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Wellington Central - Who Should Face Prebble?

With ACT polling dangerously close to the five per cent threshold required to get MPs into Parliament, the race for Richard Prebble's seat of Wellington Central has extra significance. Should Prebble lose his seat, ACT may well not get a single MP into Parliament, thus depriving National of a steady right wing ally upon which they have quickly come to depend.

Throw into the equation the fact that changes to the Wellington Central electorate boundaries have replaced some of the wealthy voters in Khandallah with poorer voters in Newtown and Mount Cook and the ACT position looks even more perilous.

The success or failure of Richard Prebble to win back his seat may potentially determine the government we get. Richard Prebble will be feeling the pressure and is sure to pull out the campaign of his life.

Labour and the Alliance on the other hand will be only too aware of the rare opportunity they have to unseat Prebble and potentially see the end of ACT. They will also know that if they lose to Prebble things will be a lot tougher for them in government or, perhaps, in yet another term as opposition.

And this is where things get interesting. Labour's Marian Hobbs or The Alliance's Phillida Bunkle? Who is the best campaigner? Who is the best candidate? And who stands the best chance of being able to defeat Richard Prebble?

An Evening Post poll last month of decided voters in the seat showed support for Marian Hobbs was 34 per cent, Prebble had 30 per cent and support for Bunkle was at 12 per cent. Fifteen per cent said they would support a National candidate if one stood.

Although a very early poll, it is none-the-less revealing. It shows one per cent difference between those who support Hobbs and Bunkle and those who support Prebble and National. Given the non-existent margins, the pressure comes onto the left to stand the candidate who will run the best campaign

However it seems unlikely that these figures, particularly in terms of Bunkle and Hobbs, stem from voter judgement on the merits and abilities of the candidates.

Marian Hobbs is largely unknown to most Wellingtonians, as her term as a Labour MP has been unspectacular. She doesn't appear to have the flamboyant style of Alick Shaw who narrowly missed out on winning the seat for Labour at the last election. On top of that she is from Christchurch.

Hobbs does have a very strong record in education. She has been a teacher and principal and entered Parliament in 1996 instead of taking up a post as principle of Wellington Girl's College. She co-founded the Four Avenues Alternative High School in 1972 and received the New Zealand Suffrage Medal in 1993 for new education work with young women.

Counting against her is the spectacular manner in which she lost another high profile race, the by-election for Selwyn, where she came third behind John Wright of The Alliance.

Opposing her, Phillida Bunkle has lived in Wellington for 25 years and has a high and well earned political profile. Unconventional and with a reputation for eccentricity she holds a range of academic qualifications and has long been a committed activist for public health. Well respected for gaining the Cartwright inquiry into the ‘unfortunate experiment’ at National Women's Hospital, Bunkle has also waded into the debate about the future of Wellington's regional hospital.

The hospital promises to be one of the key election issues for voters in Wellington - a point not overlooked by either Prebble or Bunkle. Earlier this week Richard Prebble delivered a box load of public submissions to the Ministry of Health on the hospital issue, keen to be seen representing his constituents on an issue for which support is near unanimous.

Bunkle on the other hand is likely to be cynical about Prebble's sudden interest in public health and is certain to take issue with a possible decision that the hospital will be built with private finance - the government then leasing the building back off the investors.

Prebble will be hoping the government will announce a new hospital for Wellington on the Newtown site before the election in order to gain political mileage out of the decision and it is clearly in the government's interests to assist in this area.

In an electorate where health promises to be such a significant issue, Labour's health spokesperson Annette King is standing just across the boundary in the seat of Rongotai. In a new cabinet under a Labour government King would almost certainly take the Health portfolio over Bunkle and, for an issue of national interest, we can expect to also see King continue to be involved in the issues surrounding Wellington hospital.

Like Hobbs Bunkle has a mixed electoral pedigree. In 1996 Bunkle opposed Wellington mayor Mark Blumsky in the capital's mayoralty race, eventually losing by a significant margin.

However she has remained a constant critic of the Wellington City Council, particularly of their decision to sell large chunks of the waterfront to private developers and especially of the conduct of Labour councillors who turned their back on voters and formed a coalition with Blumsky's right- wing Wellington Alive team.

For her part Hobbs isn't prepared to address what basically amounts to a betrayal of voters by the three Labour Wellington City Councillors, including ex-Wellington Central candidate Alick Shaw.

Bunkle however is determined to make the Wellington City Council a focal point of the Wellington Central campaign, saying if Labour councillors can sell out voters locally, what is stopping Labour candidates from doing likewise nationally?

Already it is clear that Bunkle will launch her campaign by placing immediate pressure on Hobbs and going on the offensive. It looks likely that both Hobbs and Bunkle will run their respective campaigns until a clear leader emerges closer to the election. The leading candidate will continue to run while the other endorses her. Eventually we will end up with a two horse race for the seat - Prebble and Hobbs or Bunkle.

Early polling shows that Hobbs is likely to be the one left standing and, from purely an observers point of view, this seems a shame. A campaign between Prebble and Bunkle would be a competition between completely opposing ideology - a true competition between the left and the right. Instead it seems more likely we will end up with a race between a Mainlander and an Aucklander.

In the meantime the pressure is coming on left-leaning voters of Wellington Central to select the most able and capable candidate to oppose Prebble.

Both Hobbs and Bunkle, and the electorate, need to sort out who is most likely to have the experience and the firepower to defeat an extremely determined Richard Prebble. The race promises to be long, very hard and, quite possibly, personal.

Whoever is left (in both senses) at the end will be shouldering a massive responsibility. That responsibility should be carried by the strongest candidate.

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