Meet The 27-Year-Old Politician Being Called New Zealand’s Answer To AOC

The 27-year-old Greens MP has become one of New Zealand’s most beloved politicians for her no-bullshit nature and viral quips, but there’s much more to Swarbrick than a good one-liner.
On the night of October 17th 2020, Chlöe Swarbrick left the election headquarters of New Zealand’s Green Party where she had been watching the results roll in live with family, volunteers and her fellow party members. But just a few minutes after she arrived home to her apartment, she received a frantic call telling her to come back — immediately. The results would be in that night after all, they said, and moreover, it looked very likely that she would win. To the surprise of many, including —unbeknown to Swarbrick at the time — some in her campaign team, at just past midnight, she made history.
Swarbrick was confirmed as the new MP of one of the country’s most important electorates, Auckland Central, becoming the country’s second Greens MP ever to win an electorate, and the first to do so without any help from a major party. Then aged 26, Swarbrick was labelled a “youth” politician, who had no prior experience as an MP. She was also gunning for an area that had been helmed by a conservative politician for the past four elections, one which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had previously lost twice. In certain circles, Swarbrick’s victory that night almost overshadowed that of Ardern’s landslide reelection. 
Swarbrick’s opponents may have been blindsided (one even told her publicly to pull out of a losing race), but those who followed her closely weren’t. She had spent years building a loyal following through her no-bullshit approach to politics and refusal to assimilate by changing herself to look, dress and act like others in her field. This attitude and aesthetic attracted her fellow millennials as well as Gen Z, who had long been disillusioned with politics and were increasingly getting frustrated by the capitalist, consumer-driven workings of the world.

She had spent years building a loyal following through her no-bullshit approach to politics and refusal to assimilate by changing herself to look, dress and act like others in her field.

Swarbrick’s 2020 campaign was run by volunteers from both generations. They put on a standup comedy night — in which she performed. They fundraised through an art auction, a drag show, and the selling of a cookbook — Swarbrick flipped burgers. On Instagram, she spoke passionately about drug law reform, the housing crisis and climate change. 
Critics have come at Swarbrick for many things: her age, her ideas, even the spelling of her name (when she was learning to write as a child, she put the diaeresis above the "o" instead of the "e" and it stuck). They clocked the fancy high school she attended and put a ‘privileged’ label on her. But though she’s indeed privileged in that she’s a white, educated woman without a disability, Swarbrick’s upbringing wasn’t easy. Her story is a complicated one, covering addiction, mental illness and loss, and as she tells me about it, I realise it's this history that contributes to her passion and drive for helping others. It’s why she seems wise beyond her years and what helps her to relate to people from all walks of life. It’s also the reason she acts so fearlessly. As she puts it, going through “quite a few experiences of losing everything” makes you resilient.
Before she was born, Swarbrick’s pregnant mother relocated from London to New Zealand. There, she met the man Swarbrick calls Dad, who adopted her when she was three. A few years later, following the birth of her little sister, Swarbrick’s parents broke up and the girls moved with their mum back to the UK. But due to the expense of raising two young children in the city on a single income, Swarbrick and her sister were soon moving again. This time, to live with their dad, who had relocated to Papua New Guinea. After a couple of years of growing up in a compound surrounded by armed men, the family went back to Auckland. And when she was 12, Swarbrick learned that her dad wasn't her biological father. Her mum moved back to the area around the same time, and Swarbrick split her time between houses.
During high school, Swarbrick says, “stuff was a bit full-on.” feeling untethered and confused about her identity, she lashed out. She began abusing alcohol and avoiding the classroom. “I started becoming… rebellious is one way to put it. Numb and uncaring is another way,” she tells me over Zoom from her Auckland office. “I was deeply entrenched in self-loathing, which resulted in me not caring much about anything at all, particularly my school work. I was being quite self-destructive.” Swarbrick quickly realised she wouldn’t survive if she continued the way she was, so she dropped out of high school at age 16 and left home. Looking back, she realises now that what she was experiencing was “quite intense depression,” but at the time, all she knew was that things needed to change dramatically.

“I was deeply entrenched in self-loathing, which resulted in me not caring much about anything at all, particularly my school work. I was being quite self-destructive.”

After various stints at odd jobs, Swarbrick found a bridging course that allowed her to qualify for university without having completed secondary school. There, she threw herself into studying philosophy, and later, law. Fresh out of university at just 22 years old, Swarbrick burst onto the political scene with next to no resources, announcing she would be running in the 2016 Auckland mayoral contest. Her “naive”, as she now puts it, idea came after she got sick of hearing the same stale spiel from political candidates who she’d encountered firsthand while conducting interviews for her campus' independent radio station. Despite being completely unknown in the political landscape, Swarbrick shocked everyone when her low-budget grassroots campaign landed her in third place, ahead of others with decades more experience. Following her run, the Green Party came calling and in 2017, Swarbrick was sworn in as the youngest lawmaker in New Zealand since 1975, aged 23.
Very quickly, it was clear that Swarbrick would be doing things differently. The same year she entered Parliament, her name made headlines globally on the likes of CNN and the BBC when she succinctly shut up a Conservative MP twice her age who was heckling her during a speech about climate change. “OK, boomer,” Swarbrick responded when the man took a jab at her age. Her one-liners didn’t stop there, either. In numerous interviews since, including a podcast conversation I had with her in 2020, Swarbrick has declared that “politics is fucked.”
Now an MP, it doesn’t look likely that Swarbrick’s voice or her vision will change. When we speak, she still says ‘aye’ instead of ‘pardon’. She uses the phrase ‘cooked’ to describe difficult situations and ‘hardout’ when she agrees with you. She still wears band T-shirts and sneakers to work and our conversation moves seamlessly from speaking about cats (Swarbrick co-parents one named Barry with her fiancé Nadine) to renters’ rights. Given her attitude and work ethic — she’s behind the first-ever Green Party bill that passed unanimously through Parliament — it’s quite obvious where the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comparisons come from, though she brushes them off with a laugh. 
It wasn’t until she joined the Green Party in 2017 that Swarbrick had the means to be able to see a therapist, which she accessed through parliament. During those sessions, she began to understand that people can have a biological predisposition towards mental ill-health on top of other circumstantial factors, such as environment and community. This made her realise that her depression “probably wasn't just a situational thing” and despite turning her life around, she “still quite strongly” grapples with it. Before getting professional help, Swarbrick says she was “really unhealthy in a way” and suffered from “a number” of breakdowns. “I try hard to unpack this bullshit narrative of success,” she says. “People are like, ‘How did you get to where you are?’ And I’m like, ‘This is not a great story.’”

