Headquarters in the Viaduct is where many National MPs go to celebrate. On Saturday night Act took it over, and with it the energy and vision of the right, reports Duncan Greive.
David Seymour’s six year vigil as Act’s leader and sole MP has been the political version of Nigel the Gannet. Even the party’s most ardent opponents must be moved by the spectre of the man turning up, day after day, year after year, a young pup seemingly espousing a political philosophy which only appealed to old dogs – and not many at that.
Early on Saturday evening he roared into the harbour on a speedboat, to a throng of young people lining the balustrades as the sun set on the party’s greatest campaign. When Seymour took the stage moments later, he revelled in the moment – a lone wolf, suddenly leading a pretty decent-sized pack. “Around 200,000 New Zealanders have put their trust in Act,” he said, a remarkable number for a party which attracted just 13,000 party votes in 2017. He promised that his party would continue his tradition of trying to make law from the wrong side of power, “not only opposing, but proposing, ideas for a better tomorrow.” The theme he chose was one of freedom, the same libertarian ideology which birthed his party a quarter century ago – “freedom of speech, autonomy over our own body – because a free society is a beautiful society”.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the broader result for the right was historically disastrous. Instead of dwelling on that, he used it to position Act as energised and empowered by National’s diminishment. “This is also Act’s 2023 campaign launch,” he said, and got the loudest roar of the night as a result.
The crowd was boisterous but well-behaved, probably moreso than is typically for the venue on a Saturday night. Headquarters is the showiest spot in the Viaduct, overseen by hospitality bête noire Leo Molloy, a man known for friendships with National party stalwarts like Paula Bennett. Tonight he wore bright yellow sneakers and a broad grin. He enjoyed noting that the crowd was younger than the Act party of years gone by – “you’d normally associate Act with an older Richard Prebble-type,” he said, “but look at all these young people. And Polynesians, which you don’t normally see with the Act party.”
Act deputy Brooke van Velden was one of the cast of brand new Act MPs, and attributed “a huge amount of [Act’s] success to Seymour’s relentless energy. “He was a voice of reason on every single issue,” she said, singling out his vote against gun reform as a moment he revealed his character. “To stand up for his principles against 119 people takes a huge amount of courage.”
Simon Court, an engineer and number five on the list, had a similar combination of excitement and something like apprehension. He was “feeling pretty good” he said, but conscious that he was entering his “apprenticeship as an MP”. When asked what he was excited do in parliament, he singled out targeting New Zealand’s least popular law, the RMA, and repeated his desire to see the New Zealand of today “build like the Boomers”, a current Act catchphrase that suggests a small patch of common ground with a crushingly dominant Labour.
While the result was beyond the dreams of the party as recently as a year ago, it fell short of the groundswell some were anticipating. Wearing black head-to-toe, but with a mustard-yellow tie and large multi-coloured Act roseate, Bruce Carley Act’s Bay of Plenty candidate, teetered just outside of parliament. He spent the morning ensuring its hoardings were all down before heading North, and described himself as “terribly excited” in the moments before results started flowing, and thus will return to his job in marketing for a BOP-based retail chain.
He won’t reveal his employer’s name as, he says, “they aren’t keen on me talking about them”. This is part of what Act struggles against – almost alone among the parties in parliament, it has a taint of toxicity around it. This result could have a mainstreaming effect, making it seem less fringe and more part of the everyday political conversation – all without a policy or perspective being changed.
The kind of people which brought them to this giddy moment are typified by Aaron Kirk, 43, a fire protection engineer from Jacinda Ardern’s hometown of Morrinsville. He’s journeyed north for the evening, part of a contingent who drifted to Act in the past 18 months. Prior to this election he was a lifelong National voter, but “thought they have deteriorated the past few years”.
Curious, he went to a meeting, and bought a bright pink Act t-shirt, which he wore tonight.
Yet he was overwhelmed by the energy of Act’s youngest cohort, who comfortably outnumbered the ancient and bejewelled party stalwarts of years gone by.
Act’s youth wing is led by Felix Poole, who cheered loudly as Seymour cruised in on the water. Young Act took names at the door, and thronged the venue – not quite at home there (“an interesting choice,” said Poole, “I wasn’t involved”), but thrilled to finally have momentum and numbers on their side.
With parliament’s youngest leader, and a parliamentary set almost entirely composed of rookies, Act has finally shaken off the taint of the Brash/Hide era, and embarked on a new voyage of its own. With a large class of new MPs and a drastically shrunk National party, it has nothing but opportunity in front of it. What it does with that will be decided by how Seymour performs as leader when he finally has a caucus to lead.
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