Election 2020

Seymour looks forward to friends in Parliament

ACT Party leader David Seymour is poised to bring several MPs into Parliament with him after September 19. In the first of a campaign interview series, Marc Daalder spoke to Seymour about the path ahead for a growing caucus

After six years as a party of one, David Seymour may be on the verge of ending his long and lonely purgatory.

The ACT Party leader and Epsom MP is confident about his chances of winning back his seat - although never taking anything for granted - and is currently polling around the five percent mark, meaning he would be joined by five friends in the ACT caucus room on September 22.

That would be the party's best election result and largest caucus since the 2002 campaign returned nine ACT MPs to Parliament.

Of course, that achievement might bring its own set of challenges.

While the bigger parties in Parliament have had their share of intra-party drama, ACT is no stranger to interpersonal caucus conflict.

In 2010, then-leader Rodney Hide sacked deputy leader  Heather Roy after she accused him of bullying behaviour. Leaked documents show she would no longer meet alone with him and a proposed coup was only called off after then-Prime Minister John Key warned an ACT led by Roy would not be part of his government.

ACT whip David Garrett was forced to resign just months later over allegations that he had, in his youth, used the identity of a dead toddler born the same year as him in order to fraudulently obtain a passport.

At the next election, ACT dropped to 1.07 percent in the polls and retained a single seat via Epsom, which it has clung to ever since.

"I think every party, obviously, unless it's the Democratic North Korean Socialist Party, there's a diversity of thought."

Nearly a decade later, Seymour is now hoping to pull the party out of its doldrums, but he has no illusions about the challenges a larger caucus might bring. In this case, though, he's more prepared for the ideological conflict that might arise in the caucus room than any interpersonal drama.

"I think [in] every party, obviously, unless it's the Democratic North Korean Socialist Party, there's a diversity of thought," he tells Newsroom.

"It's not at the stage where there are distinct factions. If the party grows, then I suspect that's almost an inevitable part of becoming a bigger party. Like if you said the National Party doesn't have factions, people would say that's crazy, right? Because a party that size is going to have factions.

"At this point, obviously there's going to be differences of opinion, but there aren't identifiable wings, if you like. I think, really, to support ACT you basically have to sign up to free markets, that's the real core."

Seymour stresses he's not taking anything for granted about whether there will even be enough MPs for factions to develop.

"But if there is, one of the things I will have to pivot and get good at is managing a group of people. Thankfully, I don't think I'm too bad at that," he says, adding the Parliamentary Service has asked him to write advice for incoming MPs because they see him as one of the better employers on the precinct.

"So we're in a good space for that, but I totally acknowledge the challenge. Building a culture is going to be the most powerful thing I can do for the next three years, if I do have a team to work with."

David Seymour mentions ACT's deputy leader Brooke van Velden and her work on mental health as an example of the party's ability to branch out on policy. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

There's plenty to look forward to about a bigger team too.

"I think an expanded ACT Party could do a lot of good in Parliament. First of all, there's a few logistical things that may not interest everybody, but if you look at the current scenario, I get a question [in Question Time] every eight sitting days, so about once a month," he points out.

"So even if I really get them on the ropes, by the time I get to do a follow-up, no one remembers. Second-of-all, just for speaking space, more people to cover issues, being able to go into depth on issues, is really helpful."

Seymour indicates new deputy leader Brooke Van Velden's advocacy on mental health is an example of how the party could branch out to cover different issues.

"I think that's an area where ACT-like solutions could do quite well, but I don't have the capacity to take that on. Our coverage of policy will actually get a lot bigger. And I think the chances of a person talking to an ACT MP are going to increase dramatically."

Of course, that all assumes Seymour retains Epsom and ups his share of the party vote - a caveat he takes pains to emphasise throughout the interview.

"Obviously I think it's worth working towards, and we're going to keep doing that, but you know, [polls are a] snapshot in time, seven weeks is a long time in politics, etcetera, etcetera."

Polling bump 'more than guns'

ACT's current rise in the polls has coincided with National's downfall, something Seymour accepts. But he also believes ACT has brought new voters into the fold.

"I think some people would just say the National Party's support collapsed, so you got some. But New Zealand First can't tell that story, so it's obviously not just like, National loses votes and everybody else gets a turn."

He's also loath to attribute the polling bump, as some commentators have done, to ACT's advocacy against gun control measures after the March 15 terror attack.

"A lot of people want to attribute to free speech and firearms laws and stuff that occurred around our nation's tragedy in March last year, but actually if you look at the polling, the flat line actually continues through to about November.

