By Jennie-Louise Kendrick & Grace Mitchell
Mar 02, 2018

Full Exposure: Chlöe Swarbrick

Jennie-Louise Kendrick and Grace Mitchell sat down with Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick to chat medicinal cannabis and climate change over spirulina and an overheated iPhone.

Nexus: How would you describe the main contributions of your party to the coalition government?

CS: We are only a few months in so it’s difficult to gauge but I do think the hard work is really starting this year. The contributions, as they are outlined, are around our 20 goals set out at our conference, from the implementation of the Zero Carbon Act, through to free mental health for under 25s, to inclusive education so kids with special needs have the same kind of access to education, through to a more open and accessible democracy. The job is now to implement them and see how they manifest; what they look like.

James [Shaw] is planning to table the Zero Carbon Act in October before the House but before that happens, he wants to have proper consultations. So all the stakeholders – especially farmers in New Zealand – actually get to be part of the conversation and feel as though they have a sense of ownership over it.

My classic gripe with politicians is that they go, ‘right! This is your problem and this is how I’m going to solve your problem’ as opposed to, ‘what is your problem? How should we solve this together?’ I feel like the Greens tend to fall in with the latter. I feel like we are also part of changing the tone and the culture around politics. One of the things I, for example, am working on is creating a cross-party group on sensible drug law reform. The reason that I’m doing that is, off the back of the Medicinal Cannabis Bill being voted down, I feel that we must increase the knowledge base, awareness and evidentiary consensus in the House so we can move on. I don’t care about blame; I care about getting things done.”

Nexus: How would you like the public to perceive the Green Party?

CS: There’s a lot of stereotypes around the Green Party; there’s the hippie image, then the [labelling by] MPs like David Bennett, who often sits in the House and calls us socialists or communists. All that has always felt a bit weird for me because when I was at bFM in Auckland, I always felt as though the Greens had a different approach to politics, and because their policies were pretty far forward from the other parties, it’s easy to pigeonhole that and say it’s insane. If you look at the trajectory of how policies are actually adopted, usually something is a Green Party policy, and then 5 to 10 years later, it’s a Labour policy - and then twenty years after that, it’s a National policy.

If we were in Silicon Valley, for example, we would be the agitators and the innovators, but because we are in the slow-moving, glacial world of sound bite politics, it is very easy for people to pigeonhole us. To change this perception of the Green Party, we need to assure that we are contributing to korero around openness and critical thinking in politics. This is the thing I struggle with now being a partisan politician, and very much wearing my colours, my values and my policies, I’m not seeking to indoctrinate people and say you must mindlessly follow my party. I want people to critically and openly engage – so that’s why my legit favourite thing to do is to have political potlucks – people invite their mates that are really cynical about politics or say that they hate the Greens and we try and investigate why that is. People so frequently base those opinions and perceptions on what they’ve heard from their parents or grandparents or a sound bite that was in the news – I’m just really interested in investigating why people think the way that they do, which is probably just the philosophy nerd in me.

Nexus: Where do you think the balance lies between encouraging business and preserving the environment?

CS: James talks about it in terms of a three-legged stool; there’s the economy, social equality and the environment. If one of those legs isn’t there, the stool falls over. So they are all really critical to maintain status quo and so we don’t have a complete revolution. I think it’s really important to realise that if we don’t have a planet there is no business.

There’s a lot of misconceptions around the Green Party, particularly from our opposition to Free Trade Agreements. Canada is a great example; several years ago, they tried to reach their Paris Agreement targets to reduce carbon emissions and increase productivity and employment in small business. They started up a localized solar panel programme and the World Trade Organization shut it down, basically saying they couldn’t do it because it was against a FTA. So we are setting up, with the signing of all these agreements, for living in a very changed world, which I don’t think we are really quite cognisant of yet or have foreseen the consequences of, around the conglomeration of intellectual property with monopolies. I think it’s by far the majority, about 80 percent of the cases that are being taken [to court] are over FTAs which have been set up to destroy the environment because countries have tried to stop mining etc. So that is indicative of what these FTAs are predominantly being used for. More than that, it’s the fact that we are putting the interests of massive commercial bodies ahead of everyday New Zealanders. Most people don’t quite know what we are talking about when we talk about these amorphous trade agreements that are thousands of pages and are, by design, keeping people out; by being entrenched in that technocratic jargon.

