In the heart of a politically charged city, a high-stakes election battle is unfolding between three highly impressive candidates with significant political potential, all almost perfectly tied in the polls.
With the Beehive at its centre, the symbolic importance of Wellington Central is obvious: it’s the home of the government, the seat of power. It’s an electorate every party would love to claim as a jewel for their crown.
The decision of the incumbent, Labour’s Grant Robertson, to run list-only blew the race wide open. The Greens see the potential to pull off another urban victory after Chlӧe Swarbrick’s win in Auckland Central, National thinks it can ride a wave of dissatisfaction toward the government to pull off a coup, and Labour is fighting hard to keep onto the seat it has held for 24 years.
Despite all three candidates being new to politics, they’re all highly impressive and could have huge political futures. More importantly, they each represent a future vision for their own parties in the new era of New Zealand’s politics.
Tamatha Paul is a firebrand outsider. A young wahine Māori who has made a name for herself in local politics as an independent left-winger who can rally a crowd, she’s a natural on social media, and has proved an ability to get progressive reforms pushed through. Winning this seat would establish the Greens as the leading representatives of the young, urban centres.
Ibrahim Omer has possibly the best story of any candidate in the country; a refugee who spent years working as a cleaner. Winning the seat would establish Omer as an up-and-comer and help Labour build deeper connections with ethnic communities and immigrant service workers who make up the new working class.
Scott Sheeran is a jet-setting Kiwi who built his reputation overseas before coming home and entering politics. He’s socially liberal with a management consultant’s view of government; more concerned with organisational efficiency and good processes than ideology. He’d sit alongside Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop on the party’s urban liberal wing, and would almost certainly have a fast ascent to cabinet.
The stakes couldn’t be higher: all three need to win the electorate to make it into parliament, and recent polling shows the race is neck-and-neck in an almost perfect three-way split.
An electorate unlike any other
Wellington Central is the most urbanised electorate in the country, even more so than Auckland Central, because the harbour and hills have forced the city to grow within a compact boundary.
This means it has developed a culture that is different in lots of little funny ways. Even the way people get around is different; it’s one of the only places where driving to work puts you in the minority. Only 28% of people use their cars, with 40% walking to work and 16% taking the bus.
Wellington is the home of the government. The voter base is highly influential. It’s where parliamentary staffers live and where most politicians spend their time. All the major ministries, industry lobby groups, thinktanks and consulting firms are based here.
Thousands of people have the job titles “policy adviser” or “policy analyst” – meaning there are lots of nerds who want to debate politics at a finer level of detail than usual, so candidates have to be across the issues. Wellington Central leads the nation in public administration and professional services.
It also has the highest proportion of people with a post-grad or master’s degree, and the second-highest number of people with a doctorate (behind Dunedin). Incomes are high for the significant chunk of the electorate working in senior white collar jobs (though this is balanced out by a high number of students and younger workers).
It’s a very young electorate, with the highest number of people aged 20-24, and is second in the 15-19 and 25-29 categories. This shows in a number of other statistics: it has the highest rate of people living with flatmates, the highest rate of unmarried people, and the highest number of non-religious people.
That’s mostly to do with the two universities and a high number of young professionals, but the electorate also has one of the lowest proportions of people on superannuation. Retirees prefer to head out to the coast where life is slower and cost of living is lower.
A city full of issues
Ironically, despite being the seat of government, voters often feel the electorate is neglected. Politicians don’t like the optics of looking out for Wellington over the rest of the country. Grant Robertson has been a highly respected and well-liked Wellington Central MP since 2008, but there is a feeling his role as minister of finance made him less visible locally.
There has been a sense for the past few years that the city is “dying” or has “lost its mojo”. The main culprit was the 2016 earthquake; it forced a number of office buildings to be torn down, and shut the central library, the town hall and Reading Cinema.
The earthquake weakened a lot of the older pipes underneath the city, leading to years of bursts, breaks and leaks. The problem was so big and so expensive for the council that Wellington was one of the few areas that largely supported the Three Waters reforms.
Housing is expensive, both to purchase and rent. There are no new major greenfield areas to develop in the electorate, the only option place to build is up – but heritage restrictions held back growth in the inner suburbs for years, and insurance issues from earthquake risk make buying apartments less appealing than in Auckland.
