David Seymour on Gone By Lunchtime. Image: Archi Banal
David Seymour on Gone By Lunchtime. Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsSeptember 16, 2023

Quit fixating on Winston Peters, says David Seymour

David Seymour on Gone By Lunchtime. Image: Archi Banal
David Seymour on Gone By Lunchtime. Image: Archi Banal

The Act leader shares his frustration about media focus on how he’d deal with NZ First, the ‘witch hunt’ over candidates, and defends his claim that Nelson Mandela would back him.

It has not been a happy week in the polls for Act. Rebuilt over the last five years from the brink of extinction to the third biggest parliamentary force in the country under the leadership of David Seymour, the party has slid in two TV polls. The first, by Reid for Newshub, had it down two points to 10%. The second, by Verian for 1News, saw a three point fall, again to 10%.

While commentators talk of Act struggling as attention is sucked up on the rival Chrises, None of that is reason to jump at shadows, Seymour stresses. “There’s been a whole lot of polls, some of which have had Act as high as 18, just last week, others are on 14 or 12.” Act’s internal polling, he told The Spinoff in a special episode of Gone by Lunchtime, has them at 13%. That number – which would return as many as 17 seats to Act – has been steady in their polls, he said. “I actually want to check that they’re actually doing the poll every week, because it’s been 13, 13, 13,” he joked. 

New Zealand First in their polling, he said, was not hitting 5%. ‘“They’re pretty consistently below,” he said. “At the end of the day, if your basic proposition is: ‘Everything’s terrible, I’m the guy that made it that way, but I’ll also be the guy to fix it,’ that’s not a very credible proposition.”

The guy he’s lambasting above is, of course, Winston Peters, whose support allowed Jacinda Ardern’s Labour to govern in 2017. His assessment of the veteran politician? “It’s actually really sad. I mean, you know, the guy’s got considerable natural talents, and he’s given it a long period of time. But at the end of that, if you were writing a history book and [tried] to summarise, what did this guy do to leave New Zealand a better place? I mean, what is there?”

In recent days, Seymour floated a novel constitutional governing arrangement that would see Act offer confidence but not supply, an approach that would require repeated renegotiations and hardly instil stability. He was quick to stress that this was neither his preference nor likely, but it underscored Seymour’s determination to establish leverage in advance of the election so to avoid being seen as a subordinate bolt-on chucked a few policy crumbs. 

The equation would be complicated further were the numbers to fall – as they have in some but not most recent polls – in such a way that National and Act lacked the numbers and required NZ First in the mix. Were that to happen, would he recognise the mood for change, put a peg on his nose and muck in to make it work with three parties?

“That’s obviously true … If you need to make a government work, then you make it work,” he said. “But I just make the point that we’re not going to sit around the cabinet table with this clown. I mean, there’s so many reasons why you wouldn’t trust them. And so you end up with some sort of governing arrangement, but it’s not very likely. It’s actually hypothetical.”

He accepts such a scenario is possible, but reckons the attention paid to the question is wildly out of proportion. “In this interview and so many others, the press are so keen to fixate on one hypothetical … People spend far too much time over-egging it. And I find that in itself quite sad. Because even an outfit like The Spinoff, which I view as a place that’s there for some healthy, honest discussion and debate, here we are again.”

Among the bigger concerns and urgent problems faced by New Zealand voters were the need to “to climb out of this hole … it feels like we’re borrowing money, marking time to stand still”, as well as over-regulation, productivity and education, said Seymour.

Another priority for Act centres on opposition to co-governance, the Māori Health Authority, or anything that created different provisions based on race, as well as the pursuit of a referendum on interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi.

In that cause, Seymour – who has previously described legislation for Māori wards as “the Apartheid Bill” – audaciously claims that Nelson Mandela would have supported Act. Mandela, however, was very clear that affirmative action was required in rebuilding post-Apartheid South Africa, in redressing historic and systemic racism. “Affirmative action,” said Mandela, “is corrective action.”

“It’s a bit more complicated than you’re laying out,” said Seymour in response. “Act has always supported the Treaty settlement process. That is specifically returning property that was wrongfully taken and trying to redress past wrongs. We don’t have a problem with that … The point that we make is that it’s critical that we start identifying who are the people that have the greatest need … People are not just a race. So you can do affirmative action, but the question is why you choose to make race everything.” It was an “unhealthy obsession”, he argued.

After defying predictions to largely complete the last term without any major scandal springing out of a caucus of rookies, Act has more recently run into trouble, with five election candidates withdrawing in the course of two months, with past remarks and actions of some coming to the surface. In 2021, observing the travails of other parties, Seymour had suggested they’d be “looking at more rigorous scrutiny of candidate, and I expect that will involve more testing, interviewing and background checking”. 

That did happen, Seymour said. The five departures took a range of forms, he stressed. In the case of the candidate who had compared vaccine mandates to Nazi concentration camps, “that is absolutely unacceptable, that comment was made almost two years ago, we missed it, and that was a failure”. But, “that’s the only one that I really regret. The other one made comments about vaccination that I actually disagree with, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world, I think we need a bit more healthy disagreement. That person left for other reasons relating to the fallout from the reporting of that.”

Seymour again bemoans the media coverage, accusing 1News of a “nightly witch hunt”. Surely, though, these are reasonable, necessary questions to put to people seeking public office? The issue, Seymour countered, was “the level of emphasis” in the bulletins. He said: “The media need a bit of accountability too. And then you put them in their place and they say, ‘Oh, well, David Seymour’s upset.’ Well, actually, yeah, I am upset when people don’t do their job or mis-do their job. And I think sometimes, you know, the real issue is that maybe a few other people don’t like being under scrutiny.”

Returning to those thorny post-election hypotheses, Seymour underlined that he is “willing to forego baubles and limos and titles for myself if I find and judge, along with my colleagues, that we are able to have more influence on the next government by sitting on the crossbenches and negotiating with them vote by vote”. 

He said: “I think people have been pretty shocked to hear that. ‘How could you possibly do that?’ We say, look, obviously our preference would much rather be you know, in there tight, holding hands with the Nats and implementing a work programme. I think that’s probably where we’ll get to but I just make the point that we’re not going to be bought out by baubles … When I turned down being a minister to get End of Life Choice done that was the right thing to do and it’s still the right principle now.”

Follow Gone By Lunchtime on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Keep going!