I think we are very much in line with small business, with localization and flourishing communities, and against the ideology of individuation which has shattered communities and seen people ultimately end up a world where they feel less connected to others. I know that sounds super hippie but what I’m getting at is that part of the economic reforms we saw in the 80s was about people having to go to the cities to get work so all these local businesses are shutting up shop, it had to happen then because we were way too locked down but at the same time, it wasn’t in consultation with people being affected on the front lines. That’s why, for me, appropriate decision making, which is one of the four principles of the Greens, is absolutely critical to the system’s thinking.

Nexus: What are three things you would change about our country if you could? You can say David Seymour if you want!

CS: [laughs] The interesting thing about that guy is that he gets far too much attention for 0.6 percent of the vote and a glorified overhang seat. I think he kind of flocks towards the controversial and the clickbait in order to attempt relevancy.

Anyway, the first thing I would change with be a supreme codified constitution. I think it’s critical to highlight here, is that I personally don’t want to dictate what that constitution would look like. I don’t think it’s the job of any individual or party to set the rules that are going to bind everybody – I think that has to be done with proper consultation with tangata whenua because it has to be a model of ownership and again, this is part of recognizing that our treaty is built on Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Kind of related to the constitutional stuff, I would really like to see New Zealand being a leader when it comes to being clean and green – we have every reason to be able to do that, we are just currently not because the system isn’t there to support it and that is what the Zero Carbon Act will be set up to do – it will be entrenched so future governments will be bound to hit those targets.

The third thing would be, and this has only really come onto my radar due to picking up my portfolio in the past few months, and I think it would have a long term impact on our country in terms of communities, prison populations and health, would be to actually walk the talk when treating drugs as a health issue. Right now, we are multiplying harm because the War on Drugs is shredding communities; it’s placing people in the cycle of intergenerational poverty and criminality – people simply aren’t going to stick their hands up to us when they could risk going away in handcuffs.

Nexus: It seems like you never originally intended to enter into politics - having worked in journalism and owning your own businesses. What is the biggest thing you want to achieve in your first term in parliament?

CS: Basically, I was really pissed off at the way things were and felt as though I didn’t see myself and my friends represented in politics and I didn’t know who was going to do it. I felt like I had spent so long talking to politicians and going, ‘so when are you gonna do it? What are you gonna do?’ and none of my friends wanted to do it, so I thought ‘screw it, I’ll have to do it’.

I worry about the deifying of me around the whole politics thing; I should not be, and am not, the be all and end all; I’m not the panacea to solve everything but I hope that I serve to open the door to more young people walking in and being representatives. There’s currently only two people under 30 in the House which is absolutely abysmal; it's not a House of Representatives.

A classic critique that was thrown my way through the election campaign and still happens is, that I’ve ‘got no life experience’. First and foremost, look at my CV! But also, what is life experience? More days on earth does not quantify having more life experience. I know a whole heck of older people that have spent the last 30 or 40 years doing the exact same thing which means you have no novel experiences on a day to day basis so you actually don’t have more life experience – which I presume just means knowing more about the stuff and the things that may come at you in life. I think younger people have a unique skill set in regards to being more open-minded and critically thinking – more than that, we have grown up in a world saddled with student debt, which is why I’m stoked all the freshers are getting Fees Free – that is so exciting, and paying an arm and a leg to live in a moldy house that might kill you, then there’s a massive power imbalance with your boss – it is all very valid life experience that is critical to have represented in the House because otherwise nothing ever changes.

