Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick discusses wanting to pedestrianise K road, her wins and losses of drug reform and uniting our Rainbow community.
It’s been 16 months since express last caught up with Chlöe Swarbrick. That was pre the 2020 election in which Swarbrick (as ‘vote yes’ spokesperson) narrowly lost the referendum on Cannabis Law Reform but momentously won the seat of Auckland Central.
Since then her electorate has experienced a 107-day lockdown and when we talk over Zoom just three days prior to Christmas, the fatigue of that long lockdown is still evident.
“You’re probably aware given the number of politicians you’ve spoken to that, it’s a ‘seven days a week’ job. We don’t really have breaks. I was actually scheduled to have a few days off, in lieu of, several months of working weekends, on the week that we went into Lockdown,” she tells us, smiling through tired eyes.
“I worked through it. And it was a colossal amount of work,” she says detailing her work with numerous charities, business associations and body corps. It’s apparent how much she cares about her constituency, but clear the exhausting toll 2021 has taken.
“I was even less good than I normally am at building in time for things like eating… But we got through it!”
Pedestrianising K Road
Lockdown didn’t stall Swarbrick from trying to make progressive change for her city, and she keenly discusses her vision for a pedestrianised Karangahape Road.
“K’ road has some really fascinating parallels to Cuba Street in Wellington. The Cuba Street Promenade was a 14-year fight to get parts of that pedestrianised, but it is now the busiest area within the central city. When you think about a great place to try something like that in Auckland – it’s the space between Pitt Street and Upper Queen Street.”
Swarbrick pitched her idea but says Auckland Transport.
“I proposed that we look into doing a trial of a few weeks or weekends where we close that off and intentionally activate it. We know that Basement Theatre is closed until the end of the year and there have been all of these hits that hospitality and other small business have taken, so why don’t we try and do something with that collective space that we can take over.”
Swarbrick went out to the K Road community to see if there was an appetite for her proposal and discovered some businesses had been trying to make this happen for 30 years!
She tells us Auckland Transport, however, were less keen, saying her proposal was ‘too hard’ with all the other road closures they have going on in the city.
Swarbrick says that attitude is indicative of a $75 billion infrastructural deficit in Aotearoa.
“We don’t have enough flexibility or innovation or creativity or pragmatism to enable these ideas to come to life. To take some bloody risks and do great things! Maybe we would make some mistakes along the way, but they end up being far cheaper mistakes that we commit to because we embed the status quo,” she says nodding to Auckland’s chaotic street closures for the long-needed City Rail Link (CRL).
An Auckland Rainbow Hub
Positively, Swarbrick notes the CRL’s developments offer further opportunities for Rainbow groups.
“Around the back of Pitt Street, there is going to be a new big building with opportunity for some space to collectivise and bring together a one-stop-shop for Rainbow communities. I’ve spoken with Body Positive’s Mark Fisher about it, and it’s something that I’m definitely very alive to and have raised with Waitematā Local Board. There’s a really great model for it in Hamilton (Rainbow Hub Waikato), so we can learn things from the regions as well!”
Swarbrick’s passion for her constituency is palpable, though at times expressed in overly academic ways. When describing the difference of being a list MP to working within a constituency, she tells us: “I find that incredibly grounding, because there is an immediate reality or manifestation of all of these, what are otherwise, quite a morphos kind of concepts in the portfolio space that we debate.”
That wise-but-wordy communication style may have hindered Swarbrick’s fight to convince the majority of New Zealand to vote yes to the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, a narrow loss she tells us was ‘really gutting’. While Swarbrick says she’ll ‘cop’ the blame, she is adamant that her voice should not have been the only progressive argument that we were hearing.
“We were the only party who was clearly on the side of an evidence-based policy to reduce harm, and therefore willing to engage in that complexity and nuance.”
Many have suggested that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (who later admitted voting yes) should have also publicly endorsed the bill.
“I’m always cautious of being whittled down to a soundbite,” Swarbrick tells us when pushed for her thoughts on Ardern’s stance.
“I would be naive to say that it wouldn’t have made a difference if we had had arguably the most powerful political leader in a generation stating some of the facts about it, because she had a huge amount of trust by virtue of the way that the COVID response was rolled out.”
Swarbrick also feels Judith Collins leadership style played an additional disservice to Kiwis who were trying to wrap their head around what the bill would mean for their communities.
“What occurred was indicative of the political context we were operating in. If Christopher Luxon had been the National Party leader at the time, we might have had more breathing room for their MPs not to pretend that they were all lined up in the same way, which could have meant we had more political voices in the mix.”
Swarbrick however has seen opportunity in the loss and believes the referendum has still sparked change.
“We lost the battle on cannabis legalization and regulation, but we did not lose the war,” she tells us.
“Subsequent to that election in 2020, we immediately legalized drug-taking services… in the past four years that I’ve been in Parliament, we have had medicinal cannabis reform, we have had Section Seven reform to enable police discretion… we’ve also had changes now for Section 12 for drug checking. …. We’ve had these three quite huge pieces of transformative work happen, which continue to blow these little shotgun holes in the Misuse of Drugs Act.”
“Now we have had some time to reflect on and try to build something with the new (very open) political census that criminal prohibition doesn’t work as a starting point. That’s something to work with!” She says brightly with optimism shining through her eyes.
Pride & Police
Her optimism remains as we move on to discuss Pride month and the divides that still exist within our community. Divides that Swarbrick notes are nothing new.
“We have a tendency to look back on historical moments where there has been particular legislative change of rights and freedoms being recognized and entrenched in law, and presume there was complete solidarity across all groups to get to that point… we don’t see all of the arguments and the relationships that broke down,” she says thoughtfully.
“We are in an interesting space where our leaders and representatives have to be really intentional about what they stand for, in order to build that unity… My role is to call out prejudice, but to do so in a way that is working through stuff… I have the opportunity to help break down some of those barriers to understanding and some of the fear that might exist, but do so whilst holding really strongly to the importance of the human rights of our transgender, intersex and historically structurally-marginalized Rainbow identities.”
With reports surfacing of Green Party members being dissatisfied with the current leadership, I theorise to Swarbrick that if she were made the party’s sole leader (as Adam Bandt is in Australia), their party vote would increase significantly.
She laughs off my suggestion and insists her main goal is to continue inspiring others.
“It’s funny as somebody who never intended to be in politics, to hear things like that… My hope is that we end up with more people who really are pushing for progressive change in Parliament and that I don’t have to be there forever in order to do that. My role more than anything is to help people realise their own power.”
Perhaps becoming leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa would help Swarbrick realise the full extent of her own power.