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PoliticsJune 15, 2023

The fall and rise of David Seymour and the Act Party

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

For a decade it was a laughing stock. On life support. Departing staff required ‘decontamination’. Today, the Act Party under David Seymour is stronger than ever. Why did it surge – and can it stay there? Toby Manhire speaks to those involved.

At least, figured the few remaining acolytes of Act as their yellow balloon deflated to a dire 0.69% in the 2014 election, it couldn’t get any worse. Then it did. In 2017, David Seymour led the party to 0.5%. He held on to Epsom, yes. He may well have won the electorate seat without the blessing of the National Party. But as he returned to parliament, to a caucus with a roll call of one, he had a lot of wounds to lick. 

Political obituarists sharpened their pencils: here was a man doomed to be remembered as the latest oddball of the liberal right – that impish one that used to speak with a Canadian accent, the coq man, the guy who chirped “hi” in staccato. A figure of fun. 

Not quite six years on, Act is New Zealand’s third most popular party, brimming with confidence, swimming in donations. The Sunday before last, David Seymour drove onto the stage at SkyCity Theatre in an Act-emblazoned Suzuki Swift, to a rapturous reception from a sell-out crowd of 650-odd, who had paid $50 apiece to attend the annual rally. Afterwards, he told me the target was not just holding the 10-plus per cent the party has in polls now, but doubling the number in October. That seems delusional. But so, not that long ago, did the idea of Act winning 10 MPs. 

To his swelling support base – among them firearm owners, farmers, small business owners – Seymour is a political saviour, savant, the straight shooter the moment demands. To his haters he is a sophist in the service of the super-rich, stooping to dog-whistles on race – not to mention, per Jacinda Ardern, an “arrogant prick”. Indisputable, however, is the phoenix-like recovery that Seymour has led, lifting Act from a layer of dust in polls across more than a decade, and – arguably the more impressive feat – holding that level of support.

How did Seymour and the party turn their fortunes around? How did they avoid implosion when all of a sudden juggling not one, but 10 MPs? And what about the next potential tripwire: going into government after October? 

‘They were, like, how do you still exist?’

Born in 1994 as a lobby group to carry the flame of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers quickly morphed into a political party committed to completing the unfinished business of the great neoliberal overhaul, in the name of freedom and personal responsibility. 

The political timeline of Act, in David Seymour’s summary, begins with the “halcyon period”, from 1996 to 2005. The party won between 6.1% and 7.1% across three elections, led by Roger Douglas’s fellow Labour exile and I’ve Been Thinking author Richard Prebble. Then came the “long winter” of 2005 to 2020. Rodney Hide, criticised for tilting the party towards populism, toppled Don Brash, who promptly quit after leading Act to 1.1% in 2011. Yet another ghost of politics past, John Banks, picked up the reins for another hapless three years. Scandal stalked the party, most notably in 2010, when MP David Garrett was revealed to have stolen a dead child’s identity to obtain a passport, as “a bit of a lark” inspired by a Frederick Forsyth novel.

Jamie Whyte, an academic who had returned from the UK, became leader in 2014, with David Seymour the candidate for Epsom. Whyte proved better at philosophising than politics. According to one person involved in the 2014 campaign, the leaders of the time “convinced themselves that they were serious people – but that was 100% based on the patrons of Andiamo restaurant.” Whyte, who was memorably upbraided for his contention that incestuous relationships between consenting adults should not be illegal, guided Act to a record low 0.7%. The 31-year-old Seymour won Epsom, however, and became leader, supporting John Key’s National Party as parliamentary under-secretary for education and regulatory reform.

“Our party has had a long series of disasters that would be hilarious if only they’d happened to another party,” Seymour told me in a 2015 interview. “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.”

Act failed again, and fell further, in 2017. The party result – just half of one percent – was a thump in the solar plexus. Seymour won more votes in Epsom, 16,505, than the total Act vote across the country. Just 13,075 gave the party their tick; almost five times as many people voted for Gareth Morgan’s nascent Opportunities Party.