The thing that I’m most excited about that is coming up right now is, as of last week, is the members’ bill which I took on for Mojo Mathers – she drafted it when she realized the way the polls were looking, she wouldn’t get back in. The Election Access Fund Bill would create a pool of funding available for candidates and voters with disabilities to participate in democracy fairly, freely and equitably. These are people that have barriers that others don’t have, and it is part of fulfilling our obligations under the 2008 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – it’s something from the UN that we are signatory to that we have NEVER done much about. If you look at it economically - the UK had a similar fund several years that was slashed when the Tories came into power, but it was really successful before that - if we extrapolate out to our population what we would spend would look like, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of dollars the Electoral Commission spends every three years on a General Election campaign and it would simply deliver us a more robust and representative democracy. It’s the same as with young people, we tune out when we don’t feel as though we can engage because we don’t have the information or otherwise. We need to ensure people don’t face those barriers. For the first reading, it is looking like we have cross-party support.

Nexus: In your opinion, what are the biggest issues our millennial generation will face, and what can we do about them?

CS: Climate change and automation. Living in a climate change world, we are only just coming to grips with what that is starting to look like, and that is more and more extreme weather events. We are gonna see millions, even billions, of people displaced as a result of climate change. Whole countries will go underwater; there will be fights for resources as they become more scarce. It will impact the job market, in certain places because refugees have to go somewhere.

Then there’s automation. It’s something like 40 percent of jobs, as we know them right now in the job market, are going to be gone in the next 40 years. We are currently training people for jobs that won’t exist. In my last year of my law degree, I wrote my thesis about ROSS, which is this [Artificial Intelligence] program that basically replaces junior lawyers. We need to tackle that, and tackling that looks like universal basic income and establishing the value of humans simply because they are humans, not because we perceive them to be good. I’m really concerned about the tandem problems of climate change and the mass inequality – they’re totally interrelated and as Jeanette Fitzsimons said ‘we’ve got an economic system that’s predicated on exploiting both people and the planet’.

Nexus: The most exciting thing about you is how relatable you are for young voters, as it seems other parties supply “youth adjacent” options that don’t quite hit the mark. You’ve spoken openly about your own struggle with depression, anxiety and problem drinking. Mental health is a huge issue in this country for our rangatahi, how do you think we, as a country, can tackle it?

CS: I think it’s really critical that we aren’t just tackling the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We need the front line services, they’re not there now. I spoke about it in my maiden speech; around the end of the campaign, the 7 weeks that were absolutely traumatic after everything happening when the media ripped [Metiria Turei] to shreds – I had a friend commit suicide, who I went to high school with. I was then at a debate where one of the other candidates was talking about, ‘oh, we can’t just throw money at it’ and I ended up crying, I just can’t believe that we are quantifying people’s lives in terms of money. So, I think we need to approach the problem completely differently. We are talking about the survival of people at the moment.

The anxiety and depression stuff is something that I struggled with quite a lot as a teenager. My escapism – which I think was ultimately a form of self-harm, was drinking. I think for a lot of young people, drinking to escape is masked because we have a culture of problem drinking. I was lucky enough to get support to get through that but for many people, that support simply isn’t there and that comes down to funding for frontline services. Beyond that, I think we need to look at the how system. Why are people seemingly more inclined to become depressed or anxious or have mental health issues in the modern day? There are arguments that it is simply because we are more willing to talk about it – I still think we have a massive issue where people don’t talk about it. I think it’s more to do with the stressors of modern day living – the fact that life right now is just precarious; the insecurity of housing and work – you don’t have a linear career nowadays like our parents perhaps had, where you can start at the bottom and work your way up, where life is comfortable and you can afford stuff. Now it’s really bloody stressful – I don’t know any student that I went to uni with, or is still at uni, who isn’t doing another thing with their supposedly ‘spare time’, whether it’s work or trying to build up these extracirruclar activities to go on their CV to get the job because it’s going to be massively competitive

I think we need to fix those basic things; like the security of housing, recognizing that we aren’t going to be able to ensure that everyone gets a home straight away but let’s have security of tenure. Let’s ensure that homes are healthy and you’re not getting sick because of the mold crawling across the ceiling. Let’s ensure that people are paid properly for the work that they do and they don’t feel like their job is meaningless – let’s give everyone a sense of value and purpose.

