What happens when David Seymour isn’t fronting an Act public meeting? Stewart Sowman-Lund heads to Kerikeri to find out.
For six years, David Seymour was the sole representative of the Act Party in parliament. But since 2020, he’s had nine friends alongside him. Many will have failed to register in the minds of the average voter, in part a result of the party having a surprisingly well-controlled caucus, but also perhaps because Seymour has continued to outshine his team.
Now, as polling consistently shows Act’s caucus will balloon even more come October 14, and with the potential for a handful to make it around the cabinet table, the party has set out on a nationwide pre-election tour. Many of the events will feature Seymour. But at some, like in Kerikeri this past weekend, the party’s leader was nowhere to be seen aside from on the side of the party’s massive bus (dubbed “Big Pinky”) parked out front of the local sports centre.
In part, as Act MPs have told me, not having Seymour at every single event gives voters a chance to understand that the party is no longer solely a one-man party. It’s an opportunity to get fresher faces in front of voters and showcase the breadth of talent lying further down the list – a list that has in recent weeks seen five mysterious departures, including of one person who had compared vaccine mandates to Nazi concentration camps.
The Kerikeri stop on the Road to Real Change tour was fronted by two of Act’s current caucus – Mark Cameron and Simon Court. Both are almost certain to be returned to parliament for a second term, placed at seventh and eighth on the list. Cameron, dubbed the party’s “authentic voice for rural New Zealand”, has been one of Act’s higher-performing MPs over the past term of parliament, though recently faced scrutiny over re-emerged remarks he made on Twitter before he became an MP, including misogynistic slurs directed at Jacinda Ardern and enthusiastic championing of Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. (As to why he hadn’t deleted the old account, he admitted to me recently that he’d simply forgotten his password.) Court, a former civil engineer, is the party’s infrastructure and transport spokesperson.
About 50 people had turned out to hear from the two MPs, which based on the number of empty seats was about two-thirds of the anticipated crowd. In a 30-minute presentation, the pair tackled the three Cs of Act’s election year plan: co-governance, crime and the cost of living. These are “pretty much the key issues that come up all the time”, said Cameron, asking the crowd for a show of hands regarding concern about co-governance. Nearly every hand goes up. “Oh gracious me,” he said.
“I will not apologise for this… I am bloody proud to be a New Zealander. The fact you are here and concerned about co-governance and the division in society speaks to the fact that you are proud,” Cameron said. “How is it so that we have a government that seems to divide us more every day based on who our ancestors were?”
Cameron took aim at the “nonsense” at what he described as preferential treatment in healthcare for Māori and the fact many pieces of legislation have embedded obligations to the Treaty of Waitangi. He lambasted the confusion over the formerly named Three Waters reforms and the Te Mana o te Wai freshwater regulations. “This is not that we have aversion to cultural sensitivity but the fact that at every turn there are more and more Treaty obligations embedded in legislation that further divides New Zealand,” he said, with Court later decrying what he called “vague spiritual concepts” contained within legislation. Under Act, he said, “that’ll be gone”.
On crime, Court said there was a growing sense that it was out of control. He cited the actions of gangs during the Covid lockdowns, saying they paraded through the streets while others were prevented from even leaving their homes. Labour had “emptied the jails”, incentivising a “massive crime wave” and a sense that consequences were non-existent. Some healthcare workers were scared even walking back to their cars after dark, he said. “When they look out at the dark void between the front of the hospital and the carpark where their car is parked, they’re worried about how they’re going to get there and whether they’re going to get there safely.”
There were murmurs of support and a light round of applause as Court pledged to reinstate the three strikes legislation and get tougher on youth crime. “Some people believe this sounds harsh, but what Act would do is subject these young, repeat offenders to electronic monitoring – and that means an ankle bracelet,” said Court. “It sounds harsh, but we need to know where these young people are. They also need to know that we know where they are.”
Wrapping up his address, Court briefly turned to the election campaign. “Any small donation would help because the big parties are going to be given millions of dollars of taxpayer money to advertise back to you about how great they are at running the country,” Court had told the crowd. “We don’t get that money.” True, it may not millions, but Act will receive over $300,000 for its election campaign and has already amassed a sizeable war chest of public donations. There were Eftpos machines set up on tables by the exit for anyone wishing to donate on the spot.
The question and answer session largely avoided the key topics that had been set up by Court and Cameron. One person asked whether it was true that the number of bureaucrats and consultants had skyrocketed in Wellington since 2017. Court reiterated Act’s pledge to scrap certain “demographic” ministries, though opted not to mention Guy Fawkes, and cited recent headlines about a $40,000 leaving party at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. One woman audibly groaned “good God” while another simply put her head in her hands.
On transport, one person questioned how the state of the roads could be so bad given the cost of road user charges and fuel excise. “If you don’t start fixing the roads up in Northland, we’ll start going back to the horse and cart,” another said. Court advocated for a new method of road revenue collection through electronic road pricing, though some in the audience were heard whispering about the number of drivers in Northland who were on the road illegally and may evade the system.
“We’re going to have to change the way road revenue is collected and that means we’re going to have to move wholly from fuel taxes and RUCs to road pricing. If I don’t pay my fees, my licence gets suspended,” said Court, prompting someone from the crowd to say “what licence?” and another to say “what rego?”
When the conversation finally turned to the upcoming election, an audience member questioned what bottom lines Act would be taking into negotiations with National. The party has so far refused to say much about its election commitments beyond priority areas. Both Court and Cameron stayed on message, even without David Seymour in the room. Aside from a referendum on co-governance, which has not been supported by National, the party had no fixed bottom line policies.
“We are not going to go down that rabbit hole just yet and there’s a reason for it,” said Cameron. “If we set ourselves up and say this is what we are categorically not going to do and this is what we are going to do… invariably what happens is we are sitting here in three years’ time wondering why the audience only has half a dozen people in it because we haven’t managed to make all these false promises come true.”
Court added: “Line by line, the bottom line thing – we won’t be engaging in that.”
The meeting wrapped up after about an hour and a half. A small crowd stayed to put their questions directly to the MPs, while volunteers handed out policy pamphlets. There were some murmurs that the MPs had done a good job hosting the meeting, while others expressed concern that questions hadn’t been answered adequately. Another was heard worrying whether it was worth voting for Act if the party wouldn’t be the largest party in the next government.