When I asked Seymour to pinpoint the Act nadir, that was where he placed it. “It was pretty tough after 2017,” he said. “Because I did actually work quite hard over those three years … and, you know, it seemed that no matter what I did, nothing would make any difference whatsoever, we actually went backwards.” Seymour began to think “there must be something really wrong with me”. He stopped short of chucking it in, however, telling himself: “A lot of politics is circumstance, and a lot of politicians forget that.”

David Seymour celebrating the All Blacks' World Cup win in 2015 (Photo: Toby Manhire)

On a trip to Canada after the election he told some old friends what had gone down. “And they were, like, how do you still exist?” It was a good question. Seymour had wondered whether that elongated winter might have left Act “irreparably damaged”. Less than a fortnight after the 2017 election, early in the afternoon of Friday October 6, David Seymour registered the domain name He wasn’t about to give up, but he was ready to take drastic steps. 

The idea of ditching the name “Act” in favour of the Liberals – Seymour still owns the URL – was a live question when Seymour travelled a few months later to Berlin as a guest of a foundation linked to the Free Democratic Party. The FDP offered an example: a liberal grouping in an MMP-style system that had learned from its “bitterest hour”, a sub-5% return that saw it booted from the Bundestag in 2013. The FDP responded by restructuring its systems and rebranding its image. In the 2017 German election – held a day after Act’s wipeout in New Zealand – the FDP topped 10%. In 2021, it climbed above 11%.

Seymour was “fizzing from that trip”, according to one person he regaled with stories about the experience at the time. “He pulled out his notebook and he was, like, ‘I’ve learned this and that, I’ve done this, and I’ve got all these ideas.’” Those included embracing innovations and presenting a positive vision.

The most striking lesson he took was updating the colour scheme. Just like the FDP, Act was a sea of yellow – Hide’s noisy blazer, for example – with a lick of blue. Just like the FDP, Act’s look had become “fatigued”. The message from the Germans was, “‘we added magenta, and everyone's excited about it,” Seymour recalled. “And I was like, this is nuts. Why would someone vote for you because you were pink? Or any colour for that matter?”

The FDP rebrand had been led by Heimat, a big, fancy ad agency. At the time, Act was working on its own image with consultants who had, by Seymour’s account, “nice furniture, but not many ideas”. So he told them: jump on to the FDP website and "scrape everything”. They “took the colour codes, we took the font – we’re not direct competitors – and to this day, that's our setup”.

They similarly borrowed the FDP approach in abandoning the “clinking coffee cup party convention” in favour of a “stage show format”. Apart from presentational elements, the FDP emphasis on setting priorities had an impression: Seymour decided he needed to be more selective about the issues that Act chose to make a scene about. But above all, it was a breath of hope. “They showed me it was possible.”

‘No other party wanted to take it on because they were worried they might lose votes. That was a problem I didn't have.’

Whatever the background colour, there was another problem: Seymour himself. The message from polling in 2017, according to one source close to the party at the time, was chastening. “Almost nobody knew who he was. And the people who did, they hated him.”

With that in mind, there was little to lose in taking up an invitation from the producers of Dancing with the Stars. He insists it wasn’t for political reasons. “You’ve got to remember this is the end of 2017. I just thought, you know, we just got half a per cent, everything’s so screwed. I thought, whatever happens now, what will I regret more – going on a live televised celebrity dancing competition, or not going on it?”

Had Act been even 3.5% in the polls, Seymour probably would have decided against appearing on the show. “In a way,” he said, “it's the same with End of Life Choice,” the member’s bill he had put into the ballot seeking to change the law in favour of voluntary euthanasia. “I mean, no other party wanted to take it on because they were worried they might lose votes. That was a problem I didn't have.” 

In contrast with the member’s bill – more on that in a moment – Seymour’s hapless, twerk-laden performances on Dancing with the Stars engendered mostly laughter. He figured, however, “if I could just get through the 90 seconds of dancing, which was pretty challenging, then I got three minutes of primetime TV, talking to people about character and strength under adversity, and having a good working relationship with your partner and the rest of the crew … I mean, I think I'm ultimately a good person. But how do you get that across?”

For reasons likely as masochistic as aesthetic, viewers defied the judges, voting him back week after week, all the way to the semi-final. As far as his profile was concerned, it was transformative. 

