plans to go carbon neutral by 2050, and repair the welfare safety net.

It’s the latter announcement that is still dominating the news. That is because it was paired with an admission by Meyt that when she was a single mother on the benefit, studying law, post Ruth Richardson’s cuts in the Mother of all Budgets, she didn’t tell the truth to WINZ. In her own words, the system made her a liar, and her experience made our policy announcement so deeply personal. And then came the baying for blood. Political commentators cycled through moral outrage from arguing “politicians shouldn’t dare be political” to reprehending the fact that a poor person dared involve themselves in democracy – they should’ve been pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.

It’s not my place to tell Meyt’s story. She’s been fronting up to the media and representing herself with integrity and grace.

Green Campaign Conference/AGM. Photo: Deborah Teh

In a nutshell, this policy introduces a guaranteed basic income, provided on the basis of need. We won’t allow New Zealanders to fall below the poverty line. It’s a start to reversing a culturally and systemically entrenched punitive approach to the poor. It provides people with the dignity to bounce back when they need it. Best put by Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, “It is a grave mistake thinking welfare policy is about the poor. It is actually about what happens to all of us when we find ourselves poor.”

The policy was delivered just before Yale University released its study into homelessness across the developed world. New Zealand topped the chart. We have 41,000 homeless in our country.

Both the government and commentators soon emerged to challenge the study’s methodology and split hairs about who we class as “homeless”. Social Housing Minister Amy Adams argued we weren’t comparing “apples with apples”, and that the government estimated homelessness was closer to 4,000.

According to the authoritative Otago Uni homelessness report, that 4,000 figure is the number of New Zealanders sleeping rough. There’s 7,900 other New Zealanders living in commercial dwellings or marae due to lack of access to minimally adequate housing, and 29,000 living as a temporary resident in a severely crowded dwelling due to a lack of access to minimally adequate housing. The key denominator is a lack of minimally adequate housing. The key fact is that 41,000 New Zealanders do not have a place to call home. [Note: this data was corrected on 30 July.] 

We can quibble about methodology all we like, but that’s 1 in 100 of us without a secure roof over their head. Meanwhile the government spends $140,000 per day on emergency housing, with no long-term plan to reduce homelessness.

All of this is political. It’s also fact, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me while out on the campaign trail that it’s crucial that we recognise the subjective lenses through which we interpret it.

When I spoke at a university a few months back, a guy asked me why we, the Greens, would be campaigning to increase student allowances. Students were basically living lives of luxury, himself and his friends included, he told me.

Call me a philosophy major (and you’d be right), but I think perspective is everything. Your life experience, and your friends’ life experiences demonstrate the way the world responds to and works for you and your friends. But they do not and cannot account for the way the world responds to and works for other people. In intellectual circles, assuming that your experience with something is the same as somebody else’s is known as the problem of induction. In the world of clichés, it’s simply that assumptions make an ass of U and I.

I shared on Twitter last week the story of a young man I met who, as many people I’m finding nowadays do, asked me if I could convince him to support the Greens. I asked him who he usually voted for. He told me he always voted National.

I asked why. He pondered for a moment, then told me it was because National had made it harder to get the benefit. Between the lines, I think he was speaking to the assumption that because fewer New Zealanders are receiving the benefit, things must be going pretty well for people in this country.

The incredible thing was, this young educated man, with the support of his middle-upper-class family, was receiving the job seeker’s benefit. He’s one of those who genuinely needed it the least, but because of his education and time to dedicate to jumping through hoops by virtue of his family’s support, he was doing OK.

These guys are not bad guys. They’re people who hold beliefs as a result of their daily experiences.

Fossil Free UoA March for Divestment. Photo: Izzie Gunn

Another unfortunate reality of the housing crisis and the ineffectiveness of New Zealand’s public transport systems (seeing many of us use private transport in place of rubbing shoulders with strangers) is that we’re becoming less and less inclined to encounter people from different backgrounds in our daily lives. With social media further curating an information and confirmation bias feedback loop, we’re becoming disconnected from the opinions and struggles of those unlike us.

I think it’d be awesome if over the next two months, all of us could make an effort to talk to people outside of our usual circles and listen to their life experiences, to help inform a holistic sense of modern Aotearoa before we head to the polling booths. I truly believe that meaningful discussions among friends, family and loved ones will have as much impact this election as any party-led campaigning, perhaps more.

Our values as a country are being tested this election. Are we OK with the way things are? Are we comfortable with pretending hungry kids, homeless teenagers and polluted waterways don’t exist? Or are we OK with their existence? Do we have the guts to change it?

Just because something is not your problem, it does not mean that problem doesn’t exist.

In the least cheesy way possible, it’s super unlikely that the “revolution” per se will be televised. The disconnect between everyday people and status quo politics is evident, while the potential for grassroots transformation of our representative democracy is not only entirely possible, but more and more likely.

At the very least, hitting the pavements and dialling phones this week has been a solid antidote to talkback radio.

Binge yourself on election 2017 coverage from the Spinoff, including the first-time candidate diaries and party leader interviews, and more.

Keep going!