Race for Wellington Central heats up

As the year draws to a close, believe it or not it’s almost time for politicians to once again bang up the hoardings, get out the doorknocking clipboards and call you up on the phone. Yes, it’s another election year for New Zealand in 2017. If the above description still sounds raw, it’s because we’ve just come out of the 2016 local elections, in which the Labour and the Greens – and to a lesser extent the Maori, United Future and Legalise Cannabis parties – through their worth. It doesn’t feel like three years have passed since “#WhaleGate” was trending on Twitter, Pam Corkery was insulting journalists, Kim Dotcom and Internet Mana were things and rapper Eminem was suing the National Party.

What a strange election cycle.

With any luck, normal transmission will resume to the election scene in 2017 (although you didn’t hear a guarantee of that here first). But just because 2017 may be missing the extravagance of a political controversy, the bizarreness of Kim Dotcom and the awkwardness of the country’s governing party being accused of copyright, it doesn’t mean this election won’t be exciting. Changes in electoral boundaries and a constantly altering country mean seats previously assumed safe for either party may not be so next year.

Among the seats to watch are Northland – the seat picked up by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at the 2015 by-election, triggered by the sudden and totally unexplained resignation of National backbencher Mike Sabin. Peters, whilst winning the seat comfortably over National challenger Mark Osborne, knows he will be facing a whole new challenge in 2017, with more voters in the true blue electorate turning out to vote. Juggling time between Northland and the rest of the country, which Peters hopes to win over in a populist-driven, off-the-back-of-Trump-and-Brexit surge, will also put his seat back into competition.

Additionally, the seat of Waiariki will see former television star Tamati Coffey stand for Labour against Maori Party co-leader Te Uruora Flavell – but the ex-weatherman may have read the forecast all wrong as the Maori Party witnesses a comeback and complete turnaround in its polling fortunes. In Te Tai Hauauru rugby league legend and popular former New Plymouth District Councillor Howie Tamati will challenge Labour incumbent and direct descendent of Ratana, Adrian Rurawhe. In Christchurch Central hugely popular local lawyer Duncan Webb will attempt to wrestle the traditional Labour seat back for his party off two-term National MP Nicky Wagner, and in Hutt South the well-performing Chris Bishop has a golden opportunity to win with veteran MP Trevor Mallard opting only for the list this time around.

But Wellington Central may become a seat to watch too. Not because it’s predicted to be a tight race, but because of the heavyweights throwing their hats in the ring. Grant Robertson will stand for Labour again, a senior party figure and debatably the ‘ex-leader ‘of the more moderate faction, will wave the red flag. Robertson is a candidate with wide appeal, gaining votes not just off Labour supporters, but also Tories and Greens. He’s increased his majority every election since his assumption to the candidacy in 2008 following the retirement of Marian Hobbs, but has failed to carry the party vote. In 2014 Labour’s party vote share shot to a bruising new low – 23%, 2 points below the nationwide vote share.

Part of the reason for Labour’s party vote demise in Wellington Central is a change in demographic. It’s one of the top three wealthiest electorates in the country, one of the most educated and increasingly ethnically diverse. The result is a liberal, globally-minded and environmentalist mentality among a growing younger population. The perfect climate for a Green Party surge. At the previous election, the Greens secured 29.5% of the party vote, far beyond its vote share in other central city electorates around the country (22.1% in Auckland Central, 15.8% in Christchurch Central) and the 11% share it scored nationwide. One-time candidate and local Aro Valley-based businessman James Shaw secured 13.2% of the candidate vote in 2014. Now Shaw’s the male co-leader of the party, and will be having a far more serious roll of the die this time around with new political capital, experience and exposure. He has the name recognition, the charisma and the force of a party that’s particularly popular in Wellington behind him to at least crack 20%.  However, Shaw has contradicted rumours that he was due to stand in Ohariu against no Labour challenger to potentially oust long-sitting United Future MP and government support partner Peter Dunne, showing his confidence to wrestle a seat off Labour with no help at all.
With Labour and the Greens both fielding heavyweights, on the progressive side at least it’s looking like an unprecedented clash-of-the-titans. So what of the right?

Paul Foster-Bell, a candidate who was dealt a difficult defeat in 2011 to Robertson despite a strong nationwide swing to his party, National, attempted to be nominated by the party to stand in the safe seat of Whangarei in 2014. He was ultimately beaten by local GP and relative unknown Shane Reti. This loss forced Foster-Bell to stand in Wellington Central again in 2014, where the candidate’s share of the vote fell to just 30%, down from 32% in 2011 and 37% for Stephen Franks in 2008. Perhaps more embarrassingly, Foster-Bell also ensured National’s party vote total fell too despite the party getting stronger in the neighbouring, more pro-Labour seat of Rongotai.

The political novice has also had his fair share of controversies in his first term too. In just three years no less than twelve members of his staff had resigned, many of whom claimed Foster-Bell had bullied them – something the MP strongly denied. However, Foster-Bell’s liability to the party has clearly been noted, with Prime Minister John Key flying in corporate high-flier and former senior adviser Nicola Willis to take a comfortable place on the party list for 2017. Subsequently Ms. Willis has also announced her intention to seek the National Party nomination for Wellington Central, which would mean ousting current candidate Foster-Bell. The latter candidate is confident local Tories will have his back when it comes to the candidate selection process, but what is clear is Ms. Willis has the backing of the National higher-ups who still see Wellington as a destination where National can harvest votes, and if not give Robertson a reason to campaign, avoid slipping into third place behind a resurgent James Shaw.

So with centre-left heavyweights Grant Robertson and James Shaw doing battle, and the National Party experiencing a mini coup attempt against Paul Foster-Bell in favour of Nicola Willis, Wellington Central is shaping up to be one of the more hotly contested seats of 2017 with the minor party confirmations yet to come.

– Bennett Morgan, Capital HardTalk.