Transport is one of the divisive issues. Let’s Get Wellington Moving is almost certainly going to be scrapped or changed no matter who forms the next government. It’s an entire programme of city-shaping projects ranging from small things like footpath changes to a second Mount Victoria tunnel and light rail to Island Bay. Labour and the Greens want light rail, but National would scrap it. The parties disagree about whether a second tunnel should prioritise more cars or focus on buses and bikes. This election will be crucial for deciding which projects go ahead.
Meet the candidates
Ibrahim Omer: The most powerful story in politics
Khartoum, Sudan. Ibrahim Omer is on a short break from the refugee camp, visiting friends in the capital city. He’s in an internet cafe, checking up on news from around the world. As he focuses on the screen in front of him, a group of large men march up behind him and grab his shoulder. They show him a picture: it’s his face. They take him outside, and ask for his name and ID.
“Just come with us to the car, we have some questions for you. Don’t make any noise, we don’t want any unnecessary attention,” they told him.
The car took off. He was blindfolded. The car drove around and around. He didn’t know how far he had gone or how long it had been – he guessed two or the hours. When the blindfold was removed, he was in an interrogation centre.
Omer was born in Eritrea. He fled his home as a teenager amid the bloody Badme War and spent four-and-a-half years living in a refugee camp in Sudan. His English was good, so he was able to get a job for the United Nations working as a translator in the camp helping other refugees – but his work made him a target of the Sudanese regime.
He was pummelled with questions for hours: are you a spy? Do you work for the CIA? Mossad? Eventually, they marched him away. He was taken to a specialist jail for high-profile political prisoners.
“You lived kind of a good life. You got a shower, you got food, you got a bed,” he says, generously. But there were no newspapers or books or contact with the outside world. No one knew where he was.
About halfway through his stay, he faked an illness and was taken to a hospital, where a doctor gave him a phone. After a couple of secretive calls, he managed to make contact with his organisation and the UN appointed him a lawyer.
He was eventually bailed out of prison, but placed under watch and told he needed to leave the country. New Zealand was the first country to approve his visa. He arrived in 2008. He settled in Wellington, where he was given a Kāinga Ora apartment in Pomare, Lower Hutt.
“Everything was new, there was a cultural shock, the language, everything. But to me, it was all about survival. My biggest dream was just to go to uni, get a degree and a corporate job and support myself and my family.”
For four and a half years, he worked 80 to 90 hours a week in order to send money home to his family and save up for university. He worked in security, farming, and most notably, as a cleaner at Victoria University.
Eventually, he was able to attend Victoria University, where he graduated with a degree in political science, international relations and development studies. His first job was with E Tū union, helping to organise his former cleaning coworkers; he also became the chair of ChangeMakers Resettlement Forum, worked on the living wage campaign, and volunteered for Grant Robertson’s previous election campaigns.
Omer says he was always interested in politics. “But I come from a country where politics is a taboo. Only a few people are allowed to do politics and other voices are not tolerated. People have been ‘disappeared’ and killed, including people in my family.”
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that someone like me could be a politician, who came here as a refugee,” he says. But it happened. In 2019, he started getting prompted to stand for the Labour Party list. “It wasn’t something I entertained at the beginning, but a lot of people were very supportive.”
The 2020 red wave caught him in its swell and he made it into parliament at 42nd on the list, becoming New Zealand’s first MP of African descent.
“I want to set a good example for young people who weren’t born in this country or who moved here very young. Their dreams are limited because they never had examples,” he says. “One day a young woman from a migrant background came up to me and said: ‘you give me hope that I can do anything in this country. I want to be minister of health one day, how can I do that?’ That really warms my heart, it means what I am doing is actually making a difference.”
His member’s bill to criminalise employer wage theft was an impressive legislative accomplishment for a first-term MP. The bill passed its first reading but didn’t get support from National or Act, leaving its future in the air. “From day one, I said my focus is going to be the people that will never have a voice in this place: refugees, migrants, and low-paid workers.”
As a Muslim MP, he was leaned on heavily during the aftermath of the March 15 attacks, when government leaders were going around the country meeting with communities and implementing the royal commission recommendations.
He helped to host the first Aotearoa Refugee Hui and played an important role during the fall of Kabul, helping to get 1,700 human rights defenders and their families resettled in New Zealand after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. “People were calling me at like 2am from Kabul, saying ‘I’m trying to get into the airport, but the Taliban are stopping me and the Americans won’t let me. Please help me.’” he recalls.
