2 Feb 2023

James Shaw pulls out of Wellington Central race, backs Tamatha Paul

5:46 pm on 2 February 2023
Green Party Co-Leaders speak to RNZ's Giles Dexter at the end of 2022

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The race for Wellington Central has taken another turn, with Green Party co-leader James Shaw announcing he will not be contesting the seat.

While Labour and National are yet to announce their candidates, Shaw has already picked who he wants to take his place: current Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul.

Shaw is the latest candidate to declare he's out of the running, following National's Nicola Willis, who's contesting the adjacent Ōhāriu seat instead, and current Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who announced last week he intended to run as a list-only candidate.

Shaw has contested the seat at every election since 2011. He said as recently as last week he intended to put himself forward for the seat again, but Robertson's announcement left him with a choice to make.

"With Grant saying he wasn't going to stand, the seat becomes a lot more winnable, because it's an open seat with no incumbent, like Auckland Central in 2020. And so I think if we had run to win, and I had stood as a candidate, I think I could have won it. And I think it is winnable for the Greens," he told RNZ.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson speaks after releasing the half year economic and fiscal update (HYEFU) on 14 December 2022.

Grant Robertson, who has held the Wellington Central electorate since 2008, announced nearly a week ago he would not contest the seat again at this year's election and would run as a list-only MP. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

He was looking beyond the election, and instead at another term as climate change minister. He decided the electorate needed an MP who could focus on the city, its people, and its challenges.

"If we win the election this year, and I come back as climate change minister, I hope with an expanded set of responsibilities depending on how the election goes, then it would be very difficult for me to do a perfect job of being a constituency MP at the same time," he said.

Wellington Central is seen as one of the safest Labour seats in the country, with the party holding it since 1999. But it has also been one of the highest-polling seats for the Greens.

In 2020, 30 percent of the electorate gave the Greens their party vote. While Grant Robertson romped home with 27,366 candidate votes (57 percent), Shaw trailed second-placed Nicola Willis by just 107 votes.

"We've got more support in Wellington Central than we have in any other electorate around the country," Shaw said. "And that's been true for decades now."

Shaw said running as a list-only candidate would allow him to focus more on increasing the party vote around the country.

"As Green Party co-leader, my chief responsibility in the campaign is to ensure that we get more people giving their party vote to the Green Party than we ever have before. And if I was to try and run a winning constituency electorate campaign, that would be a distraction. Frankly, I wouldn't be able to do either of those campaigns full justice," he said.

It turns what had at the beginning of the year been a foregone conclusion for Labour into a 2023 battleground, with three brand new faces set to contest the electorate.

"Tamatha is an extraordinary campaigner," Shaw said. "She got more votes at the last council elections than the next three candidates combined. She is capable of building movements, and running outstanding campaigns."

Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul.

Wellington City councillor Tamatha Paul Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"She understands the challenges that the city faces, and she knows the community organisations, and the institutions, and the businesses, and local iwi and hapū. So she's really well networked, and I think would also make a fantastic constituency MP were she to win the seat."

Paul said Shaw rang her while she was in Bunnings, and his nomination was completely unexpected.

She has been a councillor for the Pukehīnau/Lambton General ward since 2019, and was re-elected in a landslide in 2022. She admitted she had not set out to be an MP, otherwise she would not have stood for re-election.

"I'm not really interested in being an MP for MP's sake. I just see this massive opportunity to amplify the mahi that I've been doing over the last few years, and I'm going to take it. I want to represent people. I want to represent my people, my city, my community," she said.

Paul has made the decision to run an electorate-only campaign in 2023. It means if she does not win the seat, she would not enter Parliament on the list.

She said it was now up to the voters of Wellington Central to decide whether they would rather she stay a councillor, or advocate for them in Parliament.

"I think my mandate goes to show that people want strong climate action, much more housing, they are worried about the affordability of living here in Wellington. It's really clear to me what my mandate is, and I can push that even further and even harder in Parliament on behalf of Wellington," she said.

"Councils, and myself, we're operating within the confines of what Parliament allows us to do. And I want to see if I can actually change that system, and change that structure around what is possible."

The local party branch is yet to confirm her selection, but she understood she was the only candidate nominated so far. The official selection takes place on 16 February.

ACT's deputy leader Brooke van Velden also contested the seat in 2020, placing fifth. An ACT spokesperson says the party has not selected any of its candidates for 2023 yet.

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