There are two different ways to make change; structural change and cultural change. Cultural change includes education, awareness, media, collective action etc. whereas structural change includes regulation, legislation, funding and taxation. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive, they all impact each other. A classic example is the Wellington school girls that protested and then petitioned to have consent education in schools. They generated awareness through media, collective action and attempting to have a change on education but that results in attempting to change regulation. So currently, before my committee – Education and Workforce – we are currently considering this petition and we are going to have the girls come in and submit on it. That then impacts potentially in terms of culture around changing education and then changing culture.

Nexus: What do you think about Fees Free? How do you think it will influence tertiary learning for the cohorts able to take advantage?

CS: I fundamentally believe in free education. I believe that education is a public good and this is correlated to what I was talking about before about the big challenges that are coming down the pipeline like automation. I think the role of education is to make citizens; not labourers. It is really critical that we have civics education in school – which is another thing that we are working on. I think [Fees Free] is great but it needs to be a lot bigger than that. I myself was saddled with $43,000 worth of debt and I’m now in a really privileged position to be able to pay that off at a quite a marked rate compared to many of my friends who are artists and musicians and can’t – which means I now buy their drinks [laughs]. Education is critically important and there shouldn’t be barriers to it. That’s not to say everyone should end up going to university, but it is to say that if someone wants to that they don’t end up with crippling debt.

Nexus: In your maiden speech, you spoke of privilege and systemic racism, and how “our futures are not confined by our histories”. How do you hope to use your own personal privilege and intersectional feminism to open up doors for others?

CS: There is this discussion that is going on consistently around privilege, and I can’t say I’m one that watches Seven Sharp, but there was a piece about ‘leftbook’. It was about how young influential minds are being influenced by ‘radical memes of the left’. There is all of this pushback against purported PC culture and supposed virtue signaling - Judith Collins would use this term all the time when she was gunning for the National leadership - and people not caring about privilege and identity politics etc. Golriz Ghahraman has a really good take on it; she just says ‘I can’t shed my skin’, which means that she is representative for some people whether she wants to be or not. Her being there is important for people. That is something that I have struggled with as well, I feel really weird being ‘the Chloe Swarbrick’ that people project onto, but it is also a massive privilege because it means that I have been given a platform to change the conversation. It is important to be cognisant of that and the power that comes with that. “There are a lot of really weird assumptions that are made about me; that I’m a rich white kid from Remuera – which is totally not the truth. I dropped out of school and left home at 17, and then had issues with mental health, and haven’t had any support from my parents since. I still will recognize that I am an able-bodied Pakeha that is highly educated. It’s important to realise that I am not the be all and end all of this, that I have to work actively to empower other young women, and particularly other young women of colour, to be in this space because the amount of pushback that I got for being in this space was just enormous. I don’t read the comments but the comment (sections on social media), the stuff that I have heard other MPs say about me, the stuff that I have heard public servants say about me... we just need to flood that place with people who supposedly don’t believe there and that is what with structurally, culturally change it. We shouldn’t apologise for taking up space.

Nexus: Let’s talk about your medicinal cannabis bill. It failed at the first reading, 47 to 73, despite 78 percent of Kiwis agreeing with the gist of it. We know it works but conservativism about drug legislation holds us back from legalisation. Where to from here?

CS: That statistic comes from the NZ Drug Foundation poll that they commission to an independent pollster every year, and the reason they do that is to try and gauge kiwis opinions on drugs. They [78 percent of Kiwis] agree with growing and/or using cannabis to alleviate any kind of pain that would benefit from it. That is my bill.

