Wellington Central is known as one of the most highly educated electorates in the country. Photo / Mark Mitchell
After 15 years, Finance Minister Grant Robertson is giving up the glamour seat that is Wellington Central, leaving the race wide open after other high-profile exits.
National deputy leader Nicola Willis obviously thinks she
has a better shot at winning Ōhāriu, Greens co-leader James Shaw has moved aside for the next generation with “some regret, but no doubt”, and rising star Act deputy leader Brooke van Velden is eyeing Tamaki.
Wellington Central is known as one of the most highly educated electorates in the country. It also has the highest proportion of those aged between 20 and 24 years old as well as those who walk or jog to work.
It’s a safe Labour seat but the Greens are pouring resources into flipping it- fuelled by their success in Auckland Central in 2020. Meanwhile, National’s candidate is adamant it’s a three-horse race.
Between them, the candidates are a bunch of rookies compared to those who have previously stood for the seat but this time the race is wide open.
Asked whether she is channelling Chlöe Swarbrick’s Auckland Central campaign, Wellington Central Green candidate Tamatha Paul is reluctant to say.
Paul points to the fact that she has already run two successful grassroots campaigns herself getting on to the Wellington City Council representing the Lambton Ward.
She and her volunteers have already done 20,000 phone calls and doorknock attempts in her bid to enter Parliament.
But yes, she thinks there are similarities between Auckland Central and Wellington Central and sees Swarbrick’s win as a good sign.
Paul is a young wāhine Māori who has spent some of her most formative years as a young adult navigating the council. She was first elected when Andy Foster snatched the mayoral chains from Justin Lester in a shock result and, well, the rest is history in terms of just how challenging that council was.
She says the stars have aligned for her in Wellington Central because she is entering a wide-open race having been at the forefront of major decisions for the city as a councillor.
“This is my stomping ground if you compare me to other candidates.”
Paul has supported light rail as part of the beleaguered Let’s Get Wellington Moving Transport (LGWM) plan and fought for more housing in the city’s district plan overhaul.
She wants to get into Parliament where legislation can be used to make these changes happen faster.
That’s true, but not if she gets in as a National-led Government comes to power that has promised to kill LGWM, ditch light rail, and get on with building a second Mt Victoria tunnel instead.
Paul maintains she can work with all parties, but says it would be even more important to have a Green voice for Wellington in the context of a National-Act government.
She points to the Basin Reserve flyover proposal being successfully fought against by the community under a National-led government in 2014.
“Just because they’re in Government does not mean that they can force whatever they like on us and that’s the kind of attitude the MP for Wellington Central needs to have.”
Paul is campaigning on more public housing and rent controls, a tax-free threshold and wealth tax, as well as climate-safe cities.
Wellington Central is a safe Labour seat but, after Swarbrick’s success in Auckland Central and Green-endorsed Tory Whanau’s 2022 Wellington mayoral win, it’s not unreasonable to believe it could flip.
Labour candidate Ibrahim Omer admits it’s a very tough race.
“I’m not taking anything for granted.”
Omer acknowledges he is a new candidate following Robertson and says anything could happen.
Omer sees his biggest asset as being someone anyone can work with. He says he already has strong relationships with communities across the city, whether that’s with migrants, public servants, NGOs, or businesses.
He entered Parliament as a list MP in 2020. His path to the halls of power is a compelling story.
Omer fled his home country of Eritrea in 2003 and spent several years in United Nations-run refugee camps where he worked as an interpreter.
He was detained on suspicion of being a spy and it was only after the UN stepped in that he was rescued and offered the chance to move to New Zealand.
Omer’s dream of studying at university became a reality in 2014 when he started a degree in political science and development studies at Victoria University. He had worked two jobs just to get to that point after arriving in New Zealand with nothing.
He paid for his studies by working fulltime at night, cleaning the same lecture theatres he studied in during the day.
More housing is an important issue for Omer, who lived in a Kāinga Ora home in Lower Hutt when he first moved to the region and then in council flats.
“It gave me a head start in life and having a place you call home, shelter over your head, is always going to be important.”
Omer is also campaigning on the cost of living, affordable public transport, and climate change.
There is a long-shot possibility the battle between Omer and Paul will split the left vote, paving the way for National’s candidate, Scott Sheeran.
He claims that if you talk to people on the street, Wellington Central is a three-horse race.
The last time Wellington Central was blue is a bit of a complicated story.
The electorate was abolished between 1993 and 1996 and turned in to the Wellington-Karori electorate, which Pauline Gardiner successfully contested for National.
But she then left the party during that term to join United Future. Gardiner lost the seat to Act’s Richard Prebble in 1996 before the seat went back to Labour in 1999.
Apart from this period, Wellington Central has been a sea of red for 40 years.
Sheeran relocated to Wellington this year to contest the seat after spending the past three and a half years working as a lawyer for the United Arab Emirates Government in Abu Dhabi.
He says his family has been back and forth between the two counties over this time and they kept a home in Hataitai, although they have now outgrown this property and it is rented.
“I love Wellington. I mean, it’s just a special place basically. So, we’d always planned to come back.”
After first moving to the capital in 1999, Sheeran worked for a couple of law firms and as a public servant in three different agencies.
He rejects criticism that he doesn’t know the place because he hasn’t lived here recently and points to his campaign launch as proof of his connection with the community.
“I had probably about 160 people turn up to my campaign launch and that excludes all my friends who are public servants because none of them want to come to a party when you’re a politician. Honestly, I’m not going to make direct comparisons but that’s a lot more people than other campaign launches.”
One of his biggest concerns is that not everyone is being listened to in the city.
He gives the example of Karori residents who don’t want a cycleway down the suburb’s main road.
“I have got to all corners of this electorate. I do not say that there’s any one group that’s my group and that’s actually something I believe in my heart, that we need representatives who listen to everyone.”
Sheeran is campaigning on transport, social and commercial investment in the city, and increasing housing supply.
The Opportunities Party (TOP) deputy leader and Wellington Central candidate Natalia Albert is realistic about the fact she probably isn’t going to win the seat, so is focused on the party vote.
But she wants to “steal” some of the votes to put pressure on the other candidates.
“I do want to split the vote and I want to do that because I want to hold Labour and the Greens accountable.”
In 2020 TOP’s Wellington Central candidate received 1031 votes or 2.2 per cent of the overall share.
Albert feels there has been little political oversight from Robertson on projects like LGWM over the past six years because he has been too busy being the Finance Minister.
She can’t fault him for that – it just is what it is.
Albert has worked as a public servant for 12 years while studying political science at Massey and Victoria universities, with a specific focus on how to govern growing diverse populations.
While working at Statistics New Zealand she was the private secretary for James Shaw, who was the Minister of Statistics at the time. Albert says the two are “bonded by trauma” after the 2018 “Census s*** show”.
Albert is campaigning on more accessibility infrastructure to enhance social cohesion, improving the governance and transparency of LGWM, and the notion of “maturing MMP” to decentralise power.
Taylor Arneil is standing for New Zealand First and is passionate about health, education, defence and foreign affairs and getting the party back in to Parliament.
Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party co-leader Michael Appleby is also standing as is Meg Lim from Vision NZ. Lim’s profile on the party’s website says: “When families are healthy the country is healthy”.
Georgina Campbell is a Wellington-based reporter who has a particular interest in local government, transport, and seismic issues. She joined the Herald in 2019 after working as a broadcast journalist.