David Seymour rode to the rescue of publicans and pub-loving rugby fans a couple of months back when he introduced a bill enabling licensed premises to open for World Cup screenings in the early, very early and very, very early morning. Toby Manhire catches up with the one-man ACT caucus over breakfast, beer and All Blacks.
“Hi,” says David Seymour, having parked a sedan with his face all over it just around the corner from Mt Eden Road.
He could be making a witty reference to the notorious “Hi!” video from the 2014 election campaign, which saw the ACT candidate for Epsom popping up all over the electorate saying, “Hi!” More likely he’s just saying hi.
“Hi,” I say, and we wander up the road a bit to De Post, a Belgian themed sort of place. It’s 7.30am, and the staff don’t look especially delighted to be there. “It’s all his fault,” I tell the guy at the bar, pointing towards the man with the slightly assymetrical face who loves breakfast beer, freedom and the Red Peak flag, but I take care to say it quietly enough that no one can hear me.
The breakfast menu has as many options as the ACT Party has MPs: one. So we order the “big breakfast”, both without eggs. On eggs, Seymour and I are in complete accord. “I hate eggs,” he says. “I hate eggs, too,” I say.
On the big screen, Scotty Spinoff Stevenson is conducting the Sky Sport pre-match panel thing. The very same Scotty, it turns out, was Seymour’s house tutor at boarding school. “It was all very Lord of the Flies,” says Seymour.
While Scotty Stevenson stares down, handsome yet menacing, Seymour is subjected to a pre-match interview.
The Spinoff: Is it true you built your own car?
David Seymour: Yeah. I totally would have driven it here. But unfortunately, almost exactly a year ago, I ran over a constitutency’s pussy.
That was November the third. And the poor thing was absolutely terrified. It was running around on Gardner Road. I’d just had dinner at my godmother’s place and, anyway, it ran into my car. It was a big bugger, and it actually ran into the back wheel. Being a fibre-glass construction it just destroyed the back mudguard, and I just haven’t been able to put together two straight days to fibreglass it back up.
Did the cat survive?
The poor thing died, absolutely terrible, but thankfully it was instant. The owner showed up, it was like ten o’clock at night, and I said, “Excuse me, sorry, do you know whose cat this is?” He’s like, “It’s mine! I voted for you!” And it’s like, dude, I don’t go around running over people’s cats because they didn’t vote for me. But what do we do about it?
So, yeah, I felt terrible, but the guy has subsequently been abusing me on Facebook about it. But, you know, I was being very careful. I stopped, and your cat was outside on the third of November, it was very dangerous.
What do you think the score in this All Blacks vs Tonga match is going to be?
I reckon it’s going to be 44-17 to the All Blacks.
[It ended 47-9.]
The French and Irish meet on Monday morning, with the loser almost certainly facing the All Blacks in a quarter-final. Who would you rather play – the shamrock or the coq?
Look, I think the All Blacks know how dangerous the coq is, and there’d be a far better run if they get Ireland.
Are you in the process of rebranding the ACT party?
Yeah. Our party has had a long series of disasters that would be hilarious if only they’d happened to another party. Actually that’s how I felt when the Conservatives imploded earlier in the year. I thought, something like this is happening to another party, it’s not ours, it’s fantastic – a little bit of Schadenfreude. But, look, basically we’ve failed not because of any particular event, like the passport or the fallout or the coup, or whatever people have reported, we’ve failed because the culture hasn’t been right, and all of those events have been symptoms of having a poor culture.
Frankly, when the president [John Boscawen] decided it could only be him and then he would run against Jamie and I for the candidacies at the start of last year, that’s part of a culture that’s not there to do stuff for other people, and so where I’d like to think we’d land is that it’s less angry, less grumpy, less crusty, and a bit more forward looking.
But some things haven’t changed – we still absolutely believe in free markets, free minds, we’re economic and social liberals. And we believe that New Zealanders actually do pretty well, would do a bit better, if we owned a few fewer SOEs, if Steven Joyce could curtail his near-Muldoonist tendencies to try and pick winners and run the whole economy like a provincial radio station. And the education sector needs to be opened up. We need to bring more people into it and have more choice and competition, which is what partnership schools are all about.
You get the picture. We basically believe the same stuff in many ways, but the culture in the party has to be less self-seeking and more positive.
What about changing the name?
That comes around all the time. People say maybe we should change it to the Liberals. I’d like to lead a party called the Liberals, but the reality is a name is not a brand. A brand is all your behaviour and how well you carry yourself, and hopefully we’re doing a reasonable job of that now. When I say “we” all the time, I mean I do think of the party as more than me, I haven’t gone all Queen Victoria on you.
But I think if you get all those things right, the brand will recuperate. If you don’t behave well, then frankly it won’t matter what you call it, it’s just the same old people who have spent a lot of money getting the logo redesigned. So I see the appeal, but we probably won’t do it.
Where do you need to be in the polls going into 2017, election year?
At the start of 2017, if we’re at one or two percent we’ll be very happy.