Everyone got freaked out about the growing part of it. In my bill, people could be prescribed cannabis by their doctor; they could either choose pharmaceuticals or grow their own. The issue that we have at the moment, is that under the current pharmaceutical system, it is grossly prohibitive in terms of cost – around $1,200 per month – so that is why the ‘grow your own’ provision is in there. The government bill does three things. The first one is a stop-gap; it sets up a criminal defence for those with a terminal illness found to be using medicinal cannabis. Lots of politicians conflated that with access – a criminal defense is not access, it’s putting the cart before the horse. If it’s to play out how it’s supposed to play out, in terms of blackletter law, a person who is on their deathbed is going to be dragged through the courts and have to prove how sick they are. How it is actually going to work, in practice, because this is on the record from those police on the front line and those up further in the police hierarchy, police are already de facto decriminalizing marijuana.

What is going to happen, and this really concerns me about not having rule of law here, is police are not going to waste time arresting a Pakeha granny in Ponsonby who is growing some plants out the back, who goes ‘ooh, it’s for my pain’, but they are still going to arrest brown women in South Auckland. The police have admitted to systemic racism around that kind of stuff. It’s because of the perceived associations with gangs and other groups. That’s the thing; I would have taken it out of the hands of gangs – right now, there are thousands of patients who find the only medicine that works for them is cannabis and they can only get it through illicit means. Some of them are being ripped off, having to have contact with gangs and tonnes of them actually don’t want to have to grow it themselves – that’s why [in the bill] you could have a nominated person to grow it. We have seen these people, colloquially dubbed ‘the Green Fairies’, like Rose Renton, whose son Alex Renton was having major issues with his pain and seizures, who were arrested for producing medicinal cannabis products like sprays, oils and baked goods, and distributing it in her community to people who needed medicinal cannabis products. Why are these people, who are otherwise law-abiding, willing to risk going to jail in order to distribute these products around their community? Because people are suffering under the current law. The current law is not fit for purpose.

It really infuriated me that we wanted to beat this thing that is just not working, with a blunt and broken instrument. There is no timeline on the implementation of when we are going to have a better framework for who can be prescribed what, and what kind of conditions warrant access to medicinal cannabis, which is disheartening. We also need to set up a licensing scheme for domestic growers in New Zealand to produce both food grade and pharmaceutical grade marijuana. If all these things worked together, the bill would have worked brilliantly because it would have opened up the window of what could have happened before Select Committee. The issue I have heard from the Office of the Clerk, who gives advice to all MPs about what we can actually do with stuff, is that the government bill cannot be brought into the Committee beyond the criminal defence stuff. We are still going to end up with the situation where police have to use their discretion on whether to prosecute people or not, there’s so many problems inherent in that. So we are trying to improve the bill as best as we can at Select Committee but also setting up this cross-party group on sensible drug law reform. It will ensure that we have consensus on base-level evidence so the moral panic cannot creep in.

Nexus: You’re been called a snowflake, social justice warrior, cuck - dear lord, even a feminist! What’s the best insult someone has ever flicked your way?

CS: Judith Collins when she was leaving the house one day, with a bit of a laugh and a smile on her face, we know each other, and she said ‘I’m not sitting here and listening to this sanctimonious little girl’.

Nexus: What is your favourite Te Reo phrase?

CS: Tu meke is probably my favourite, or mahi – ‘do the mahi get the treats’.

Nexus: Favourite rapper?

CS: Frank Ocean is probably my favourite artist of all time but he obviously leans more towards R’n’B, but in terms of a rapper... it’s a controversial pick but Kanye!

Nexus: Why the hell do you keep coming back to Hamilton?

CS: [laughs] I love Hamilton! It’s the City of the Future!

Nexus: What are your thoughts on Bridges as the new National leader?

CS: I don’t really know. I haven’t had much to do with Simon Bridges personally, but I do have issues about how when he was a minister, he was unaware of how he had consented for coal mining to go ahead on a kiwi conservation site, and our politics diverge. I hope he engages constructively with the Government because I do believe that the role of the Opposition is to hold the Government to account. At the end of the day, it is pretty bloody rad that we have got two Maori [Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett] at the head of the Nats.

Nexus: You used to own a doughnut shop. What was the best flavour?

CS: The classic cinnamon sugar, you can’t go past it.

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