The nomination battle for Wellington Central was fierce. He had to beat out a quality field to be the Labour candidate, including former party president Claire Szabó. It’s a sign of just how much faith the party has in him.
“I’ve got a city that gave me so much, and I want to give back,” he says. His campaign is tougher than any Robertson faced, but he still has to be considered the favourite. His path to victory will depend on holding onto as much of the loyal Labour vote as possible, and holding off the rising Green tide. “I’m going to be an unapologetic voice for Wellington. Wellingtonians need someone who’s trustworthy and someone who is going to stick up for them, because there’s so much at stake.”
Tamatha Paul: The rising star
If there’s one story that sums up Tamatha Paul’s political style, it’s the cycleway vote. It was an incredible piece of gamesmanship that only a handful of local government nerds really appreciated. But its impact will shape the city for years to come.
It all happened in the middle of a chaotic, seven-hour meeting where the council set its 10-year budget. Mayor Andy Foster was frantically trying to cut spending, and councillors were arguing and snapping over every little thing.
The budget would have spent $61 million on cycling. Councillors negotiated to double the budget to $120m, but Paul pushed for more: she demanded a vote on a full city-wide cycling network, at an estimated cost of over $226m.
Foster blew his lid: he said she lived in a “parallel universe where money grows on trees”. Everyone in the room was suddenly on edge. There were several pro-cycling councillors, but would they actually go through with such a massive spend? With a vote on the table, there was no way to dodge the issue: it had to be a yes or a no.
Seven green squares came up on screen indicating a yes vote. Just one more was needed for a majority, and there were two winnable votes left: Sarah Free, the Green Party deputy mayor, and Jenny Condie, the “blue-green” who once ran for TOP. After a second that felt like a lifetime, their screens flicked red. The vote failed.
But what started as a long-shot quickly turned into a furore. A full cycleway network had never seemed possible before, but now it was real. Cycling advocacy groups kicked off a massive campaign. Sarah Free in particular faced intense scrutiny from Green Party members and was personally distraught over the whole ordeal.
After weeks of public consultation, the council reconvened to finalise the budget. Paul once again called for a vote on the full cycleway network. This time, whether councillors had been won over or just worn down, the vote passed.
At age 24, as a first-term councillor, she secured $226 million and the chance to completely reshape Wellington’s transport landscape.
This is the way Tamatha Paul does politics. The cycleways vote wasn’t about consensus or friendly negotiation. It was aggressive, and it got ugly. Councillors were put in an uncomfortable position, made more intense by a public pressure campaign. But it was undeniably effective.
“You have to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, or else they’ll get away with mediocrity,” says Paul.
“With that particular vote, it was about urgency, because I know that we have to make significant investments for the infrastructure that we need to reduce emissions.”
Paul grew up in Tokoroa, a small farming and forestry town in South Waikato, where she was “radicalised” by the poverty she saw. She was the first in her family to attend university, where she studied politics and international relations and was elected onto the Victoria University Wellington Students’ Association executive, later becoming president.
Her first council run in 2019 came on the back of a disagreement with local councillors over a liquor ban at Kelburn Park, a favourite drinking spot for Vic students. “I was so annoyed with my interactions with the councillors that I decided to stand. At first I just wanted a student to stand, and then realised I was the only one with the time and energy to do it.”
In her first term on council she quickly gained a profile with her brash style of politics – unafraid to call people out or give heated quotes to the media. It has made her polarising: she probably gets more negative comments on social media and talkback radio than any other councillor. There has been frustration at the council table too – mayor Andy Foster never trusted her, and even some on the left considered her too hard-headed and unwilling to negotiate.
But she built a passionate following of young, leftwing fans who liked her urgent, pull-no-punches approach. Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori all made approaches to try to get her on their ticket for the 2022 local body elections. The Greens won the sweepstakes, and it paid off: she was re-elected in Pukehīnau/Lambton Ward with 5,206 votes, the most ever achieved by a ward candidate.
When Grant Robertson announced he wasn’t standing in Wellington Central, previous Greens candidate James Shaw urged her to stand in his place. It was a huge move; a well-respected party leader deciding a one-term local councillor is more electable than them. “He was fully supportive. Like not one reservation, not one weight or one doubt.”
It’s impossible not to draw comparisons to Chlӧe Swarbrick. They’re both young women on the progressive end of politics who rose to prominence with independent local campaigns, and were recruited by the Green Party. They could soon represent the two most urban electorates in the country; Auckland Central and Wellington Central.
