Bryce Edwards: Chlöe Swarbrick is the voice of young progressives but can she stay the distance?

Bryce Edwards: Chlöe Swarbrick is the voice of young progressives but can she stay the distance?

For many progressives, Jacindamania is waning, and it’s only natural to look around for a new champion. Some – especially the young – are looking to 25-year-old Green party MP Chlöe Swarbrick. There is talk across New Zealand of the “Swarbrick effect”, which saw a surge of young candidates in recent local government elections, supposedly inspired to stand for office by her political career.

The growing interest in Swarbrick comes as progressives have to watch Jacinda Ardern’s government struggle to fulfil the leftwing agenda many believed was promised at the election. From problems in housing, taxation, inequality, and the environment, the expectations of liberals and leftists have been repeatedly let down by a government making compromises, U-turns, or just failing to implement radical change.

Swarbrick’s rise to prominence was rapid. In 2016, at the age of 22 and entirely unknown, she ran for the mayoralty of Auckland, winning a creditable third place. This got her the attention of the Green party, which placed her at number seven on its party list. She was then elected as one of eight Green MPs in 2017, becoming our youngest MP for over 40 years.

Swarbrick is certainly capable of talking radically, and is willing to critique her own party publicly. In a recent opinion piece, she lamented the weakness of her party’s own landmark “Zero Carbon Bill” (which passed in parliament last week), saying it was legislation “a massive number of New Zealanders do not consider to be bold or progressive enough” to deal with the problems of climate change.

Over her first two years in parliament, she has shone, being easily the most impressive of her 2017 intake of MPs. She’s also considered by many as the Greens’ top-performing MP, despite the fact that she’s near the bottom of the caucus rankings, and her senior colleagues are government ministers.

Swarbrick led the public debate on drug law reform ahead of a binding referendum at next year’s election, and argued in favour of much greater government intervention and expenditure in the long-neglected area of mental health. She has talked openly about her own struggle with clinical depression.

Her star power got an unexpected boost when she hit the headlines across the globe for her sarcastic “OK boomer” retort to a political opponent in parliament. It underscored her status as some sort of new “generational warrior”.

Yet, the incident hasn’t been entirely helpful for her credibility on the political left. Her new-found notoriety for being focused on “generational politics” might actually be detrimental to her progressive credentials. In time, it could be seen as a turning point in which Swarbrick’s political stock actually started falling.

Although it was a throwaway line, the use of the “OK boomer” meme does reflect a view of inequality and climate change through a generational lens. Some radicals and intellectuals on the left have pushed back strongly against this approach, pointing out that the problems of society aren’t going to be solved by millennials going to war with boomers.

They suggest Swarbrick’s approach is not only superficial, but dangerous and reductionist, obscuring some of the deeper and more important issues and divisions that are key to understanding what’s wrong with New Zealand society.

Swarbrick is undoubtedly one of the more interesting politicians of the moment, and she’s helping keep some progressive voters onside with a government that is otherwise disappointing them. Yet, she has said that she often considers leaving parliament, and she hasn’t yet decided whether to stand again for election next year. If she remains, and the Greens stay in government, she will surely ascend to a ministerial position. That, of course, would be the true test of her radicalism.

If Swarbrick does step down, it will be another blow for those looking for more transformational or radical leadership than the Ardern-led Government is currently offering. Such expectations are probably unreasonable to put on a 25-year-old first-term MP. As Swarbrick has few actual achievements as a political leader to date, the expectations reflect more a view amongst progressives that the various Boomers and Gen-Xers making the big calls now – including Ardern – are not OK at all.