Toby Morris's tribute to David Seymour

A couple of decisions made in the previous term would later bear fruit for Act. Turning down prime minister John Key’s offer of a ministerial role, while keeping the under-secretary position, meant he could retain a foot in the executive but also pursue other projects, such as the member’s bill on euthanasia. It was a polarising cause, and there were some on the conservative right within Act who were “furious” with Seymour’s approach, according to one associated with the party at the time. At the same time, as the bill was drawn and, after 2017, debated in the house, it lent a sense of “conviction and compassion” to a politician who had been regarded as “robotic” by some voters. For the party, said another, it was “ideologically consistent but showed Act was more than one-dimensional. It wasn’t just talking about tax cuts.”

The project also brought into the fold Brooke Van Velden, today Act’s deputy, who did much of the legwork in promoting, to parliamentarians and the public, legislation which would ultimately lead to a successful referendum, held alongside the 2020 election. “It made her as a political operative,” said Seymour. It also “showed that we could do important and, you know, mature stuff. People like [Labour MPs] Ruth Dyson, and Maryan Street sort of trusted me … I was able to reach across the aisle and talk about the facts.” For all its controversy, “just about every week now, I get a message from someone who says, thank you.”

‘If I’d been thinking about politics, I wouldn’t have done it.’

The 2017 postmortem had resolved the party was barking at too many cars. They’d sought to stake out forceful positions on everything from housing affordability and the superannuation age to waste and welfare, crime, Treaty issues, freedom of speech, cannabis law reform, assisted dying, abortion, regulation of technology – the list went on. “In this diversification lay the roots of failure,” Seymour would write, and that litany of positions included “not a few that are mutually contradictory”. 

The plan was to be more selective in the term that followed, to “re-establish the party to appeal to a specific group of voters by giving them specific reasons to vote for us.” One specific group that Act won over was gun owners. Seymour disputes, however, the suggestion his response to the firearms legislation that followed the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch was a tactical attempt to encamp on New Zealand First territory, as deputy prime minister Winston Peters backed changes that were enormously popular among the wider public. Seymour’s stance, at first on a point of process, was about “long-held principles of property rights, due process and a primary focus on public policy”, he would later say.  

Seymour stops to talk to media on his way into parliament to debate strict new gun legislation, introduced in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, April 2, 2019. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images).

At the time, Seymour says today, he only had one experience of meeting a group of gun owners. He’d been judging a charity version of Dancing with the Stars in Whakatāne. “And these guys fed me Panhead Pilsner the whole night – the scores were going up through the roof,” he recalled. “I got up on Sunday morning, and God knows why but I’d been scheduled – this was a time when I’d go to the opening of an envelope – to go and visit the Whakatāne pistol club. So I'm there, Sunday morning, in a cloud of ethanol, it’s amazing that it didn’t ignite with these guns going off. But they were a hell of a nice people. Really responsible. It was a family thing. A lot of kids there. And they were absolutely anal about safety.”

He said: “I don't even know how the hell I got invited. But it struck me that these were good people. And the way that the government went about [the reforms], the idea that legislating against them was gonna stop that guy – well, actually, the real problem was, that guy should never have been allowed to buy one of them.” 

Seymour’s opposition to the gun reforms was “more authentic and less deliberate than it may seem”, he said. “It was hugely politically risky. I didn't know what it would mean for me here in Epsom. “If I’d been thinking about politics, I wouldn't have done it … You remember what that time was like, after that awful event. And how high the emotions were.” He called his mentor, Richard Prebble – “he’s been very good to me over many years” – for advice. “I said, this law is wrong and the right thing to do is oppose it. And he said, ‘that’s a good reason. Now you better work out how you're going to explain it.’”

That decision created a foothold for Act. Seymour further built his profile during the Covid crisis, winning exposure far out of proportion to a one-MP caucus by gaining one of six opposition seats on the 11-member epidemic response committee, which was livestreamed into homes that would never have imagined they’d watch a parliamentary select committee.