The comparisons are “flattering”, Paul says. “She was a big advocate for me to stand because I know that it will make her job easier, as she’s not the only one advocating for the urban, green solutions that our cities need.”
I asked all three candidates what they thought of their competitors. Paul is the only one who really took a swing: “Scott’s just really vague. And Ibrahim has been quite similar.”
“If you look past the simplistic and vague statements that the National Party candidate is making about wanting a reliable transport system and housing, you have to acknowledge that the policies they’re proposing will actively undermine our city and take it back decades. That’s what the National Party candidate represents for our city, and it will kill Wellington.”
It’s her bold style of advocacy that will be the key to victory: Paul is betting on a level of frustration from leftwing voters who are dissatisfied with Labour but unwilling to switch to National, and who demand more urgency and activism from their representatives. “I’ve demonstrated that I can be the loudest advocate for Wellington and offer the solutions that we need,” she says.
Scott Sheeran: National’s new hope
When Scott Sheeran was announced as the National candidate for Wellington Central, speculation started stirring: what had he been promised? The international lawyer and diplomat was a coup for National: highly qualified, experienced in government and the private sector, personable and charismatic. Had he been offered a spot in cabinet or a high list ranking to bring him home?
The answer is no, he insists. He wasn’t given any promises. In fact, he says he wasn’t recruited at all, he was always intending to move back home to Wellington before his children started school, and the timing seemed right to have a crack at politics.
“I just thought, you know what, I’m gonna put my name in the ring and see what happens.
“A lot of people said: if you’re interested in running for national politics, and you’re a National guy, don’t run in Wellington Central. But I think it’s a good fit for me. I’m socially liberal. I’m a blue-green. And I think the National Party is on the right track on those issues.”
Sheeran grew up in Hautapu near Cambridge. His parents split when he was young and he was raised by a single mother. “I didn’t really go to school a lot. I quite liked the beach.”
The first in his family to go to university, he became the president of the Society of Otago University Law Students, then the president of the New Zealand Law Students’ Association for two terms. It’s genuinely hard to sum up Sheeran’s career: he’s been a barrister, a public servant, a university academic, management consultant, military officer, and human rights defender. He was elected as the vice-chair of the United Nations legal committee while still in his 20s, and once briefed prime minister Jacinda Ardern on military operations.
“I think probably the best way to sum up my career was an openness to challenges, a willingness to do things that were not necessarily the orthodox thing, a desire to make a difference.”
After several years as part of the New Zealand government’s team on the UN security council, he said he planned to move into the private sector “because we couldn’t afford to live”. Then he got the call from the United Arab Emirates, offering him a job in the president’s office in Abu Dhabi. He worked on a free trade agreement between the UAE and India, planned responses after Iran attacked a ship in the Arabian sea, and mediated a dispute between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia over a dam construction project.
Sheeran and Paul have clashed several times in debates (Omer tends to stay out of the fray), particularly about cycleways and an airport extension Paul opposed. But the contrast is about more than policies, it’s about political identity. Where Paul sees herself as an agent of urgent change, Sheeran sees himself as a mediator.
His work in diplomacy clearly influences his political style: “What I learned is you need to listen to everybody,” he says. “People compromise when they feel like they’re being listened to. I think, based on my track record, I’m actually not too bad at bringing people together and solving problems.
“I think we have a style of politics now where there’s a lot of lecturing to people about what should be important to them, and not everyone agrees, ” he says, in a barely-disguised dig at Paul.
Sheeran hasn’t been visible in Wellington as long as Omer and Paul, but has thrown himself into local issues; he successfully pushed for an expanded school bus service from Mākara, he’s supported community groups pushing back against cycleway changes, and is eager to talk about the city’s fledgling ICT sector and insurance issues at earthquake-prone apartments. That local visibility is paying off – the latest polling shows him performing better than any National candidate since 2014, but his path to victory still relies on a significant vote split between Labour and Greens.
“If I’m not successful, I’m not going to be terribly hurt,” he admits. “My life does not hinge on whether I can be the MP, because I’ve got other opportunities. I want this more than anything else, I’m willing to dedicate my life to public service. But there’s lots of opportunities to apply my skills to help the community in different ways.”
Disclosure: The writer worked for Mana Communications when it was providing consulting services to Tamatha Paul’s campaign.