‘Fixing is not austerity’: Chlöe Swarbrick on Wayne Brown, cuts and seeking re-election

Confirming she will run again in Auckland Central, the sole Green electorate MP weighs up the challenge, and explains why she’s campaigning against the mayor’s proposed budget. 

Over the years the seat of Auckland Central has dependably served up character, plot and caprice. Its first MP, in 1887, was former governor and future premier George Grey. A year or two on, Richard Prebble, Judith Tizard and Nikki Kaye represented the people who live in the heart of New Zealand’s biggest city (together with the Hauraki Gulf islanders). In 1993, Auckland Central voters elected the first Māori woman to win a general seat, with Sandra Lee of Mana Mohutake and the Alliance turfing the polarising Prebble out of parliament. 

The most recent chapter: Chlöe Swarbrick’s win against the odds in 2020, a victory which made her just the second ever Green Party electorate MP in New Zealand. A couple of weeks ago Swarbrick was confirmed, unopposed, as Green candidate for the October election. (She chose not to mention it while Cyclone Gabrielle was ripping up parts of the country.) To repeat the trick she’ll need to make fresh history. Jeanette Fitzsimons, the only other Green to win an electorate, fell short of a repeat in Coromandel in 2002. So did Sandra Lee in Auckland Central in 1996. 

Swarbrick won 12,631 votes in 2020 – over 10,000 more than Denise Roche, the 2017 Green candidate – to pip Labour’s Helen White by about 1,000 ticks. Swarbrick had been visible already as a list MP and advocate for drug reform, but her success had at least as much to do with the “ground game”, with an army of volunteers amassed to canvas door to door, and what Swarbrick calls a “distributed organising model”, whereby supporters ran events and put on shows to support her campaign.

It will be “bigger this time around”, says Swarbrick, who has again secured the services of Leroy Beckett as campaign manager. White, currently in parliament as a list MP, is in a two-person contest with Camilla Belich for the Mt Albert vacancy left by Jacinda Ardern, to be decided by local party members this Saturday. Nominations for the Labour selection in Auckland Central, meanwhile, don’t close till March 31. 

Hypothetically, would Swarbrick be interested in a cup of tea with Labour? An accommodation with a putative coalition partner to smooth the path? “Nah. No,” she says, gripping a mug of coffee rather than tea outside Verona Cafe on Karangahape Road. “We don’t want any caveats, we don’t want any asterisks against this. We won Auckland Central in 2020 with 1,000 volunteers on the ground and against the red wave. I sat on street corners on Ponsonby Road, in St Mary’s Bay, in Freeman’s Bay, talking to people about the wealth tax  – in some of the only three-million-dollar suburbs in this country. We don’t owe this to anybody. And I never want us to.”

National should be right in the race, too. Nikki Kaye won three out of three elections from 2011, beating a Labour candidate called Jacinda Ardern twice. Reclaiming Auckland Central would send a resounding message for a resurgent National Party. The candidate tasked with doing so will be chosen on March 20. Emma Mellow, last seen enduring a walk down Ponsonby Road with Judith Collins in 2020, has since moved to Australia. That leaves three nominees in the mix: Stephen Lyon, a business consultant; Mahesh Muralidhar, a venture capitalist; and Pete Williams, a former winter Paralympian.

Chlöe and Wayne 

Another figure sure to play a prominent part in the Auckland Central contest, though not on the ballot, and whether he likes it or not, is Wayne Brown. After romping home under a “Fix Auckland” banner, comfortably defeating Efeso Collins (the former Labour councillor turned Green parliamentary hopeful), Brown has attracted controversy for his response to the floods of January, for an abrasive modus operandi, and over a proposed budget that would slash $130 million in spending across the operations of council and council-controlled organisations.

“Fixing is not austerity,” says Swarbrick, who has launched a petition urging the abandonment of proposed cuts to climate and environment programmes deemed “anti-science and anti-people’s-wellbeing”. She is about to follow that up with a guide for Aucklanders to use to submit on the budget. 

Shortly after winning the mayoralty, Brown issued a statement noting he had walked to work from his Karangahape Road home with the local MP, before holding a “constructive, friendly and business-like” meeting. Whether that congeniality can survive Swarbrick’s volleys – of the verbal rather than tennis variety – remains to be seen.

Wayne Brown and Chlöe Swarbrick in a photograph issued by the mayor’s office.

Swarbrick’s conciliatory skillset is clear enough. At one point in our conversation she steps in to settle a brewing altercation a couple of doors down from Verona. A man had chased down someone wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an offensive slogan that, well, declared Jesus to be a word beginning with C (no, not Christian). He was getting right in the T-shirt-wearer’s face. In a deeply K Road moment, while another man kicked a flaking football around the footpath and Paul Simon’s Graceland played over the cafe PA, Swarbrick sought to defuse the situation. Eventually, the angry man recognised her, pulled up on his phone a selfie taken in front of her office, and grinned, cheerfully departing with a few words about the rapture. 

But back to the mayor. “I called Wayne before our petition went live and told him I held these views, which obviously weren’t a surprise because I’ve shared them with him at meetings and otherwise in the past,” she says. The commitment is to be “quite explicit and transparent about what we’re fighting for”, Swarbrick adds. “My relationship with Wayne and my relationship with council is much like it is with other MPs and select committees. It is what it is, and we work to get the best outcomes that we possibly can.”