“I try hard to unpack this bullshit narrative of success,” she says. “People are like, ‘How did you get to where you are?’ And I’m like, ‘This is not a great story.’”

It’s always been taboo to speak about mental health in politics, so much so that when I profiled Prime Minister Ardern in 2017, she made sure to emphasise that her reported anxiety was at a level that’s “very normal for someone in her position.” The reason for Ardern’s apparent apprehension to address her mental health was displayed when Swarbrick first publicly spoke about hers. Some, confusingly, accused her of using her story as a way to entice voters, while the majority told her she had no right to be anywhere near power — she was dubbed ‘crazy’, and being crazy is a surefire way to lose votes. But instead of shying away from the conversation to be more palatable to certain voter demographics, Swarbrick opened up even further. Today, she’s the Greens’ mental health spokesperson. Recently, Swarbrick’s been going through the process of unpacking what she describes as “immense self-loathing”—a very peculiar thing to grapple with, especially when you have a public-facing persona. “Trying to retain a sense of safety while trying to be authentic as a person, particularly in politics when everyone is trying to ‘getcha’ on certain things, is weird,” she says. 
Swarbrick is seeing a new therapist and has gone off her medication, something that was a “full-on and mind-warping” experience. “I'd been on them for years and I just got to this point of utter numbness,” she explains. “I was getting to quite a dangerous place of just not caring and being very flippant about my work and people in my life. I don't want to extrapolate and say that this is everybody's experience, but it felt almost like I was suspended above a glass floor—I couldn’t feel the low lows anymore, but at the same time, I couldn’t feel high, either.” Swarbrick says it’s “definitely a lot harder” now without medication, and that a few people have suggested perhaps she tries them again. “But I was at a point where it became numbing, which, ironically, was the feeling that prompted me to start working through my depression in the first place.” When she got off her depression meds, Swarbrick burst into tears in the shower while looking at her soap dish. “I was like, ‘This is so beautiful. This is made by somebody who really cares about this,’” she laughs. “It was just so nice to feel things again.” 
When you think of a politician, the outline of a white, middle-aged, likely balding man comes to mind — and for good reason. In 2021, women account for less than 12 per cent of the world's leaders and only 25 per cent of lawmakers. But there hasn’t just been a gender barrier in the field; there’s also been one of age.
Swarbrick has been told many times she’s too young to properly understand what she’s talking about, or that she doesn’t have enough life experience. “My life experience is growing up in a generation where my retirement is the climate crisis. Myself and friends are told we're never going to be able to afford a house — and that it’s our fault because we, perhaps, like to eat out. We have 10s of 1000s of dollars worth of student debt for degrees we're told we need, but that we also shouldn't get because we're entitled. We're also snowflakes. But if we push back on the idea that we're snowflakes — particularly to those who call us that — we’re trying to generate intergenerational warfare, which I've had my own experience with.” 

“My life experience is growing up in a generation where my retirement is the climate crisis."

The age topic used to annoy Swarbrick, but now she embraces it. She’s realised how essential it is to have young people in politics: they tend to be the ones pushing for real change in society because in some ways they have nothing to lose. But as people get older, they accumulate assets and realise change means uncertainty — and potentially loss. Suddenly, it doesn’t look quite so appealing to eat the rich. “Any attempt to try and change things is always conflated with a naivete about how things are right now by people who are benefiting from the rules that are in place at present,” she explains. 
Despite being something of a local celebrity now (Swarbrick has the largest Instagram following of any politician in New Zealand, bar Ardern), she is adamant not to lose touch with her community and those who voted her in, aware that the increasingly individualistic way society is run does nothing but benefit those at the top. On election night, she wrote, “We did what everybody said was impossible. This is what politics can be. Community.” Swarbrick frequents the same coffee shops and spends hours replying to individual messages. She says she grapples with whether she wants to continue her political career on an “almost daily” basis. “I think anybody in a position of power who doesn’t reflect on whether they are the right person to be there is probably quite self-absorbed,” she explains. “And that's really cooked and problematic for the future of democracy.”
Though there’s a lot she wants to get done, Swarbrick knows there are others in her generation and the one below it who are ready and waiting to continue the work. “I feel very comfortable in losing my job if I've done it for things that I believe in,” she says. “The way I see it, even if something is deeply unpopular, but it's something I interrogate and think is the right thing, either at a certain point, we make it happen, or I lose my job. But if I do so on the grounds of integrity, that’s all good by me.” 

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