30 Jan 2024

A young person's place is in the House

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 30 January 2024

A fresh perspective? Or a frightening lack of experience? A mentor and her mentee talk about what they brought to politics at the age of 23. 

Marilyn Waring

Marilyn Waring Photo: Supplied

All around the world, newly elected politicians are pushing against the idea that wisdom only comes with age. 

In France, the country's youngest ever president has appointed its youngest ever prime minister. 

Add up their ages and they are still younger than the current US president, 81-year-old Joe Biden.

New Zealand now has its youngest MP in 170 years and its youngest ever female MP - Hana-Rāwhiti Maipi-Clarke - at 21. 

New Green MP Tamatha Paul is 27 and National brought in Tom Rutherford, 26 on election day. 

Chlöe Swarbrick entered parliament at 23 - and is now 29, having last year won the Auckland Central electorate for the second time.

Today The Detail speaks to her, and to a trailblazing MP who entered the House, also aged 23, in 1975 - Dame Marilyn Waring. 

They are the seventh- and eighth-youngest MPs in New Zealand history.

Dame Marilyn says she didn't really want to be an MP, but 1975 was International Women's Year.

"I thought it would be a little feminist activity ... really I just threw my hat in," she says. 

"It's a house of representatives, my age group just weren't represented at all." 

The new National MP, elected in the safe seat of Raglan, got the odd bit of pushback, with people frequently telling her she needed more life experience.

"I just as frequently responded that it was a house of representatives, and it might be nice to hear from other people occasionally." 

Swarbrick was the youngest MP since Dame Marilyn - just two months older when she hit Parliament in 2017.

Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

She had run for Auckland mayor at 22 and surprised everyone with the strength of her campaign. 

When it comes to pushback, Swarbrick says she "reflects on this pretty frequently".

"It's no secret that I am regularly like 'what am I doing in politics?' and 'am I the right person to do this?'

But she believes young people have an important voice.

"All human beings have different perspectives and lives and lived experiences - things we've been exposed to and not been exposed to.

"I think the inherent value of younger perspectives - as with middle aged and older perspectives - is that there is a different world view or a different type of experience that one has been exposed to.

"This was the really interesting argument that came up time and again - particularly in that 2016 local body election - so I became pretty versed in it - most egregiously represented by this one woman who decided to troll me quite substantively throughout the campaign telling me that my brain wasn't fully developed until I was 25.

"I still had access to the university library at that point in time and did some research and found, sure - your brain isn't fully developed 'til you're 25 but it starts actually degenerating from around 45 years old - the average age in Parliament at that point in time was 51, so as far as I was concerned, I was on the up.  

"Life experience is not necessarily equivalent to wisdom. More days on earth does not necessarily immediately equate to more mystical ju-ju that makes you more or less capable of making decisions." 

Dame Marilyn says coming into Parliament at her age was "another world". 

"It was and still is a very rugged and combative place to work. It was incredibly inhospitable for families and relationships.

"But at the same time always, sitting there right at the front of my mind was: 'you cannot fail, you cannot give up, if you fail or give up it will crucify any young women candidates for decades'." 

"One of the things I actually really loved about being young was not being 65 and having made up my mind about everything there is to know in life - that I was really open - I was open to new knowledge. Having a constituency was a far better tertiary education than I ever received anywhere else I ever studied."  

Swarbrick gets mentoring advice from Dame Marilyn.

"One of the pieces of advice Marilyn gave me when I was first coming in, she said something along the lines of 'just write something down, whether it's a letter to yourself' and for me it was my maiden speech, so that when you feel uncertain in that environment and institution that is not made for you  - that you have a kaupapa document or an intention document to go back to."

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Photo: RNZ