At the same time, Act maintained a potpourri of stances. There were the core concerns around regulation and tax, crime, Treaty issues and climate change. Seymour was alone in opposing the Zero Carbon Act. On housing, he opposed the density accord. Critics questioned a position that looked inconsistent with his party’s veneration of individual property rights. Seymour, according to one former adviser, managed an “artful” rationale, a “feasible answer that he can reconcile”, in claiming that owners had bought on the basis of “certainty”.

Pushed on whether there was a cynical selection of political furrows to plough, Seymour told The Spinoff: “I’ve always had the same set of values. Act stands for people who want to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of those they care about. We've just kept driving that course, and found that there's different adherents.”

‘Who the fuck are numbers 9 and 10?’

All of the above as backstory to Act’s performance in 2020, of its growth from one MP to 10, of a 16-fold boost in party vote, is incomplete, of course, without reference to the storm against which it played out. After all, a lot of politics is circumstance, and a lot of politicians forget that. The self-immolation of the National Party following the Key-English years – Simon Bridges’ leadership derailed by Jami-Lee Ross and later his own misreading of the Covid room, the awful month of Todd Muller and the shambolic Judith Collins experiment – left many voters on the right looking for a refuge, and New Zealand First, in coalition with the Ardern Labour Party, was not it. 

As John Banks put it after the 2020 election, while praising that “hardworking little dude” Seymour, his former speechwriter, “the National Party were in meltdown all of this year, and so was the New Zealand First party, so David was able to scoop up all of that disenfranchised support.”

David Seymour and his candidates celebrate on election night in 2020. Photo: Getty Images

For all of that, the 2020 Act campaign knew National’s carnage was not enough. Seymour and the executive looked hard at their list. The top 10 they came up with had precisely none of the same names from 2014 (then, Seymour had been electorate-only). Prospective candidates were put through a “school of practical politics”. It offers a chance for them to “learn about campaigning, politics and the purpose of the party, but also functions as a good opportunity for the party to observe potential candidates in action,’’ Seymour said in 2021. “We had one potential candidate who said, ‘Right what are we doing about 5G?’, and we quietly suggested perhaps he shouldn’t stand for Act.’’ 

As National flailed, they needed to present a contrasting competence – and more than just the one guy off the TV dancing show. Though Seymour was centre stage, the party showcased some of the other would-be MPs. They focused on a group called “the top eight”; the same eight who were pictured on the side of the campaign bus. 

The top eight were engaged in some early conversations, too, about what life in parliament might mean. At that point “to get eight would be amazing”, said one involved in the campaign. If anything there was an awkwardness in knowing that some were “not likely to make it”. The polls, however, were stubbornly suggesting otherwise. “About a week before the election, I just looked at [chief of staff Andrew] Ketels and was like: who the fuck are numbers nine and 10?”

‘It’s just insane. They think being an MP is important.’

“I mean, let's be honest, if you were Mark Cameron,” said David Seymour, referring to the now-MP who was eighth on the list, "and you were, you know, announced as a candidate in June 2020, you’d have thought you'd be back on the farm in no time, right? Yeah. So the first miracle was that they got elected. The second miracle was they decided to actually really make a go of it. We've done a lot of stuff I'm proud of around people and culture and structure and so on.”

And though Seymour considers it a “lazy narrative” to look at Act’s 2020 result as a blip born of National’s nightmare, the bigger achievement may well be not the rise, but the ability to avoid a fall. Since returning 10 MPs, Act has not just held its support level but has grown. Its support across five polls ranges from 10% to 12.6%. That is undoubtedly in large part down to the most remarkable, gravity-defying statistic of all. The total number of scandals in which the new flock of Act MPs have become embroiled? Zero.

On that point, Act insiders are little short of gleeful. It was precisely what they set out to avoid. Seymour began the term by meeting business leaders he admired, asking them how to get the best out of a workforce. He determined that Act’s offices, in the parliamentary library, should be open-plan, and the Parliamentary Service obliged. He created a flat hierarchy, convinced MPs to collectivise their funds, and put in place regular retreats and away days where the emphasis was on “people and culture”.

