How David Seymour is staying alive

If ACT leader David Seymour gets sent home from Dancing with the Stars this week he won’t be too upset. He has already got far more out of it than he ever imagined – personally and politically. 

By David Seymour’s own reckoning, ACT needs to get 100,000 votes to be a political party of significance. If that’s the case, the party’s leader has a long job ahead of him. At the last election ACT got a touch over 13,000 party votes.

ACT exists because Seymour, due to an accommodation with National, holds Epsom.

While National, whose lack of political partners cost it a fourth term of government, is unlikely to cut ACT loose, Seymour doesn’t rule it out. 

“It is a possibility, rationally they would be nuts to run against me but we are talking about humans and political parties so you have to be prepared for that possibility.”

Faced with having to reinvent his party and lock in the loyalty of Epsom voters, Seymour followed the route of ACT’s former leader, Rodney Hide, and went dancing. And somehow he is still dancing.

Three contestants have gone, but Seymour and his professional dance partner, 29-year-old school teacher Amelia McGregor, take to the floor again Sunday on Dancing with the Stars.

The “what was he thinking?” questions have started to die away.

Seymour, of course, did his own risk analysis.

“I mean the danger is that I am just so bad that it leaves me looking like I lack all competence. I don’t think I am that bad, I recognise I am not as good as most of the people there … that was a risk.

I did get a couple of private lessons and I discovered that I can learn.”

Whether he realised it in the beginning or not, Seymour now knows that competition is only partly about dancing and really more about what he does for a living - campaigning for votes.

The MP for Epsom well understands modern campaigning tools – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – and he has the show’s younger viewers mobilising on their mobiles.

"Very few people want to come up to me and talk about broad-based low rate taxes but most want to talk about Dancing with the Stars, so in that sense it is the most valuable thing I could be doing right now to help introduce myself to voters and open a dialogue."

“I know there is a lot of support (for me) amongst the younger cohort because they send me messages with screen shots of their text voting window. So they certainly are there and in big numbers.

"It’s whole schools. Apparently the prefects at Epsom Girls Grammar went up and exhorted the whole school to vote for me. It’s whole floors of university hostels. Amelia and I were at Scots College in Wellington last week and it just went berserk.” 

McGregor says the support from high school and university students for her dance partner reflects societal and generational change.

“Coming from a school teacher’s perspective I think we are in a [period of] reform of concept and ideas. There was a time when our parents set the guidelines on how we should live our lives but I think social media has created these kids.

“For this generation it’s about breaking barriers, uniqueness is where it is at,  expression is where it’s at, so I think David epitomises that for them. He is breaking barriers and pushing boundaries, and they are seeing him as a role model for what they are trying to achieve.”

Aware that there may also be more mundane forces at work, Seymour quickly adds, “It is a cross-section. I’ve literally had guys in dump trucks calling out to me and telling me to 'f***ing get in there mate'.”

But how does this flow through to the political support that ACT desperately needs? Seymour says dancing is opening the door on discussion.

“I feel it is really important that if you are going to represent people then you feel a sense of connection with them and most of the traditional channels are pretty dry these days… The question is how do you introduce yourself and make voters comfortable to come up to you and talk to you. Very few people want to come up to me and talk about broad-based low rate taxes but most want to talk about Dancing with the Stars, so in that sense it is the most valuable thing I could be doing right now to help introduce myself to voters and open a dialogue."

Seymour concedes that his party has too many messages and voters are struggling to understand what ACT is. He says the idea that ACT wants to be in power so it can do less governing of people’s lives is counter-intuitive.

"It is always easier to say ‘Elect me and I will get in there and do things’, it’s a lot harder to say ‘Elect me and I will do fewer things’.”

He says ACT’s past doesn’t match with its more progressive stance on issues like legalising euthanasia.

“It is good for my health, it’s good for my mental health, it is a totally different challenge … it has changed me as a person.”

“I think euthanasia is something that the vast majority of ACT voters and the vast majority of New Zealanders agree with. It is the most popular policy ACT has advocated, but there is still the view that we are just grumpy and angry about everything. That was the ACT of the late nineties, that we wanted Māoris, criminals and beneficiaries all locked up.

“What we need to do before the next election is resolve that dilemma. Are we the party of ideas or are we the party of relentless conservatism?

“There is a market out there for conservative politics but I just think personally that I am in politics because I want to make New Zealand a better place.”

Dancing with the Stars has also had an impact on Seymour’s personal life. 

“I have been plagued by my awkward smile and I think I have managed to beat it in this. I’ve managed to smile all the way through a dance which I could never have done before. But I also think it keeps you grounded. 

“I look around Parliament and I see people - without naming names, there are people that should have gone a few elections ago. This is a nice refresh… there are no planes, taxis or meetings; it is just you, the dance floor and your partner. 

“It is good for my health, it’s good for my mental health, it is a totally different challenge … it has changed me as a person.”

This interview was squeezed into a small window between dance practice and political commitments. After Seymour had raced off to catch a plane to Whanganui, Amelia McGregor reflected on how being teamed with the MP had impacted her life.

“I didn’t know him but when I saw the little Irish jig he did before we knew who was partnering who, I thought 'I don’t want to be the poor person who gets him'.

“As a public figure he gets criticised more than other people. He has to deal with almost constant bullying. The judges say he is awkward and ‘We like you for the wrong reasons’.

“I have come to admire his bravery and constant resilience. I have no doubt we will be friends for life."

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