David Seymour is one of the most visible political figures in NZ media, with his opinions aired more widely than you might expect from the sole MP for a party that polls at 1%. How does the ACT leader manage such an impressive media presence, asks Gareth Shute.
In the past two months, David Seymour has featured in over 20 articles and opinion columns across our two biggest news websites, Stuff and the NZ Herald. Some of these pieces were related to his “End of Life Choice” private members bill which was reported back from select committee during this time (after originally being drawn randomly from the ballot in 2017).
Yet this only accounted for small number of the articles. Others included coverage of his attacks on Shane Jones’ alleged conflict of interest in Northland tourism project, his comments on the “fracas’ at a meeting he arranged to discuss Tomorrow’s Schools report, and his attempt to stop new gun legislation being put through under urgency (he arrived to parliament too late to carry out this plan, because he was outside talking to media).
Over the past few years, Seymour has been featured in the media giving his opinion on topics as broad as education, overseas investment, the number of MPs in parliament, race relations, and how many public holidays we should have. Of course, he does deserve a platform. He won the Epsom electorate (receiving 16,505 votes) and he leads the ACT party (which received 13,075). Nonetheless, it is interesting to compare his reach to an MP like Labour’s Paul Eagle who seldom appears in the news, but who received more electorate votes (21,146) and represents a greater share of party votes if you divide Labour’s votes equally across it’s MPs (956,184 party votes divided by 46 seats = 20,786).
One reason for this is obvious. Paul Eagle has none of his party’s portfolios nor does he have a specialist role, so he can speak only for his electorate (for example, he’s unlikely to speak on the Tomorrow’s Schools report since this is the domain of Labour’s education minister). In contrast, David Seymour is free to give his opinion on any topic he sees fit.
Even considering electorate issues alone, Seymour gains impressive coverage – whether he is representing residents who opposed expansion of a Housing New Zealand block in Epsom or his suggestion that the tenants of new apartments in the Auckland Grammar/Epsom Girls Grammar zone might need to be excluded from attending the school, since the role was under too much pressure.
Another reason Seymour is so often approached by journalists is because he makes their job very easy. He is quick with replies and good at communicating his ideas, whether in writing or in person. For example, when I approached his office to get quotes for this article, he responded within four hours of the initial request.
Contrast this with Labour MP Jenny Salesa, who was labelled “least visible Cabinet minister” by Stuff last year, a status explained with the comment that the minister “should have a lot to do with her building and construction portfolio, but mostly just puts out meaningless press releases. At one of her big press conferences this year her remarks were so rambly that barely any outlets directly quoted her.”
It could be argued that Seymour also puts forward ideas that make for great clickbait headlines. For example: “Act Leader David Seymour: Kiwis need to resist an ‘Orwellian future‘” or “Reusable bags could kill about 20 people a year claims politician”. However, Seymour himself is not always happy with how he is represented:
“[The] media report the sensation over policy. Take the ban on single-use plastic bags as an example. I was recently reported as saying a study had raised concerns about plastic bag bans and public health, a statement I actually made in 2015. I was not reported for my real point, which was that that nobody had even asked if plastic bags were a problem before banning them. The Ministry for the Environment’s report on the issue avoids this question and Eugenie Sage told me she didn’t know.”
David Seymour also gains public interest from being the leader of a party, ACT, which was once a more significant political force – reaching its high water mark in 2002, when it received more than 7% of the party vote and put nine MPs into parliament. Over its history, it has had a run of high profile politicians at its head, including founder Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, John Banks, and Rodney Hide. Banks was the only one of them not to write a book related to their political experience.
Seymour certainly benefits from this history and followed them in releasing his own book, Own Your Future, in the run-up to the last election. In it, he actually rails against the way the media deal with policy discussions in New Zealand:
“I am one of few MPs, perhaps the only MP, who takes public policy seriously. I’m almost the only MP who came out of a full-time public policy job. [The book’s] underlying theme was how to we restore social mobility to New Zealand. It tackled welfare dependency, prisoner rehabilitation, traffic congestion, and housing affordability, among other issues. Media didn’t report the policy content of the book, but focused on its fleeting mentions of other MPs. Nevertheless, my public policy focus means I can communicate what the political discussion means for policy and therefore how it affects actual people … It’s a tragedy that so little real policy discussion takes place. Chapter two of my first book covered this.”
Seymour certainly doesn’t shy away from publicity and in 2018 he followed former ACT leader, Rodney Hide, in appearing on reality show, Dancing with the Stars. This appearance pushed Seymour’s name recognition even further, leading to more headlines, like this doozy from Stuff: “Dancing With The Stars’ David Seymour: The ‘sex symbol for awkward sex.’”
Despite being given the lowest score each week by the judges, Seymour was kept in the competition by the fan vote, eventually taking fifth place, which resulted in over $70,000 being given to the charity he was representing (Kidsline). This also led to a raft of articles during the period in which he was on the show, especially when he had a go at twerking – a story that even spread across the ditch.
Seymour’s ever-present role in the media is double-edge sword for the National Party, whose tacit support provided him with his electorate seat. On the one hand, having a strong voice out there attacking the current government is surely helpful and he is more free to attack New Zealand First MPs given that, unlike National, he doesn’t have to worry about one day having to possibly form a coalition with them. This has led him to lead the charge on Shane Jones’ alleged conflicts of interest – even right-leaning commentator Kate Hawkesby suggested that Simon Bridges seemed absent on the issue and that Seymour was “either the hardest working man in politics, or just the noisiest.”
Seymour himself believes that his wide coverage in the media comes back to the unique viewpoint he supplies as leader of the ACT party:
“ACT is alone in advocating for New Zealanders to have more freedom to pursue opportunities and solve problems. Just in the last couple of weeks, ACT campaigned against a CGT and for the independence of community-governed schools. We spoke up for the sovereignty of our parliament when the PM tried to turn it into a rubber stamp for theatrical lawmaking. We’re campaigning to give people choice over their death if they suffer at the end of their life.
“Other parties, including National, want to tax, spend and regulate even though government solutions have a terrible record … Free speech is a good recent example of ACT’s uniqueness. Only we have consistently defended the right of controversial figures to speak in public venues. We are the only party opposed to a review aimed at tightening restrictions on what New Zealanders can say. We can’t solve our most pressing problems if we are not able to try new ideas, discard those that don’t work, and look for better ones. We can only do that in an open society in which free thought, freedom of expression, and open enquiry are encouraged.”