Had Seymour found himself with a sizeable caucus in 2017, he may not have been ready from an emotional intelligence point of view, according to one former colleague. “David doesn’t naturally have a lot of EQ. He worked really hard at that.” A “problem solver” by nature, he approached his own style the way he would any problem, and wrote a policy, recognising the need to improve the way he interacted with people. He methodically set out, said the source, to avoid the mistakes that bedevilled other parties that had suddenly grown in parliamentary presence. And there was another, more recent teachable example. “He watched what happened with National in that 2017 term … So he went, ‘I need to come up with a policy so that doesn't happen to me.’” Seymour sometimes “slipped” and had a go at someone, but the project succeeded.  

Given the “varying level of quality” among the intake of new Act MPs, office design and staffing were considered critical, said one who was involved. The pooled resources meant that all MPs, from the leader down, called on the same groups of communications, policy, research, engagement or admin staffers. “Most people come into parliament with their own staffer, who is a university graduate or a middle-aged secretary, and they’re expected to figure it out on their own. This is where the frustration and the conflicts happen. They’re down corridors in adjoining offices, away from anyone else. We had really good support wrapped around them.”

National MPs like Hamish Walker and Andrew Falloon had been “tucked down on the first floor while the leader’s office was up on the third floor. No one could tell what they were up to, everyone was hidden away. In [Act’s] very open culture, you could see when someone was struggling – you realised very quickly and you could help them. He knew that if you had somebody off down a corridor, where no one could see them, that's when people start whispering and talking and getting ideas in their heads.” 

The kumbaya mood continued into an MVP-style prize – in Act’s case, a trophy sporting the numeral “1” for the “freedom fighter of the week”. “It might be the correspondence officer, it might be an MP, it might be a researcher, it might be the person who drives the bus, but it was open to everyone,” said a former staffer. 

It was critical that the MPs didn’t get swollen heads. Of other parties, said Seymour, “I don’t know what these other guys are all going on about. It’s just insane. They think being an MP is important. I mean, it’s an opportunity to do good stuff, but it’s not in itself important. Some of the self-important behaviour, it’s unbelievable.” 

While fledgling MPs such as Cameron, Nicole McKee and Karen Chhour began to make their mark, a core group of staff were instrumental. The now chief of staff, Andrew Ketels, who had previously advised three National ministers, wrote to Seymour after the 2017 disaster. “He said, ‘I want to work with you,’” Seymour recalled. “I thought, shit, that’s pretty unusual. And he said, ‘I've been an Act member for five years.’ So I looked up the database – it was true. So I thought maybe that maybe the other thing is true, too. He's been enormously important in the way that the party has grown.” One former colleague describes Ketels as “obsessed” with politics and locked at the ideological hip with Seymour. “Sometimes I get them confused,” he said. “It’s almost like the same person.”

Seymour persuaded Rachel Morton, a former National head of press as well as a former romantic partner, to become head of communications. Morton, Ketels and Stuart Wilson, who has worked on and off for the party since the days of Rodney Hide’s leadership, were all part of the core staff team alongside caucus leaders Seymour and Van Velden. Together they would blat out press releases with the rat-a-tat energy of Seymour’s Epsom door-knocking. The rapid response to breaking news was such that it sometimes seemed more like live blogging. 

“She's a phenomenal contributor, and she thoroughly deserves her current job,” said Seymour of Morton, who left earlier this year to become head of comms at Air New Zealand. That role in itself speaks volumes, according to one who has worked with Act in various capacities. “In years gone by, when someone left Act, they had to go away and be decontaminated.” 

‘I know people will think it's all 2005 all over again.’

While the National Party’s horror stretch offered an object lesson in what to avoid, it provided another motivation for many in the Act tent. In his book, Own Your Future, Seymour ripped National politicians as "superficial, poll-driven band-aid stickers” who were “nearly indistinguishable” from their Labour counterparts. Ketels once took umbrage at Judith Collins’ suggestion National sought a return to office “because we’re best fitted to looking after New Zealanders”, by saying, in a since-deleted tweet: “That’s just about everything you need to know about arrogant, born to rule, paternalistic Tories.”

The 2020 campaign and the years that followed were an opportunity, in the words of one Act insider, to “give the middle finger to National”. After 2020, he said, “we were probably more in competition with National than any other party, which sounds weird, but it drove us to be good … We were frustrated that they didn’t seem to believe in anything. And we wanted to be the conscience of the right.”

