Clone wars in Wellington Central

  • 24/11/2011

By Lloyd Burr

Wellington Central has been the sensible middle child of the election so far and I’m damned if I know what to name it.

Auckland’s the ‘battle of the babes’, Epsom has the ‘teacup tussle’, Ohariu has the ‘dirty deal’ and I was determined to find another ridiculous name for Wellington Central.

There were a few options: battle of the blokes; battle of the boys; conflict of the capital; battle of the bespectacled and even, as Labour’s incumbent Grant Robertson suggested, the battle of the bulge.

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But I ended up flagging the need to brand such a contest – and, surely to the delight of Labour, wanted it to be about policy and principle rather than personality.

Until the last election, Wellington Central had safely been in Labour hands with Marion Hobbs holding the seat with a comfortable majority since Helen Clark came to power.

Three years ago Mr Robertson replaced Ms Hobbs as Labour’s candidate and still sailed to the finish line with a comfortable winning margin of around 2,000 ahead of National’s Stephen Franks.

Mr Robertson’s first term as an MP saw him soar up the party list, land a place on Labour’s front bench with the health portfolio and become the mouthpiece for Labour’s election campaign – he is also flagged as a future leader of the party.

In what could be a cunning strategic move, National have found their own version of the current Labour MP – a man called Paul Foster-Bell, striking in resemblance and what he jokingly says is “National’s evil attempt at trying to clone Grant Robertson”.

Mr Robertson, bespectacled and rather rotund, went to the University of Otago, earned a bachelor of arts, and served time in Helen Clark’s office before working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Mr Foster-Bell, also bespectacled and rather rotund, went to the University of Otago, earned a bachelor of arts, and served time in Bill English’s office before working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Greens have also joined the race and thrown a cat amongst the candidates by choosing James Shaw for the seat – a Wellington-turned-London businessman who says nothing would make him prouder than to represent the city in Parliament.

Mr Shaw (who looks nothing like the incumbent) says he is realistic about his chances of winning the seat because Green voters like to “share the love”.

Last election, he says, many who party voted for the Greens gave Mr Robertson their electorate vote and that is something he is expecting to happen again.

Mr Foster-Bell says he is “running hard” for the seat and rates his chances of ousting Labour’s shining star, who is widely expected to retain the seat.

He brushes off his similarity with Mr Robertson though, saying “there is no deliberate strategy, it’s just pure serendipity”.

“I was selected in a democratic contest by 40 men and 20 women of the National party who had got together and voted for me,” he says.

And Mr Foster-Bell has nothing to lose – he is placed 56th on the list but ends up somewhere in the 60s if those lower on the list win their seats – National will need a majority for him to get in.

National have certainly chosen a man who can appeal to the left-leaning voters of the electorate – Mr Foster-Bell seems to be a big supporter of green initiatives and happily admits he pushes the boundaries of what is ‘typically National’.

“I don’t limit myself to just business meetings – I go to environment meetings, I’ve been to the Wellington Young Feminists’ Collective.

“You just get out and talk to people. It goes beyond the boundaries that your party is stereotyped as representing,” he says.

He supports same-sex marriage and adoption, he is big on public transport, he is big on the environment and happily spends more than ten minutes talking about renewable energy – for a moment I wonder if I am talking to the right candidate. 

But I am reassured he is National’s man when he says he supports deep-sea oil drilling, lignite mining, cutting public service jobs and says people should vote for him “for a brighter future”.

Despite the threat of this bespectacled doppelganger, Labour’s Mr Robertson is confident he will retain his seat.

“Paul Foster-Bell seems to be a nice guy [but] I’m really optimistic about my chances - I’ve worked hard, my profile’s pretty good so I’m really optimistic,” he says.

His achievements since taking up the role are “heaps of little things” - he says he helped keep the sevens, made Wellington a fair-trade city, established an association for inner-city residents and has a bill that will help protect the city belt.

He wastes no time outlining his attitude toward National’s last three years – giving them a fail in health and public service and a “massive fail” in education.

Although his key portfolio is health, education dominated the conversation – it is an area that got him into politics and one he says he has always been passionate about.

“[I would give National] a major fail mark at every level for education. Where do you start?...To me, [Anne Tolley] has not succeeded in her job as Minister of Education…She’s in the job because Key has backed her and he doesn’t want to back down,” he says.

His tone is similar with regard to health and public service cuts:

“I get people giving me letters about their parents being laid off by John Key all the time. People are trying to re-train and desperately looking for work.

“I haven’t seen morale as low as it is now – you pick it apart and you will see problems,” he says.

Health Minister Tony Ryall’s claims that significant improvements have been made in the health sector are also on the receiving end of Mr Robertson’s criticism and he says “anyone can spin a figure out”.

And Mr Foster-Bell is quick to “spin out” those figures and he adds that health “is an area where National has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of”.

Numbers and figures seem to be a strength of Mr Foster-Bell who has either memorised National’s PR booklet or gone to great lengths to find the figures himself.

He openly admits being a “policy geek” and appears to have his fingers of interest in many portfolio pies – I suggest he may be the replacement for ‘Minister for Everything’ Steven Joyce to which he replies “No, I wouldn’t claim that level of expertise”.

If Mr Foster-Bell makes it into Parliament, that type of sucking-up will not get him that far – he is destined for the National backbenches and he knows it - something that the Green’s Mr Shaw is repulsed by.

“It just horrifies me the thought of being a backbencher in a National Government and having to vote for legislation and budgets that are progressively making things worse,” he says.

This response is usually what Mr Shaw gives in reply to the flack he gets from National and ACT supporters who tell him he is running for the wrong side.

But he has always been a Green Party supporter and says he could never turn to National and ACT because of their “ideological aversion of green policy”.

He jokes about how he used to go into businesses as an ‘undercover green’ and promote green change from the inside.

He wants to do the same to Wellington and has ambitious plans to overhaul the transport system by building a light rail network – and not surprisingly, he wants to scrap the Basin Reserve flyover and tunnel duplication.

The electoral race for Wellington Central is set to be an interesting one.

In one corner, there is a confident incumbent who does not appear threatened by National’s challenge and in the other, there is a look-alike who has nothing to lose and is gunning for the seat because it may be his only way into Parliament.

And in another corner, the Greens have fielded a businessman who is set on changing the way Wellingtonians move around their city.

If he just looked a bit more like Grant Robertson – it could be called the “Clone Wars”.

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