David Seymour emerged in a plume of smoke at the Civic in Auckland, but before long he was putting out fires.
“Thank you for being here, for participating in democracy,” said David Seymour, his voice a little husky, perhaps as a result of the plume of smoke that announced his arrival on stage and dissipated into the Civic Theatre starscape as he spoke. “And thank you for participating in Act’s largest ever gathering, reflecting our strongest campaign performance … Today we set out on the last leg of a long journey.”
After that stirring beginning, things were thrown swiftly off course. Just over three minutes in, a familiar face from the self-described “freedoms movement” was on his feet in the first of three interruptions, the latest episode in this campaign in which candidates unable to attract a crowd decide instead to commandeer someone else’s.
The attention-seeking might have been relegated to the nether parts of tonight’s news bulletins were it not for what happened next: as reporters moved to record and photograph the protest, a handful of overzealous Act supporters lashed out at media, with one camera operator reporting he had been struck in the face.
Asked about the incident during a noisy press conference surrounded by Act supporters in the foyer bar, Seymour rejected the idea that his rhetoric had any link to what had happened. “I’m someone who has had public meetings up and down this country for many years,” he said, “and fielded questions critical of media, and tried to actually foster some respect and understanding of the challenges that media face. So I think while I find those actions reprehensible as you’ve reported them to me, I think to try and politicise those actions, when it’s actually a person that’s done something wrong is [unfair].”
After the media standup, Seymour approached the Newshub cameraman to ask what happened. “I fell into the seat next to them and they pushed me in the face,” he said. The individual had been identified, he said. Seymour asked that those details were passed on to the party. “We would like to know who it was. I’m really sorry about that. It’s totally unacceptable.”
The altercation, in which several Act supporters berated media and struck cameras with placards, followed the interruption of Seymour’s address by Angry Fence Man, aka Karl Mokaraka, who stood on his seat in the third row and declared, “I’m the man on the fence”, before unleashing a tirade spanning everything from South Auckland underrepresentation to morality to BlackRock Investments.
As anyone who has attended events at the Civic will tell you, it is a magnificent place, but it’s also a bit of a squeeze in the stalls – and it took as long as 10 minutes for security to remove the protester, the recognisable Visions NZ candidate who drowned out a Chris Hipkins visit to Ōtara Markets and hijacked a Christopher Luxon media conference by comically popping up from behind a fence like a jack-in-the-box. Seymour persisted with parts of his speech, at other points improvising in response to the heckler.
He later said extensive security measures had been put in place, but said he would be seeking answers as to how “a person who has a bit of form in this area” – an easily recognisable individual from previous protests – had evaded their attention. Mokaraka’s “disguise”, it later became clear, involved a pink tie, a flat cap and a false moustache.
Even before the intrusions the event was muted in comparison to the party’s “Real Change Now election year rally” – an event widely described as the campaign launch – 15 weeks ago. Then, Act filled the 650-capacity SkyCity Theatre at $50 a seat. Today, we were told the crowd was bigger, given the altogether larger Civic, but only the downstairs was required, and there were plenty of empty seats despite free admission. At the earlier rally, Seymour had appeared on stage in a yellow Suzuki Swift; today it was in a puff of magenta smoke.
In truth, Act has been campaigning for three years, as reflected in a clip played at the start of today’s launch, with Seymour telling supporters at his election night party in 2020 that as well as celebrating electoral success, “this is our 2023 election campaign launch.” He would much have preferred not to be opening his media conference after the event with a reference to the unplanned scraps that blighted the event.
“While there’s been some incidents that I believe are deplorable and far from our values, and some disruptions that show people do not want to have real, healthy, honest debate, what this day has shown is a huge number of people are hungry for real change of direction,” he said.
Seymour chose as the policy centrepiece of the actual launch a reiteration of Act’s commitment to ending co-governance – a term the party uses interchangeably with the more provocative assertion of “co-government” – as well as a commitment to a binding referendum inviting a vote on legislation that would ensure, he said, “the principles of the Treaty are based on what the Treaty actually says, in contrast with recent revisionist interpretations of the Treaty’s principles”.
Christopher Luxon has ruled out a referendum on the Treaty principles, and today Seymour said he hadn’t had any recent discussions with the National leader about the issue. “But we do have regular catch-ups, and we have discussed these issues in the past. We will make this a priority in any post-election negotiations.”