Read interviews with Labour and Green Party candidates here.
Giving up your seat on the bus or train is one thing, in Parliament another matter. It seems to be an insistent trend in New Zealand politics. With Grant Robertson and James Shaw opting to run on their party lists, and Nicola Willis switching to Ōhāriu, it’s a clean slate in the Wellington Central electorate.
Milly Brunel sat down with National Party candidate Dr Scott Sheeran, one of the four new faces in the ring, to find out what he’s been up to over the past couple years, and his vision for Wellington Central.
When we meet in early June Sheeran is just visiting from Abu Dhabi, where he has been working for the United Arab Emirates Government as a senior legal counsel. When he returns home in July, he’ll be throwing his hat in the ring for the highly contested Wellington Central electorate.
Scott grew up in Hautapu, near Cambridge in the Waikato, as one of four children. His early life was marked by difficult challenges: Scott remembers his father walking out on the family when he was just five. His sister became involved in drugs, his brother was kicked out of home, and Scott looked to be headed down a similar path. “I used to hang out with my sister’s mates who were from the Mongrel Mob, and I can remember the day they basically trashed our house,” Scott recalls.
Scott is adamant that you can and must put some memories behind you: “I didn’t carry any of the damage of some very difficult things I’ve seen in my life, I just sort of got on and enjoyed myself.” Moving to Otago University in the mid-90s opened doors for Scott personally. Dunedin represented a chance to “get out of what I was, where I was”.
In 1999, Scott headed North to Pōneke. He’d landed a scarce summer clerk position at law firm Bell Gully, and was ready to stretch his wings. Like many young flat-dwellers in Wellington, Scott has lived around the electorate; Gladstone Terrace in Kelburn, Cleveland Street in Brooklyn, and smack bang in the centre on the Terrace. Sheeran felt that Wellington really clicked for him, and realised it would always be the place he would return to.
In Wellington Scott’s career started to take shape, admittedly a strange one. “I’ve been a management consultant, public servant, a diplomat, an academic. I’ve been a military officer, and I’ve worked with torture victims from Iran.” He is not daunted by hard work, having worked in the freezing works, at Pak’nSave and New World, and the Gallagher factory: “I even sold cheese door to door. I tried it all because I didn’t have any money,” he says.
The attitude that nothing is beneath him has marked Scott’s working life and opened up myriad opportunities, he says: in New York, he was elected Vice Chair of the United Nations Legal Committee, which entailed working with over 190 countries in search of consensus: “Syria, Cuba, America, it was nuts!”
Scott’s job in the Middle East came about in an odd way, with a call from Washington DC. He initially suspected a scam. Human rights expert and law professor at New York University, Philip Alston, asked if Scott would be willing to deliver a guest lecture in New York on Human Rights and Fact Finding. He jumped at the chance.
This led to his recruitment by the United Arab Emirates, “I think I got the job partly because I’m a New Zealander.” He thinks this conferred an advantage in terms of working with different cultures, communications skills, holistic understanding, and grasp of the political process. He sums up, “New Zealanders have a sense of groundedness, and a kind of emotional intelligence.”
Scott did not plan to live in the Middle East, “but I’m really glad I did, I learned so much, and I have that value to bring back to New Zealand”. But it’s time to come back, he says: “we both miss home, and we want our kids to grow up in a place that has our values.”
Scott has visited more than 70 countries, both developing and developed. He’s back-packed in Asia, and in Central and South America. He’s lived in North America, Europe and most recently the UAE. But he’s adamant that “Wellington is the best place I’ve ever been to. There’s something magical, vibrant, and a spark about the city,” he says. Scott puts it down to the geography of the capital which “has made the city sprout up towards the sky, and put all these different people together in this place, it’s truly special.”
Scott and his wife Haidi have three children, Tāne, Tasman, and Tiaré Grace who is just six months old. Scott is clearly a family man. When we met in June, Scott was juggling Tāne’s request for a Minecraft and potions party for his fifth birthday. He wasn’t sure how these would work together, but if you can do it with Cuba and America, you can do it with potions and green blocks.
Scott says it was interesting to watch the covid pandemic play out from overseas. He believes that Labour acted with sincerity for the first half of the pandemic, then “they started to use politics to cover up the fact that they’d done a poor job.” Scott argues that “it’s really dangerous for politicians to start saying, ‘I’m the podium of truth, follow me’.” He says he can’t recall public policy decision-making by local and central governments that has ignored so many people’s views, which he says is resulting in bad outcomes. He’s insistent that “when you talk to everybody, and you try to incorporate all those different perspectives, you will come up with better public policy.”
Clearly not all views can be represented in policy, but Scott argues that “when most people feel they’ve been listened to and they know that what you’ve decided isn’t necessarily exactly what they thought, but they understand that this is the best way to do it, they’ve been heard, and so they buy in.”
When mentioning cycleways and carparks, Scott’s aware that these are hot topics in Wellington Central. “There’s so much tension because people aren’t being listened to, and they’re angry” that the views they express in consultations are not necessarily represented in decisions taken subsequently. He’s worried about the decision to go ahead with LGWM’s second Mount Victoria tunnel: “I can’t tell you what the rationale is, what I can tell you is it doesn’t work for the future of electric vehicles as it doesn’t provide any further access for cars. The NZ Infrastructure Committee can tell you the option picked is not the best emissions reduction option, so what is it that’s driving the decision making?”
Scott is a big picture kind of thinker, and he’s ready to get stuck in. He says he’s disappointed in the way the country and the capital city are being run. “No one is talking about a strategic vision for Wellington; they talk about transport like that’s our entire city. I want to create that spark.” Scott’s ‘positive agenda’ as he calls it is to encourage investment to return to Wellington, which means promoting an innovative entrepreneurship culture in both the economic and social spheres. “We’re so small that when we do these sorts of things, we do them really well.”
He says all it takes is opening the doors. Wellington, he says, has the creativity, the dynamism needed for solving complicated problems or building new systems: “If you want to start an interesting and exciting startup, social or economic business, whatever, you come here, this is the place. We’ve got the support structures, the people, the vibe. If you’re a creative person there’s nowhere else you want to live in this country.”
When asked how he’s feeling as we approach the election, Scott calls for New Zealanders to be open minded: “I support tolerance, morality, diversity, human rights and running things for New Zealanders in order to deliver better public services and give people better opportunities. I like the big picture, the vision, and focusing on where we are now, where we need to get to, who do we need to talk to, and how can we bring people together.”
New Zealand’s General Election takes place on the 14th of October, 2023. Make sure you’re registered to vote here.