David Seymour’s meteoric rise over the past six months is well documented. But what caused it? Stewart Sowman-Lund sat down with the Act Party leader.
Back in February, the Act Party was polling below 2%. Last year, below 1%.
Now, it’s sitting at around 8%, with David Seymour on track to bring eight or nine friends into the next parliament. It would be Act’s best ever election result, with the party looking to become the third largest in parliament. It’s an almost incredible feat, especially given the fact Seymour is not a newcomer. He’s been the party’s leader – and sole MP – for about six years.
I catch up with the Act Party leader for a quick sit-down squeezed into his back-to-back schedule. He’s just finished a tour of local businesses in Avondale, launched his party’s SME policy, and given a speech to a crowd as large as Auckland’s Covid-19 restrictions allow. Those in attendance hung on his every word, laughed at every joke. Even those who challenged him on policy found themselves nodding in agreement to his response. Straight after talking to me, he’s heading to a pre-record for Newshub Nation’s “Powerbrokers” debate, which airs today.
Despite the sudden rise in David Seymour’s popularity, the man himself gives his personality little credit. He refuses to entertain the suggestion of “Davidmania”. Policy, he says, is the key to the resurgence of the party founded 26 years ago by Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley to fly the flag for the free market.
“If you look at most of the increase, it’s happened during the Covid period at a time when people really do want to think about the policy response.”
During his speech, Seymour joked that he was becoming one of Labour and National’s policy developers. It’s not strictly true, but it’s not that far off either. In Wednesday’s Newshub leader debate, both Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins committed to a review of Pharmac. It came on the same day that Act had announced just that.
Collins also spoke of New Zealand needing to be more like Taiwan in its Covid-19 response. Seymour has been saying as much for months.
“Being the party of policy has started to pay-off,” Seymour tells me. “Mainly because more people are interested in that stuff. In the ‘hokily-dokily’ days of John Key, people were just sort of happy, and going on about needing to do better at policy seemed a bit irrelevant to people.”
Act, Seymour said, is the party of policy. I ask him whether he’s fighting The Opportunities Party for that title.
“They’re not the party of good policy,” he jokes. “I would be embarrassed to go out with this universal basic income … your policies do actually have to work. If something is fundamentally unworkable, then you’re not going to be taken seriously.”
Based on polling, it would seem Act is now being taken seriously. Throughout my 15 minutes chatting to Seymour, we were interrupted by requests for selfies and by people pledging their support. On his business walkabout, Seymour looked in his prime, like he was on a stage. He played to the cameras and made jokes to everyone he crossed paths with. He had a swagger and a spring in his step that was non-existent 12 months ago.
As he neared six years in parliament without so much as a caucus colleague to shoot the breeze with, and polls rarely suggesting that might change, did he not start thinking of a career move?
“You’d certainly think about it wouldn’t you, but I’ve never seriously gone down that route. I’ve never talked to anyone about it. You’d be a pretty thoughtless and brainless person if that concept hadn’t crossed your mind at some point, but I certainly never entertained any other strategy than growing Act back to existence.”
While a lot of Act’s rise in popularity can be put down to Covid-19 – it started a lot earlier than that. Notably, Seymour’s celebrity-making turn on Dancing with the Stars in 2018.
During the Newshub Nation debate, he listed his “paso doble” as his most embarrassing moment from the last parliamentary term.
Regardless, he stands by the decision to appear on the show. “It got people to know who I was. That’s half the battle in this business – people can’t vote for you if they don’t know you,” he says. Love or loathe his politics, he’s certainly been visible, garnering more publicity than almost any other MP these past three years, certainly from the opposition.
“Second of all, [Dancing with the Stars] allowed me to show qualities that I think people are looking for in a politician: I can laugh at myself, I know I’m not perfect, but I will always try and do better. I was really heartened by the way that people responded to that attitude.” He may have been unpopular with the judges, but the public vote propelled him into fifth spot.
So, where to from here? Is Act’s growth going to keep rising? There was talk among those attending Seymour’s speech that the party could crack double digits by election day.
“We have an opportunity, as a party, to grow out of where we’ve been, that almost no one else has. I look at the difficulty of a new party entering parliament, it’s practically impossible. Parties are slowly being eliminated, I suspect we’ll see at least one and possibly two fewer parties at this election.”