In his first term in parliament, Seymour said, his relationship with National was strong. “They needed my vote to stay in government. So they'd do anything for me. Not that I really asked.” That changed after 2017. “The Nats became almost totally hostile,” he said, citing a promo video of Bill English visiting a charter school, from which Seymour had been “very, very carefully edited out.” That mood led to a “new kind of independence” – one that he was on balance grateful for. 

There is no more compelling illustration of Act’s march into traditional blue territory than last month’s announcement that Andrew Hoggard, the former president of Federated Farmers, would stand for the party in October. Hoggard, in many ways the quintessence of a National politician of yore – a yeomanlike farmer, plainspoken but with a wry drawl – said he was “drawn to Act a few years ago after realising that David Seymour was the only parliamentarian willing to stand by his principles.” It was not, Seymour told The Spinoff, a case of ruthless laser recruitment. The first exchange was about three years ago, when he was flicking through the membership register. “I remember looking at the back-end of our website when I saw Andrew Hoggard had joined and going, fuck. I texted him and said, ‘welcome to Act.’”

The Act bus at Fieldays 2023 (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Momentum has a force all of its own, and Act recently added Parmjeet Parmar, a National MP for two terms from 2014, to its list. Like Hoggard, she was paraded at the recent rally. Quite what her former boss, John Key, who once said of Act that it has “always held extreme views”, would make of it is hard to say.

In 2023, Seymour has become one of New Zealand's most consistently effective and popular politicians, but hardly looks like he is about to morph into a centrist. He remains an outlier, though not a denier, on climate change, enjoys prodding away at the culture wars, and has moments of the political petulance he abhors in others. One day he will be showing the good grace and self-effacement to mount a charity auction of the “arrogant prick” transcript; the next he is popping up on Max Key’s podcast making juvenile, oafish remarks about women politicians. 

Then there is the question of rhetoric on race. In 2021, for example, Seymour tweeted out an access code specifically for Māori to access vaccination services, urging all his followers to use it. Green co-leader Marama Davidson called that “despicable”. Act has spoken out on “co-government”, though no such thing is proposed, while calling for a referendum on the Treaty and co-governance – branded “divisive”, “bigoted” and “appealing to racists” by the Māori Party. 

Last year, meanwhile, senior Labour minister Kelvin Davis apologised to Act MP Karen Chhour after claiming she gazed through a “vanilla lens” and should journey "into the Māori world". Chhour, like Seymour, is Ngāpuhi. 

Seymour rejects the suggestion that he might be leaping on race issues for expedient political gain, pointing me to his maiden speech, and its allusions to British philosopher AC Grayling’s tome Toward the Light of Liberty. In his maiden statement to parliament, Seymour said New Zealand had moved earlier than most towards the light of liberty “by removing distinctions in law that once treated people differently depending on their religious conviction, their gender, or their race … but it is extraordinary that as if engaged in some form of historical shuttle run, we who were first to touch the cone are now rushing back to create new distinctions in law. I refer to those who claim that the only way to achieve a material equality between the Māori side and the British side of my ancestry is to create more legal inequality. No doubt they have noble intentions, but public policy should be measured only by results.”

David Seymour arrive on stage at the 2023 Act rally in Auckland. Photo: Toby Manhire

As to whether, intentions notwithstanding, the sound of such rhetoric was music to prejudiced ears, Seymour pointed to the speech he had given entirely in te reo at Waitangi. The next day, his deputy, Van Velden, had relayed that feat at an Act event, prompting an ovation from a room of 250 fans. “You know, people said to me, oh, all your racist Act supporters, they won’t like this, they’re sick of Māori on the TV. But actually, I got a spontaneous round of applause from a big room of Act people, for speaking Māori. Now, that doesn't fit with the narrative that these people are there for the wrong reasons.”

This was not, he said, Orewa 2.0. “I have no doubt that there are racist people in New Zealand. But I think that belief and rational humanism and liberalism is actually stronger and more innate in our country than people might realise. I know people will think it's all 2005 all over again. I don't think that's true.”

