Swarbrick’s vision of change what the country needs

Chloe Swarbrick
Chloe Swarbrick
I was not surprised by Chris Trotter’s attempted take-down of Chloe Swarbrick last week in his opinion piece "Iron has entered her soul".

Trotter was critiquing her interview with Jack Tame on Q&A with Jack Tame. Tame interviewed Swarbrick as she is the only Green MP standing for the co-leader position to replace James Shaw, who is retiring from Parliament this year.

Trotter has an interesting take on Swarbrick’s political agenda but not one I agree with. He accuses her of "political inflexibility", of being hardened and brittle. He misconstrues her acumen for zealotry and her conviction for millenarism. His column was harsh and he failed to tell us what she actually said to deserve such opprobrium.

Early on in the interview with Tame, Swarbrick said: "My very strong theory of change ... is the fact that I believe that no one person can make change alone. And that means emboldening and working with and building up the capacity of civil society to be able to hold politicians to account, to move things forward."

Trotter finds this very difficult. In fact the whole interview triggered some fabulously dramatic language from him. He explains that "Swarbrick’s declining faith in representative democracy is reflected in her conviction that ‘the people’ possess a power that overmatches the tawdry compromises of professional politicians."

He believes in "democracy as the most effective political system". I understand his commitment to representative democracy. It has been critical to the longevity of New Zealand’s Western parliamentary system. It has arguably served most well, most of the time.

But it has not been static. The democratic system has evolved. Māori electoral seats were one evolution which addressed, a little, the political implications of collective Māori land ownership. As guaranteed by te Tiriti o Waitangi, I might add.

Women eventually won the right to vote, and some years later, the right to stand for election. The mixed member proportional voting system was yet another evolution to help expand the representation of under-represented communities, both communities of identity and communities of interest.

It seems obvious that the "representative" part of a representative democracy must adapt to meet society’s changing needs. If it does not adapt it ceases to be representative.

New generations of activists, "movement builders" as Swarbrick said, and politicians will bring forward new conceptions of representation that the democratic system will have to adapt to.

Chloe Swarbrick appeared to be describing nothing so radical as reminding us that the people of Aotearoa New Zealand have control over that systemic adaptation. Its evolution is proof of that.

She was quite explicit about this, saying: "Culture from a design-thinking perspective is about a shared set of values. And I don’t think that we are having explicit enough discussions about the kinds of values that we want leading our country".

There is nothing unreasonable or revolutionary about a politician arguing for a values-led discussion on the future of the country. Every political leader ought to do this. A leader-in-waiting should be as explicit as possible about the values they will stand for in a leadership role.

Swarbrick was clear that " ... when you focus on building power in that cultural sphere, all of us deciding the kind of future that you want to have, then we create an environment conducive to that structural and that systemic change. So I’m focused on reminding New Zealanders of their power, that politicians work for them and not the other way around."

This is not "revolutionary zealotry" as Trotter fears. It is a statement of fact central to the function of a working representative democracy.

Trotter is right to think it is important excellent people occupy those parliamentary seats. But I do not believe he thinks politicians should only ever be held to account at elections.

A representative democracy contains an important political tool — the vote. But the vote is only one tool. Voting is not and should never be the sole means of achieving political change. Otherwise the representative democratic system transforms into majoritarianism, otherwise known as the tyranny of the majority. I am sure that is not the system that Trotter, or indeed most New Zealanders, would advocate for.

Our representative democracy has many tools for change, such as select committees, lobbying, regional and local government and iwi governance entities.

We have community boards, and iwi leaders forums and school boards and hikoi. We have letter-writing and talkback radio and social media. We have occupations and town-hall meetings and protests. We have Big Gay Out and Waitangi Day and Matariki.

Representative democracy is not a perfect system; it is an evolving one. There are many ways for people to use its diverse tools for political change. Each one contributes to our polity, to its stability and to its evolution. If this is part of Swarbrick’s vision, this is the leadership the country sorely needs.

 Metiria Stanton Turei is a law lecturer at the University of Otago and a former Green Party MP and co-leader.