Swarbrick agrees with Brown that Auckland’s cultural community has not been singled out, but puts it this way: “It’s not just the arts that are under threat. It’s every single thing that we value about life in the city.”

She says: “At a point in time where there seems to be consensus across the political spectrum that there [have been] decades of underinvestment in the infrastructure necessary to cope with the changing climate, but also an awareness of, you know, the highest rates of inequality that we’ve had since records began, I frankly think that it just feels criminal to not be addressing those long-term structural needs, especially when you’ve run on a mandate of fixing things. So I’ve been talking to some stakeholders, I’ve been doing LGOIMAS [official information requests] and found there’s been no climate change impacts assessment.” 

Swarbrick points also to the deferral of some longterm rates that would pay for stormwater infrastructure, cuts to community gardens and homelessness initiative budgets, funds for parks, and discretionary funding for local boards. “Which, again, is just mindblowing, when the mandate supposedly from that local body election, as the mayor himself trumpeted, is about devolving decision-making powers down to where it affects people.”

For a contrast, Swarbrick points to Wellington, where a 13% rates rise is being proposed – substantially higher than Brown’s below-inflation ambition of around 5% – under her old Green Party colleague Tory Whanau, who “campaigned to fix all of these long-term problems”.

Which is all very well, but given spiralling cost of living pressures, how can double-figure rates increases – which would inevitably be passed on to renters, too – possibly be justified? Here Swarbrick sighs, bemoaning the part played by central government, which could “step in, instead of commissioning infinite reports on the problems with local government”. The Beehive had failed to tackle the Gordian knot of local government and infrastructure provision.

“Long story short,” says Swarbrick after a lengthy venting on centralisation, devolution and the dooming of things to failure, “my response to all of that is that we do need massive local government overhaul. But I think that has to be part and parcel of constitutional reform. Because local government has, for my entire life, been the whipping boy of central government. But it has been consistently stripped of capacity and resources to do things while its mandate has grown, and its ability to raise revenue is diminished.”

Seats and tools

Swarbrick has half an eye on an even more liberal urban seat, Wellington Central, where James Shaw has followed Grant Robertson in stepping aside, with councillor Tamatha Paul winning the Green candidacy. 

“I’ve been working on Tam for five years,” she says with a mock-evil laugh. “I was one of the people on the phone to her being like, mate, this is it.” Had she also been on the phone urging Shaw to make way for fresher blood? “There were a lot of conversations. But James very much made that decision of his own volition.”

As far as laying a template for Paul’s campaign is concerned, Swarbrick says: “If I can provide a bit more of a slipstream for, you know, a world and institutions that makes everybody who doesn’t look or sound or smell like the archetypes that we assume are supposed to run these institutions, if I make it easier for for those of us who are a little bit different, that’s democracy, right?”

While the Greens have emphasised the party vote above all, there is real value in a parliamentary seat tethered to a local community, says Swarbrick. “The received and conventional wisdom inside of the party, understandably, because of our limited resources as a smaller party, has been that the party vote is the most important vote. I think that remains the case, we continue to campaign on that and make sure that people understand that in the MMP environment, where the mainstream media continues to largely run coverage of a one-v-one presidential style campaign. But for me, it was really important to run seriously and have the opportunity to represent my community. Because that’s what sustainability and politics looks like, is having that direct accountability to a geographically defined group of people.”

Chlöe Swarbrick and the man who raged at a T-shirt on Karangahape Road (Photo: Toby Manhire)

The electorate campaign also creates a different sort of team, she says. “It’s about institutionalising some of that grassroots support and infrastructure, so that it doesn’t just live or die on the shoulders of, you know, individual champion MPs.”

At a very early election debate hosted by the Auckland University students debating society last week, Swarbrick indicated that the question of whether, given the choice, to go into government or sit on the cross benches was being actively discussed within the Green caucus. “It’s always a live conversation,” she says when I ask her to elaborate. “We’re constantly reviewing and reflecting on how we can get the most out of the political arrangements in front of us.” Labour “haven’t delivered the transformation that was promised”, Swarbrick reckons. The Greens, she argues, faced with single-party majority, “have managed to exert disproportionate influence”. But: “yeah, it’s a constant negotiation, and discussion about where we can be best placed to strategically get the most out of those kinds of relationships.” 

As for her own leadership ambitions, Swarbrick brushes the thought aside. “I’ve never aimed for the leadership. It’s never been a thing that I’ve sought to do.” She says: “I am interested in getting the most that I possibly can out of doing this role in politics. And I think it’s really cooked that we have this perverse focus on whoever’s at the top of the pecking order as being the only person capable of achieving that change and dictating to their underlings. I don’t think that politics should operate like that. I think you’ll find, inside of our caucus, there’s multiple theories of change and different ways of operating.”

The trouble with the “Coke and Pepsi parties”, she says, is “you sit down, shut up, wait 10 years so you can have an opinion, [then] in 10 years you don’t know what your opinion is any more. You’ve worn the mask so long that it’s your face.” 

Maybe, she reckons, the sands are shifting. “Ultimately, all systems are the sum of their parts and those parts are people who have, you know, names and addresses and live lives. And when I look at our parliament, or our councils around the country, the rise of more normal people, for lack of a better term, inside those spaces, who don’t hold these long-term ambitions to be at the top of the pecking order, but just to get shit done for their people … that’s grassroots-level transformation. So I think, if anything, it may be a new way of conceiving and serving in politics – politicians as tools.” Swarbrick adds, grinning, “in every sense of the word.”

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