One Question Quiz
Act leader David Seymour (Photo: Getty Images; design: Tina Tiller)
Act leader David Seymour (Photo: Getty Images; design: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 31, 2023

David Seymour’s media silence is a relief. It’s also deafening

Act leader David Seymour (Photo: Getty Images; design: Tina Tiller)
Act leader David Seymour (Photo: Getty Images; design: Tina Tiller)

The most reliably vocal parliamentarian has been uncharacteristically unwilling to speak to the media in recent days, writes Stewart Sowman-Lund.

I don’t think I’ve ever received a “no comment” from David Seymour. In fact, when it comes to the Act Party leader, I’m more likely to get a comment without asking for one. But last week I received only silence to my requests for his thoughts.

Seymour has been one of parliament’s most accessible MPs during his time in opposition, often to the point of becoming a “rent-a-quote” who’s comfortable speaking out on any issue big or small, relevant or not. Think back to March 2019 when Seymour became the only member of parliament willing to express his opposition to proposed gun law changes. He’s maintained this principled stance ever since, but in the days after the terror attack it was seen by many as unconscionable.

During the Judith Collins years, he twisted this level of availability into becoming a de facto opposition leader, commonly leading coverage where the National Party leader would traditionally be found. If you couldn’t get a comment out of National, you’d get on the blower to Seymour and he’d give two or three well-communicated soundbites on just about anything. 

Most journalists would ring him directly, or text him and expect a return phone call within minutes. On one occasion, he called me via a bluetooth bike helmet and I did the interview while he was cycling around his local electorate. 

In a recent piece for The Post, Eugene Bingham put it like this: “David Seymour wants to talk.” He described recently reaching out to Act’s media spokesperson and receiving an “out of the blue” phone call from Seymour directly. “Interviews with politicians are often nailed down in advance,” wrote Bingham. “You’re told when it will be (or at least roughly when to expect a call), and there are sometimes back-and-forths about what it is you want to talk about.” He didn’t say it explicitly, but the inference was that Seymour normally eschews these rules – which makes it especially abnormal to have been told on two recent occasions that he didn’t have anything to say. 

I’m not the first to have noticed the silence from both National and Act over Winston Peters’ recent tweets. The New Zealand First leader went the wrong kind of viral on Twitter last week when he shared misinformation about the timeline of March 15, 2019, suggesting that he and the public had never been told about the first parliamentary call to police in the minutes before the shooting. This was unequivocally false.

The broad consensus now seems to be that Peters was sucking up the empty political air caused by coalition negotiations. It worked, and he became headline news for about a day. I approached Seymour’s office for comment, given that he’ll likely be sharing the cabinet room in the Beehive with Peters, and was told he wouldn’t be commenting on the issue. The same message was given to a number of outlets, including the Herald, Stuff and Newsroom. 

David Seymour and Winston Peters. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Seymour opting not to publicly condemn, criticise or even hypothesise about Winston Peters is very far removed from the election campaign, when you couldn’t go a day without seeing the two swinging blows at each other. Toby Manhire even ranked all the insults that flew between the pair. Most of those retorts were petty and tiresome, but Peters’ March 15 tweets would have been worthy of condemnation. National’s Christopher Luxon also refused to comment, until a media appearance 48 hours after the tweets. “Obviously there’s a coronial inquiry going on and I’m actually very interested to see what we can learn from that given 51 people tragically lost their lives,” Luxon told reporters, opting not to address Peters’ comments specifically.

Receiving no response to my request for comment on the tweets, I tested Seymour’s will by asking a question on what would be typical Act fodder: taxpayer spending. Namely, whether or not Grant Robertson, the outgoing finance minister, should have been sent to France to attend the Rugby World Cup final in person. It barely made a blip in the news cycle, in part because hardly anyone had anything to say. The Taxpayers’ Union, who more often than not directly align with Act, labelled it “extravagant and wasteful”. Newshub broadcaster Ryan Bridge also condemned it. Seymour once again – via a spokesperson – said “no comment”. This can likely be explained by a line in the press release from Robertson’s office: “The minister’s trip… has been endorsed by the National Party leader Christopher Luxon.” 

Seymour’s comments in that Post article on October 22 are some of his most recent. He was speaking about co-governance, a core Act Party issue. He also spoke out about the Reserve Bank late last week, an area where he’s generally aligned with the incoming prime minister. He’s otherwise stayed eerily silent. 

In one sense, it’s oddly pleasant to have a post-election political vacuum in which even the most reliable of media-savvy MPs decides to show some restraint. We all need a break from electioneering. On the other hand, given Luxon has made it clear he wants to avoid coalition negotiations playing out in the media, it also provides some very limited and speculative insight into what’s going on behind closed doors. If Seymour felt he was in control of the narrative – such as if there was no risk of Winston Peters being needed in government – he’d likely be maintaining a stronger media presence. Instead, he’s sitting silent as Peters creates his own headlines with false tweets. In what may be a career first, Seymour has decided the smartest move he can make right now is not to rock the boat. 

Keep going!