4 Oct 2017

'This is the House of Representatives and should have voices from all walks of life'

12:31 pm on 4 October 2017

It’s about change.


Kiri Allan.

Kiri Allan. Photo: The Wireless/John Lake

At some point today, Parliament’s newest MPs will speak for the first time in the debating chamber.

They’ve been given prepared questions and must answer in front of their newest friends and foes.

“I think it’s mostly about learning how to use the microphones. We’ve been given prepared answers as well,” says National’s 26-year-old Pakuranga MP, Simeon Brown.

The group of 32 newbies (17 Labour, 12 National, two NZ First and one Green) arrived at Parliament last Monday for their induction. They were given a guided tour and a goodie bag that included sweets and a stress ball.

“All of Parliament looks exactly the same so I’ve already gotten lost a few times,” says new Green MP, Chlöe Swarbrick.

She’s been taught how to use the old-fashioned parliamentary computers. “They’re not really made for a digital native like me,” she says.

“It’s all a bit like going back to school. Kiri Allan described it as like being at Hogwarts - we’ve all got our own houses but everyone is getting to know each other.”

Kiri Allan is a new Labour MP from the North Island’s east coast. Five days before election day, she also became a first-time mum.

“I had to ask where I can leave my baby and how I can take care of her … It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest, especially off the back of an intense campaign. It’s exciting and full-on,” she says.

Simeon describes the past few days as “surreal”. When asked what the most surprising aspect has been, he says: “It’s very traditional. You hear about all the grand, old traditions but to experience them is something else.”

Simeon Brown on the campaign trail in Howick.

Simeon Brown on the campaign trail in Howick. Photo: The Wireless/John Lake

Chlöe Swarbrick is no stranger to publicity - last year she ran for Auckland Council’s mayoralty - yet she’s still getting used to the attention.

“On Monday I had two phone interviews on the way to Parliament. When I got out of the cab, I was stopped on the way in by a few reporters,” she says.

“My partner sent me a message because he’d seen a video of me carrying a Nike gym bag, which is my suitcase at the moment.”

Chlöe describes her new job, which comes with a $160,000 salary and a $16,000 travel allowance as “bizarre”.

“It’s quite funny going from having little-to-no money for almost a year and paying for everything through the skin of your teeth, to being assigned five people to help you and guide you through the process.”

At 23, she becomes the Baby of the House. “It’s on Wikipedia!”

She replaces National’s Todd Barclay, who is accused of secretly recording one of his electorate staffers.

She’s confident her career won’t go down a similar path. “Well, we’ve got quite different backgrounds. I’ve certainly never worked as a tobacco lobbyist.”

Chlöe, Kiri and Simeon are dreamers. Their political affiliations and values may differ, but they collectively believe they can make change through politics, no matter their age.

“I want to be a strong voice for advocacy among a sea of others,” says Kiri, a lawyer.

She grew up on the East Coast and wants to fight to reverse its economic decline and growing unemployment rate. “I want to help people get jobs - decent jobs,” she says.

Former banker Simeon Brown joined the National Party when he was 17. “I’ve had a passion for politics for years and always had an affinity for National’s values.”

He says those values include personal responsibility, caring for the environment and rewarding hard work and enterprise.

“People often ask me why I got involved so young, but the decisions made here affect everybody, no matter what stage of life they’re in.”

Kiri Allan agrees. “This is the House of Representatives and should have voices from all walks of life,” she says.

“Politics doesn’t look like us and it doesn’t sound like us. So many young Māori don’t understand it, so I want to be a part of getting civic education into schools. We need to make the system relevant to the people who need it most.”

Chlöe Swarbrick says it’s clear there’s not enough diversity in Parliament.

Chlöe Swarbrick and her team follow election night results at Green Party HQ.

Chlöe Swarbrick and her team follow election night results at Green Party HQ. Photo: Supplied

“If you ask people what they think a politician looks like, the answer is usually going to be an old white dude in a suit. It doesn’t look like me or Kiri. We have to keep breaking the mould and show people politics doesn’t just look like that,” she says.

She’s used to bias, partly through her experience running a small business - an Auckland coffee shop - but also by simply being in the public sphere.

“You only have to delve into comment sections and you’ll see assumptions about who I am and everything from my parents and my background to my sexuality. I’ve been grappling with that for awhile, my way of dealing with it is to keep working and remember that being underestimated has never been a bad thing.”

When Chlöe went through the Green Party’s candidate selection process, she was asked to submit an idea for a Member’s Bill. Hers was a “housing first” model that aimed to end homelessness.

That, climate change, inequality and the refugee crisis are issues she cites as most important. She also wants to be a voice for a generation that “has been unable to break into the housing market, is paying high rent for poor quality housing and struggling with massive student loans”.

The best advice she’s received over the past two years came from former MP and human rights advocate, Marilyn Waring: “You won’t always be able to be there for friends and family, but they’ll have to be there for you. You can’t be everything to everybody.”

A 14-year-old Simeon Brown used to busk by playing his clarinet at the Botany Shopping Centre. He studied Law and Commerce at the University of Auckland and is a former banker.

He has friends who support different political parties and believe in different things. He and his best friend don’t talk politics. “I think it’s important to understand and appreciate we’re a plural society,” he says.

“Also, I like to have friends.”

He hasn’t been told where in the debating chamber he’ll be sitting, but already feels tight with the party’s highest members. “I feel like I can go to anyone, even the Prime Minister, for advice.”

Kiri cites Sir Michael Cullen, her campaign chair, as her mentor, and the now-deceased Labour MP Parekura Horomia as someone whose example she wants to follow.

“Parekura was a people person. He was out there in the community and he knew everyone’s name. He knew people’s children’s children and they knew him. He had such a large heart.”

She wants to be involved in politics for a long time - as long she can eventually win her East Coast electorate, and prove she can be an effective change-maker.

“I think a big part of this first term will be me seeing if I can uphold the confidence and faith a lot of people have put in me. If it doesn’t work out, that’s OK with me.”

Chlöe says she never wanted to be a politician. “I’m still not really sure the terminology and the associations around that term are what I want to be.”

What she does want to be is someone who contributes.

“Parliament is never going to be the liberation of young people, but it is a tool to bring about change. I want to help reduce that gap between politics and people.”