Political commentators are experiencing a bit of déjà vu as they look at this year’s race in Wellington Central.
It’s an urban electorate where a young woman is running a serious two-tick campaign for the Greens, taking advantage of the abandonment of the seat by its incumbent.
City councillor Tamatha Paul’s run in Wellington bears a lot of similarities to Chlöe Swarbrick’s historic bid in Auckland Central in 2020, when she picked up the Greens’ first seat in two decades.
Back then, four-term MP Nikki Kaye was stepping down at the election, leaving Swarbrick in a three-way race against candidates who had never been in Parliament.
Now, Paul is hoping to fill the void left by Grant Robertson’s decision to run on Labour’s list. She has the added benefit of Nicola Willis turning her attention to Ōhariu, so Labour and National’s candidates are new to contesting the seat. James Shaw making way for Paul means what was once a seat of power hitters feels novel and unpredictable.
Earlier this year, Labour selected list MP Ibrahim Omer to run for the electorate and National picked relatively unknown international lawyer Scott Sheeran.
Though the Greens are also deploying resources to win in Mt Albert and Rongotai, those are broadly considered to be more of a long-shot than the genuinely winnable Wellington Central.
Is the resemblance between the Wellington Central and Auckland Central races more than surface-level, however? The candidates aren’t so sure, pointing out there are differences as well.
“I think in terms of the campaigns themselves, I think it’s quite different, but not totally dissimilar,” Paul said.
“Auckland Central you obviously had Nikki Kaye for a long time, you’ve got some of the wealthiest suburbs in New Zealand, it’s quite spread-out geographically as an electorate, it’s got the islands too. It seems like it’s one of those seats that could go any way, but I suppose the same could be said for Wellington Central but I think the choice here is quite clearly between Labour and Green.”
That highlights the uphill battle Paul is facing. Swarbrick won in 2020 with just over 35 percent of the vote – she didn’t need a majority or anything near it. In a two-way race, when Robertson has won at least 49 percent of the vote in each of the past four contests, a third of the vote probably won’t cut it. Hence the massive ground game, with door-knocking having already covered more than a quarter of the electorate and $50,000 raised for the campaign.
Paul said the political circumstances meant she was running in a very different way from her two successful bids for city council. Those are mostly about getting out the vote, because when young people in Wellington do go to the polls in local elections, they overwhelmingly return Green and Labour candidates.
Now, she has to much more explicitly contrast herself with Labour’s candidate, list MP Ibrahim Omer.
Paul is anchoring her campaign on housing, in part because it connects to so many other issues – “it ties in with the cost of living crisis too because most people, a majority of their expenses every week is going on their rent, it also impacts the public transport system because bus drivers can’t afford to live in the city” – and in part because the Greens have a much more compelling argument on housing than Labour, she said, which has been in government for six years without much to show for Wellingtonians.
“Being a renter myself and living in one of the stereotypical dark, cold flats in Aro Valley really sets me up well to be able to advocate for strong solutions to the housing crisis,” she said.
Representation from a Green MP is also a different proposition from a Labour MP because of the differing political constraints the two have, Paul argued. If Labour is in government after the election, she said, its backbenchers like Omer will be muzzled from criticising the government too much, while the Greens would still have free rein.
“If you want someone who is getting out there and being very vocal about the realities of living in Wellington City, then I’m really happy to do that,” she said. “It’s been a pretty effective method that I think Chlöe has used in her first term as electorate MP for Auckland Central.”
Perhaps the first example of this is on university funding cuts. Paul began advocacy about the issue on June 1, but Omer only put out a statement on June 19, after weeks of pleading for support from union leaders and student advocates.
“The value of that vocal representative is that it shifts the conversations and it shifts what’s politically possible.”
All of this is music to Swarbrick’s ears, who said she’s been a keen follower of Paul’s political career since before she was even a student politician. Swarbrick first met Paul in 2018 at a planning meeting for greater mental health resourcing at Victoria University.
“I’d actually been on at her for years, trying to get her to this place to run for us,” Swarbrick said. “I was one of the first people in her ear, as soon as we saw things playing out in Wellington Central, that this was the time.”
She sees Paul as exhibiting a mix of practical politics that doesn’t compromise Green values.
“She’s demonstrated that she gets it done and that the system is not conforming her or taking her over. I think that that actually is – if my theory of change holds and in light of the fact that I’m somehow still sticking around and won the mandate in 2020 to do the work that I do – the new model for how politics can and should work in this country.”
Swarbrick agrees that Green MPs can mobilise around issues in a way that parliamentarians from the big parties cannot.
“If we’re thinking of the future of the Greens and the value of showing New Zealanders what greater diversity of representation outside of the historical two major parties looks like, we need to realise that politics doesn’t just happen every three years but literally every single day,” she said, pointing to the reluctance of most MPs to comment on the Auckland Council budget proposals this year.
“That I think is the thing that differentiates Tam and has helped to differentiate our work in Auckland Central over the past few years is that we will get our teeth into anything and campaign around these issues and not just fob it off and say it’s a local government issue. Tam’s experience with Wellington Council, that stuff’s priceless.”