Yeah, because that means, in a good campaign, you get to three or four, suddenly you’re back with four, five, six MPs. The Nats will lose a few almost certainly. It’ll be amazing if their numbers went up four times in a row. And we will be able to achieve more of our goals. To have gone from one to four, say, or one to five, that’s a pretty good story. It’s like any business. You can actually grow too fast.
Is there a limit to privatisation? Where is the point beyond which you wouldn’t go?
The state should absolutely run a court system, should absolutely have police, should absolutely have a military, that’s just the basic thing so you can have property and be safe in yourself. That’s first. But then there’s a few more things. Some people make the argument that Victorian times were better, but I think it’s fair to have, basically, a social insurance scheme that says, look, you have unforeseeable risks, some people are just born with parents that either don’t want to or can’t afford to send them to school, and I think that the state should actually fund that, I don’t think they should be running all the schools, but they should fund it. And I think we should have some sort of insurance against bad things happening to you. I don’t have a major objection to the state running an employment insurance scheme, which is basically what it does.
But once you get past those things – security and a social safety net – then you suddenly find yourself with politicians who think they’re businesspeople, and it’s just too tempting to play around with other people’s money. There’s a regulatory role for the state, and that is things like fisheries, for instance. If everybody just took everything they wanted, there’d be no fish next season.
Do you think that the level of child poverty in New Zealand is acceptable?
What’s the solution?
There’s a couple of things. One is that a lot of the poverty you hear about is to do with the standard of housing that kids can access. We have an enormous shortage of housing. Here in Auckland we built 50,000 houses in the 90s, 40,000 in the last decade, and yet the city’s got 50% more people than it did in 1991, and the prices have gone up while the supply of houses has not come through. So in that environment you’re going to end up with kids in substandard conditions, living in cars and garages and stuff.
Another driver is that, frankly, you’ve got two groups of people. You’ve got people who desperately want to have kids, who wait and sacrifice until they’re well into their 30s and fret about that. On the other hand you’ve got people that have kids sometimes in their teens, and there’s no way you can provide – I couldn’t have looked after a kid when I was in my teens, I’m not sure I could now [he’s 32]. So that’s an issue.
I think we actually have to say what can we do to discourage people from having kids that they haven’t made a best effort to look after. There’s a whole spectrum of people in that line – probably a bit unfair to say there’s two groups; there’s two ends of it.
I think beyond that, the other question is how many of the kids in poverty have their own parents alienated from the education system, basically made to feel shit? I don’t think partnership schools are a silver bullet, I just think people should give them a chance. One of the things we’ve discovered: this girl said to me, “I never knew I was smart till I came here.” And the teachers told me they were trying to line her up to get a full-ride scholarship at Canterbury. That girl honestly thought school wasn’t for her, that she was a failure and all that academic stuff wouldn’t work for her.
Getting housing a bit more available, a bit more personal responsibility, a bit more education. Those are the main things you could do. And, arguably, benefits could be more generous if they were more targeted. But I don’t think anyone has the answer as to how do you give more money to people who already have kids, without some people in some places saying, well, that just makes economic sense – I live in rural Northland, if I have another kid I’m going to get another 80 bucks a week, that’s a lot of money to me.
Here we are enjoying the fruits of your breakfast-pub-rugby-world-cup law. Wouldn’t it have been better to make it apply to all major sporting events rather than just this rugby tournament?
I actually agree. But we had an opportunity to solve the problem for the World Cup. The political opportunity wasn’t really open within that time frame to get anything bigger done. I wish I’d thought of it two months earlier, then we could’ve maybe had a hack at that too. So we did what was possible – should we have said that so long as your primary purpose is to be watching the game, then, yeah.
What’s the next big thing coming down the slipway from ACT?
The big thing that I’m going to do for the rest of this year is introduce a bill, assuming it gets drawn, to legalise assisted dying. I just think, legally, it’s the right thing to do. The High Court has basically said that. Parliament is the only institution that can act. Morally, it’s the right thing to do. The history of our political tradition is that you can do more and more things within the protection of the law. And that’s what this is fundamentally about. As the Canadian Supreme Court said, a total ban on assisted dying is not a proportionate use of the state’s power if your objective is to protect people who might become unintended victims of assisted dying. So it’s morally the right thing to do to relieve people of the cruel choice between, effectively, violent amateur suicides on the one hand, or just waiting to suffer and die on the other, which is basically the choice a lot of people get.
Finally, politically, 70% of New Zealanders want this to happen, and you can’t find a single MP who will put a bill in, but I’m more than happy to do so. We’re going to launch that on Wednesday.
Should smaller government include the government being less obsessed with the All Blacks?
I think there’s clearly a lot of people who say they find it cringeworthy that the PM’s always high-fiving the captain of the All Blacks. But, you know, it’s a question of where do you draw the line? I was more than happy to get my photo taken with the St Cuthbert’s Stage Challenge team when they won Stage Challenge earlier in the year. Was that political opportunism? I don’t know. So, yeah, I see people have that view but at the same time every politician likes to have their photo taken with successful people in the community.