The Green Party co-leader joins Grant Robertson and Nicola Willis in opting not to contest the seat.
Just six days after five-term Wellington Central MP and finance minister Grant Robertson announced he would not be contesting the Wellington Central seat and would go list-only at this year’s election, James Shaw has followed suit. Despite the high likelihood he would have been the most recognisable contender, the Green co-leader and minister of climate change, who has run in the electorate since 2011, has announced he will be running for a list place only, and nominated Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul to take his place as the party’s constituency candidate. “Sometimes you just need to check your ego and make way for a new generation of political leadership,” he said.
The departure of Shaw, who says he intends to remain as Green co-leader, will mean a slew of new candidates in the urban-liberal-inclined electorate. Nicola Willis, the National deputy leader and finance spokesperson who stood for the party in Wellington Central in the last two elections, has opted to run in Ōhāriu instead, and was in November selected as the party’s candidate for the suburban Wellington electorate.
When Robertson announced he would not seek selection for the seat last week, Shaw paid tribute and said, “I intend to put myself forward for selection as the Green Party’s candidate for Wellington Central.”
What has changed in the days since? “Two things have changed,” Shaw told The Spinoff today. “First of all I’ve had time to weigh the pros and cons in terms of my ability to serve the electorate well while still co-leader and minister of climate change after the election. The second thing is that Tamatha Paul said she would be willing to put forward her name, and I consider her one of the most talented politicians of her generation. I think she can win it and I think she would be a great representative for Wellington Central.”
A high-profile contest famous for hosting New Zealand’s best political documentary and a traditional water-pistol-themed candidate debate in the Aro Valley, Wellington Central has returned some of the Greens’ healthiest party votes in recent times. It remains a Labour stronghold as far as constituency members are concerned, however, with the last 40 years seeing all but one (Labour minister turned Act leader Richard Prebble in 1996) election won by a Labour candidate.
Tamatha Paul was re-elected comfortably for a second term as a councillor for the Pukehīnau/Lambton ward last year, winning more than 2.5 times the first preference votes of the next most popular candidate.
Shaw’s approach was entirely unexpected, said Paul. “I don’t want to be an MP for the sake of being an MP. I want to amplify and advocate and represent our city to the fullest,” the 26-year-old said in a statement. “When I stood for council last year, I was expecting the worst. I prepared for a term of resisting regressive politics that would conspire to unravel all of our hard work. But our city chose progress. We elected our first wahine Māori mayor, alongside an incredible team of councillors. I’ve never been prouder of our community.”
Wellington had an “opportunity to be the Greenest capital in the world,” she said. “And I’m a big believer in perfect timing.”
Despite speculation from National MP Chris Bishop that he had been "shafted by the Greens yet again", Shaw stressed the decision was wholly his. Nor was it prompted by a projection of a change of government, he said, echoing Ardern's recent words: "To borrow a recent phrase, I am not standing aside because I think we can’t win it, but because I think we can." The call was made “with some regret, but no doubt”, and the circumstances were right for Paul. “Wellington Central has been the Greens’ highest polling seat for decades. With Grant Robertson standing aside as the local MP, it will be an open race with no incumbent,” he said in a statement. “We showed in 2020 we could win electorates with the massive grassroots mobilisation Auckland Central. In 2023 we can win Wellington Central too.”
Shaw, who was ejected as Green co-leader last year only to be re-elected by an overwhelming margin, said he intended to remain as co-leader, and would campaign across the country for the party vote. As climate change minister, he said, “I have a very full and very urgent work programme. And I am working to ensure that this election gives me and the Greens a stronger hand to lead the next government’s programme of climate action, protecting nature, and ending inequality.”
He said: “The people of Wellington Central need a member of parliament who can focus 100% on their needs … While our local party branch hasn’t yet confirmed Tamatha’s selection, I firmly believe Tamatha has what it takes to run a huge, energised campaign. Her experience on the city council means she is in touch with our communities and knows how to get things done.”
Last Friday, in an announcement that was to some extent lost in the floods that engulfed Auckland, Grant Robertson announced that following Jacinda Ardern’s resignation and his own decision not to seek to succeed her as prime minister he would not be seeking the Labour nomination in the seat.
“Being Minister of Finance is a huge job, and does often draw you away from electorate responsibilities. I am particularly conscious of that now as the country enters a challenging economic period. Those challenges are likely to last for some time. Post-election I want to continue as minister of finance, and devote myself to that role, without feeling I am not giving my full attention to the people of Wellington Central,” he said.
He added: “I know that this decision will come as a shock to some of you. I am sorry for doing that, but I really believe that this is the right decision for me, for the party and for Wellington Central. I have absolutely no doubt that there will be a number of people interested in the Labour nomination, and that we will select a terrific candidate.”
Sitting MP Julie Anne Genter has been selected as Green candidate for Rongotai, another Wellington electorate where the party sniffs a chance of repeating the feat of Chlöe Swarbrick, who defied predictions to win Auckland Central in 2020.
Paul will not seek a place on the party list. Official selection by the Greens for Wellington Central is expected on February 16. A National Party spokesperson said nominations for the Wellington Central candidacy would open in the next few weeks, while a Labour Party spokesperson said its selection timetable would be confirmed in the coming days.