Chlöe Swarbrick: Youth protest is politics in its purest form


Just over a week ago, I marched Queen St with thousands of people – young, old and middle-aged – led by an increasingly organised group of school kids. Placards etched with memes, slogans, controversy and bleak truths spoke for many who were tired of saying the same thing: We’re here again, because we won’t let you get away with less than what’s necessary.

While it doesn’t involve a voting booth, it’s the purest form of politics there is: People power. The parliamentary chamber doesn’t come close. For all its engraved wood, leather seats and plush carpet, the House is but a stage. It’s legit because we think it is. And so it goes.

Societies, in their complexity and developed history, thrive on symbols. Shared stories about who we are and what that means become unquestioned social norms. Those social norms become the foundation of our laws.

But while we accept laws can change, we so rarely accept – let alone atone with – the reality of ostracising and ridiculing those who fought to question and change our social norms in the first place.

In the year since we lost our courageous and kind founding female co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons, I regularly wonder how the Greens must have been received in trying to raise the science of global warming 30-odd years ago. I think of how today’s young people, born long after scientists began delivering sobering predictions on human’s impact on our planet, are still patronised for daring to propose the accepted order of things is not quite all right.

And these young people cannot vote. Many, if not all, “adults” with platforms dismiss them; these strikers are not worthy of any serious attention at all, they’re just after a day off school.

Those who benefit from the current order of things pat on the head this perceived lack of maturity, lack of “real-world experience”, and all of the other justifications used against women when they fought for the right to vote in the 1890s. We probably also forget that it was only in the mid-1970s when we finally brought the voting age to 18; for the majority of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history, it was 21.

Not only do we make up the rules, we make up who gets to participate in making up those rules.

So-called naivety is just a fresh set of eyes, a new perspective, and at best, a challenge to justify why we do things the way we do. We need to ask questions of the foundations we’ve taken for granted. If the foundation is faulty, you’d think it would be a public service to find out why, and fix it.

Politics doesn’t just happen every three years with an election. It happens every single day, in decisions made at local and central government; in programmes rolled out by ministries and departments; in the realisation of untaxed capital gains and the increasing numbers of food grants; in the oil companies running social media campaigns on individual consumer choice to avoid systemic responsibility.

Your Parliament is made up of 120 flawed and emotive human beings. For many in this position, the “common sense” refrain becomes an understandable pair of training wheels: it’s just the way things are. Some never take those training wheels off. Is it better to keep upright and look in control than risk pushing forward and grazing a knee?

Pushing accepted – and demonstrably unfit – boundaries is necessary for growth, especially when that discomfort is something we learn to avoid. You may reach a certain age where it’s far better to look like you know what you’re doing than to ask why you’re doing it in the first place. It’s above your pay grade. That’s how we’ve always done things. And so it goes.

Like generations before them, who “naively” fought for decriminalisation of homosexuality and nuclear-free New Zealand, these kids aren’t asking for power. They are making it out of nothing, with tools and imagination beyond what can be taken for granted. Discomfort is their norm. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when they win.

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