Chlöe Swarbrick was just 17 when she enrolled in Auckland University to do a Bachelor of Arts, before turning her attention to a degree in law not because she sought a career in that industry, rather to equip herself with the knowledge of how our system runs.
“There’s such a dearth of political education in schools I had to go to law school to learn about the Treaty of Waitangi,” says Chloe. “This is incredibly worrying because how then are we supposed raise civically-minded citizens?”
Civically-minded Chloe made headlines earlier this year, partly due to her relatively young age (22), with her campaign to become Auckland mayor. It was interviewing “uninspiring” potential candidates for the city’s top job while working as a journalist for bFM that first had her considering the role, if only, initially at least, as a protest.
“It used to be a running joke that I’d move into politics one day as I’m incredibly argumentative,” she says. “But discovering that only 34% of the electorate voted at the last election was a real catalyst. I waned to energise people, stir up some controversy and make some changes to the status quo. I wanted to make people realise just how much impact councils have on their individual lives.”
Chloe finished third, securing nearly 30,000 votes. Though she admits she was initially disappointed not to win, she now sees it as an “incredible achievement”. Last month she announced she’s running for the Green Party at next year’s general election. I ask Chloe what lessons she took from the mayoral campaign going forward with her new political career.
“The way I approached the entire thing was that I wanted people to care. I wanted people to have a meaningful conversation about why they should care and about what we should be doing. I recognise that when there is a multiplicity of different perspectives involved, that’s not easy. One of my fundamental pseudo-philosophies is that there is no such thing as absolute truth. All we have is perspective, and a conglomeration of subjectivity leads to some form of objectivity, I guess.”
Whether on social media or in person, Chloe sought to engage especially with those who “vehemently disagreed” with her: “I found that by showing respect to those who disagreed with me, I got respect back. That opened a lot of doors for dialogue. It’s an important lesson that can be imported, especially considering what is happening overseas.”
Chloe believes a significant “anti-PC, anti-liberal movement” contributed to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, with great swathes of the populations feeling “shut down” by the media. “I can understand that because when you do see racism or misogyny or xenophobia you do want to shut it down, but all that does is reinforce someone’s opinion,” she says. “If we want a progressive society, then we need to listen to dissenting voices.”
The Brexit and Trump movements both campaigned on the notion of ‘change’, and Chloe believes that’s what made them so appealing: “Unfortunately it typically manifested in more negative terms such as racism, sexism and xenophobia. I think it’s important we talk about the fact that people were able to compartmentalise that.”
I ask her if she sees any signs of a similar right-wing populist movement in New Zealand.
“I hope that that’s not the case. Despite the fact one in 100 people here are homeless, or in temporary shelter, or despite the housing crisis, I don’t think we have the same appetite for the same type of change. What we do have right now is an incredibly centrist government who responds to things as they happen, which is a very ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach. I think we need to develop our ability to communicate a progressive, inclusive, compassionate change.”
I ask if change can come from within a system that so many deem so flawed. Chloe doesn’t feel representative democracies are inherently flawed, rather the way they are implemented is — namely that our elected officials, either through arrogance or ignorance or both, are failing to uphold society’s ideals.
“When I first announced I was running for mayor, I didn’t really have any policies,” she admits. “So I opened the floodgates and asked ‘what are your hopes and dreams for Tāmaki-makau-rau?’ I received thousands of submissions, many of them were of course totally conflicting, but it was about acknowledging them. I then used that to sit down with academics, researchers and community leaders to inform policy. It allowed me to say ‘this is where I sit, let’s talk about it’, as opposed to preaching and claiming I had all of the answers. I think that’s a major issue, the disconnect between people and the politicians, many of whom come from elitist backgrounds. The reason my campaign appealed to at least a certain number of people is that I was just completely honest.”
What did you enjoy most about campaigning?
“The whole thing blew me away to be honest. It was an incredible experience. I had so much response, which I didn’t really anticipate. I thought I would put up his Facebook page and get 100 friends liking it, and I shot a video with my friends Tom and Katie and overnight it had 40,000 views—that was pretty mental! I was honoured that so many people let me into their lives, opened up to talk about the things that really concern them. We so often presume that there is a massive polarisation between the right and the left and forget that people are people and everybody has their own troubles. Most people are good people with different life experiences that means they have ended up on different sides of the spectrum. It’s important we have those dialogues to allow everyone to explain their point of view to come to a mutual and constructive conclusion that works well for everyone.”
Just a few days after the interview, Chloe is due to begin a community project of a different kind, opening a cafe called Olly’s in Mount Eden, along with her partner, Alex Bartley Catt, and Bryan Anderson (Chloe and Alex also run a digital marketing firm).
“The cafe will also incorporate an art gallery, and it’s in the Crystal Palace so it has been such fun working on such a historical building,” she says. “There has been much renovation to bring it up to scratch, to create this beautiful white space for the display of art.” To the back is a “stunning collaboration mural” by three of Chloe’s favourite artists: Bryson Naik, Jed Richardson and Toni Gill.
“It’s a tiny space, and there will be an exhibition every month which will focus on displaying local artists, to give them a platform,” Chloe says. “It will be awesome.”