‘There has never really been an activist, reforming government from the right.’

Had it not been for Key inviting the voters of Epsom in 2011 to elect John Banks over National’s own Paul Goldsmith – via a pantomime cup of tea which gave rise to a memorably strange episode in New Zealand politics – Act would have been out of parliament and likely put to rest. National’s life support was not altruistic. It was to keep an MMP support partner breathing.

In that cause, National wanted Act to recover and rebuild. Just not this much. And not at their expense. That sentiment persisted into the 2020 election, when Judith Collins, leading National towards catastrophe, said of Act: "They have two jobs. One is to win Epsom and the other is to take out the rest of New Zealand First's vote.” Those remarks just added to the party's motivational fire. 

Pointing to examples of National attempts to eat Act’s lunch in 2017 on issues ranging from law and order to the Resource Management Act to charter schools, Seymour said: “Such campaigning puts a minor party in an impossible position. Protesting that the larger party has ‘stolen’ their policy just reinforces to voters that they needn’t vote for them to get ‘their’ policies. Ignoring it means that the smaller party risks getting no credit at all.” Then he said, with a flick of resentment: “The fact that National ended up as the largest party but with no coalition to form a government partly reflects its focus on maximising its own vote rather than that of its potential coalition.”

The risk of obliterating its partner most surely does not apply today, but National is feasting on parts of Act policy. In just the last few weeks, National has walked away from bipartisan accords and towards Act positions on both housing density and the Waka Eke Noa plan on agricultural emissions. Seymour’s response? “You’ve got two goals, right? You've got to ultimately change policy and you need to get votes along the way. And sometimes those goals compete.” The public response – as measured in everything from the sentiment this week at Fieldays to the next couple of opinion polls – will tell us whether National can win back voters lost to Act, and whether it can do so without sacrificing its support in the middle. 

Christopher Luxon and David Seymour at Waitangi on February 5, 2023. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

At the rally the other week, Seymour spoke a lot about National. A sizeable chunk of the speech essentially argued that, yes, Labour might be awful, but they were building on the awful foundation laid by National. Seymour said: “National are promising not to rock the boat or scare the horses.” By contrast, Act, he added, conjuring images of an equine ferry on the high seas, was eager to do both. To perhaps the biggest applause of the afternoon, he said: “I know some people are nervous. It’s essential to change the government, and won’t giving Act your party vote take it away from National? The answer is yes, but they won’t notice, they’re barely using it.”

That is plenty of shade to cast at your putative coalition spouse. Act has open lines of communication with National, said Seymour; relationships are amicable. He and Christopher Luxon used to live next door to one another in Epsom. They had lunch together on the weekend. But there is no heads-up on plans – Act didn’t let National know in advance about, say, Brooke Van Velden mounting a wedge-style challenge to Simon O’Connor in Tāmaki, or their decision to respond to Labour’s attack line of “coalition of cuts”, by saying, thank you, yes we are. And when I ask David Seymour about how he is readying Act to defy political gravity again, to go into a full coalition, into cabinet, and avoid disaster, he responds by throwing down the gauntlet at National’s feet. 

“It's the $64,000 question,” he said. “Because our hope is to work with the Nats in a coalition government sharing seats around the cabinet table, implementing a mutually agreed policy agenda that I think New Zealand sorely needs. It remains to be seen how they'll respond to that proposition … We're asking them to be in a genuine relationship of sharing power. Not 50/50. But much, much closer than anything they’ve experienced before.”

There had “never really been an activist, reforming government from the right”, said Seymour, “except for the one that was from the left” – the '80s Labour government whose DNA Act today carries. He said: “It may be that, you know, we calculate that we can't destroy our reputations by effectively becoming apologists for policies we disagree with. But that's what's destroyed other parties in the same position.” 

That would mean sitting on the cross benches, offering confidence and supply, and negotiating bill by bill. “That's a very tough option that we’d prefer to avoid. But we've got to be prepared to do that, just as I was prepared to turn down being a minister before, because that's how you get policy. We hope that it's all going to be tickety-boo. But, you know, in order to win, you’ve got to be prepared to lose.”

Keep going!