On current polling, the pathway for Winston Peters and New Zealand First to return to parliament is crumbling away. The Greens are teetering on the edge of the threshold.
It’s a sign, Seymour says, that our current electoral system might not be around much longer. If he’s to be believed, MMP won’t be around in five or six elections and the country could become a two-party state.
“People will ask ‘why do we have these list MPs? Why not make everyone represent an electorate?’ Act has an enormous opportunity in the twilight of MMP to have real influence.”
The near future, for Seymour, remains fixed on parliament. But he’s not a career politician – he won’t be around forever.
“My career before this was in engineering, 13-years-ago, then I worked in public policy for six years in Canada. I don’t want to go back to Canada again. But when I restart my career, I’ll probably be a bit rusty on the engineering – but what I do will be something totally new, I suspect.”
As it stands, National would be the only party Act could go into government with. Seymour won’t forgive Labour for closing down charter schools. “To put unionised representatives ahead of poor brown kids who never get a chance, that’s fundamentally what they did. It’s disgraceful.”
It doesn’t just stop there: “I just think the fact that Chris Hipkins has to be the minister of health and education shows how little talent [Labour’s] got. Frankly, they’re a danger on free speech, they’re not going to do anything on firearms, they’re fiscally reckless…”
National isn’t perfect, either, but they’ll do. During this week’s leaders’ debate, Judith Collins pledged to scrap the firearms register if she becomes prime minister. Her call to the gun community felt like a message to Act supporters, asking them to come back home to National.
Seymour’s opposition to the government’s gun laws after March 15 – initially an objection to the process and subsequently to the substance – was another turning point in Act’s rise. While some have criticised the position as expedient, that is dismissed by Seymour, who says gun owners are an important and natural part of the Act constituency.
“I think it’s pretty clear to people in the firearms community that when the chips are down there’s only one party that stands for you,” Seymour says.
Despite the rise in support, Act is still often seen by those on Twitter and the left as a far right party. In the past, Act’s called for the minimum wage to be cut and the winter energy payment to be lowered. Seymour feels he – and the party – can be misrepresented.
“I think there’s a fundamental challenge that other parties generally state their intentions, where as we tend to state policies,” Seymour explains.
“So when you look at something like the minimum wage; a lot of parties say they want to raise the minimum wage because they want people to be paid more. Well actually, we want people to be paid more too and frankly we’ve got better ideas about how to do it. But we disagree with just legislating it, we don’t think that’s going to work in the long term.”
Act’s policy position is complex, he says. “We always have to explain the second step to get to the intention and that’s, I think, why we get misrepresented.”
I ask Seymour about a cartoon released last week by The Spinoff’s Toby Morris. In the cartoon, Seymour was described as having sad eyes with a “rigid focus on money and a stubborn view of humans as individual emotionless numbers.”
It was criticised by the Act Party itself in a (now deleted) tweet, who labelled it a cartoonish view of libertarianism. Former party leader Jamie Whyte wasn’t impressed either, calling it disgraceful.
“It’s such a misconception, because [Morris] thinks libertarians don’t think about people because they don’t want the state to do things,” Seymour responds.
“The truth is, if I do have sad eyes it’s because I live in a world where people with very superficial analysis are constantly impinging on each other with higher taxes and more regulations than would otherwise be necessary.
“If I am sad it’s because of statism, it’s not because I’m a libertarian and don’t understand human needs. But I liked the first part about being the most effective single MP, that was good.”
If current projections are correct, Act could yet bring 10 MPs to Wellington after October 17. But they’re a list of unknowns in the political world. I ask Seymour if there’s any MP from another party he’d happily invite over to Act. It’s someone I wouldn’t have guessed: National’s Parmjeet Parmar.
“She is a scientist at a high level… she’s highly intelligent, she is someone who has been on a journey: she’s traversed India to New Zealand through an arranged marriage, so quite a different story from most people.”
On current numbers, it’s possible Parmar might need a job after the election. Seymour thinks National should’ve given her more of a shot.
“She’s run successful businesses, had a family, and been a radio host. I always look at her maiden statement, which I was there for. She said, ‘I’m not an ethnic MP, I’m an MP with an ethnicity’ – but it seems that message didn’t get across to the National Party.”