"At that point, that was the first time that we registered a second MP, and of course that was the time that there was a couple of weeks of saturation coverage which was all about the End of Life Choice Bill," he says.

Going from two potential MPs to six is another issue altogether, however. That has to do with the party's "constructive" response to the Covid-19 crisis, Seymour believes.

"You look at my first speech, I said, look, this is going to be really difficult. I don't think that the current Government are a bunch of irretrievable idiots - any government would find this really challenging," he says.

"Our role, as I said in that first speech - the day it got really real and there were only 12 people in the debating chamber - I said our job is to give constructive criticism when necessary and helpful suggestions where possible. And that's been our mantra all the way through."

ACT, Seymour argues, is one of the few parties offering answers for how to navigate this dramatically-changed economic landscape.

That constructive role, in which Seymour supplements any criticism of the Government's response with proposals for how he would do it differently, has translated into a jump in support for the party, he says.

"I don't think I've spoken to a crowd of less than 100 for several months. And we're doing them everywhere, we're doing them in suburban pubs all over Auckland, we're doing them in Queenstown, Hamilton, Pukekohe, Christchurch.

"The Christchurch thing is interesting too. On the Thursday we did a general meeting and we got 200 people. The next night we did a firearms meeting and we got 70 people. So I think probably about a quarter of our five [percent] is firearm-related.

"I think the last three or four meetings, there's been toddlers. We've always been trying to get the average age of our voter down, but not that low," he jokes, before segueing to a more serious point.

"The thing about the toddler is, you've actually got young families. Normally the last people to get involved in politics are people with small kids."

In other words, ACT is bringing new voters into the fold. These are people who may have taken their job security and class status for granted but who now find their lifestyle jeopardised by the knock-on effects of Covid-19.

ACT, Seymour argues, is one of the few parties offering answers for how to navigate this dramatically-changed economic landscape.

Policy, policy, policy

That's Seymour's third refrain, after cautioning against assumptions he will hit five percent and rebutting the notion that ACT's new support has come solely from the culture war issues of free speech and firearms.

"We've got these young families who are really interested in how the country's going to come out of this. There's a whole lot of issues that most people take for granted, like having a job and economic security and stuff. If you're in the middle class in New Zealand, unemployment is not really something you worry about," he says.

"If you worked at Air New Zealand this time last year, you wouldn't be worrying about, I might not have a job, you'd just be like, where am I flying to next?"

Seymour says internal polling has found about five percent of voters make up the party's base, while six percent are leaning towards ACT and another 11 percent are persuadable.

"There's about 23 percent there who are open to it. The base and the leaners both, thankfully for us, have one big common concern, which is economic security, public debt, jobs and they're worried about the economy. But they are sceptical about government as the answer," he says.

The answer, instead, is private enterprise and a smart border that lets in people from Covid-free countries like Taiwan without 14 days of isolation.

"We haven't encouraged an open discussion about the future. We don't have, like the Australians do, a business council on this issue," he says.

That's why ACT released an alternative budget, showing exactly how the party plans to respond to the economic situation. That includes cutting the $25 a week emergency benefit bump that the Government passed in March - although he argues against the idea such a move might be unwise given unemployment forecasts.

"One school of thought is, oh well, money's cheap so just spend it. And I get it, but this can't be sustainable. The house of cards has to fall down at some point."

"Where did the New Zealand Government, with Labour in power and the Greens as a confidence and supply, actually keep [benefits] for two years? We're going with the most left-wing government probably since Muldoon. Ultimately, the issue is not going to be 25 bucks-a-week."

New Zealand's salvation, Seymour says, isn't Keynesian, and the low-interest rates at which the Government is borrowing billions right now won't last.

"One school of thought is, oh well, money's cheap so just spend it. And I get it, but this can't be sustainable. The house of cards has to fall down at some point," he says.

"People have found it very easy to say we can always borrow a few billion more. I think if we were paying something closer to what will be the long-term interest rate, which is the price at which people will forego this year's consumption so you can have my capital, then we probably would have made different decisions about our aggressiveness about opening up and so on.

"I don't think that the long-term prosperity of New Zealand is going to be well served by taking today's interest rate, borrowing like hell and just stimulating everything. I just don't see how it's sustainable."

These are the issues Seymour wants to hash out in debates and on the campaign trail, although he doesn't think there will be many worthy competitors.

"People really want to see the political class help New Zealand change to a changing world. And ACT is confronting these difficult issues. What really is our public health strategy? How are we going to deal with the debt problem?

"And, finally, how do we come out the other side of this and seize the opportunity of being an island nation on a pandemic planet?"

The answers to all of those questions, Seymour says, lie with ACT.

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