May 18, 2023 Politics
Politics can be cruel. A knife fight is a little less dangerous than being a political leader in this country, and it’s a rare bird who can turn a desperate and dateless party into one that has credence and credibility.
Act leader David Seymour did that very thing, trans- forming the party, with its history of fringe weirdos and second-rate actors, into a credible household name. The sole Act MP in the 2017–20 parliamentary term, he then dragged nine Act candidates into Parliament with him in 2020. Even more surprisingly, like a masterful lion tamer, he has also kept them under control. Full credit to Seymour — we’ve not heard any views from these MPs that are outside of official party policy. We don’t even know their names.
Seymour’s office in Newmarket could not be in a more appropriate building. The lift opens and I’m suddenly in one of the biggest foyers I’ve seen since Trump Tower. The furniture is massive — it looks like it’s been stolen from the Titanic. I’m terrified to sit on one of the couches in case it eats me. When Seymour welcomes me, I can’t resist ask- ing him, “Where the hell did you get this furniture?” “From John Banks,” he replies. Of course. Only Banksy would have such appalling taste.
Seymour’s office is neat and tidy — maybe a little too much so. There are books — a lot of them, which is always a good sign — and some family photographs. I remember hearing that he had a close relationship with his late mother and other family members. Despite this, Seymour gives the impression that he wasn’t born so much as just came into being in his mid-30s, possibly out of an egg. He seems smart and Adrian Mole-ish, with an air of mystique about him.
I also found him well equipped to talk sensibly and captivatingly about many subjects. Surprisingly, however, he is far from a know-all. He has a way of cocking his head when listening, actively taking in what you’re saying. It’s rare for a politician to actually listen to you, not just wait for their turn to speak.
The MP for Epsom is also quintessentially of the suburb. He was born David Breen Seymour in 1983 and went to Auckland Grammar School. Through his office window, you can see the electorate stretching around Newmarket and beyond. This, he says proudly, is his rohe, and he has it by the short and curlies in a vice-like grip. Paul Goldsmith couldn’t get elected here if he actually tried.
After Grammar, Seymour graduated from the University of Auckland then took off on a real learning curve, studying and working in public policy in Canada, before returning to New Zealand and standing for Act in Epsom in 2014. It was a daunting high-wire act but both the parliamentary gods and National Party leader John Key smiled on him. Seymour was elected to Parliament then, days later, also became leader of Act, replacing Jamie Whyte, who achieved the rare feat of being both controversial and dull. The swift rise must have been like a rush of blood to his head.
Despite some tougher periods, Seymour has been on the rise ever since. He is a galloping ideas man who seems unfazed by difficulties, challenges and insults. He’s also nailed some serious subjects — the End of Life Choice Act of 2019 may turn out to be his lasting legacy. But, of course, he’s not without controversy. In 2019, in the wake of the Christchurch mosque massacres, Seymour took a lone stand against increased gun control; in 2021, he had way too much to say about the preferential Māori vaccine code and criticised iwi leaders putting up roadblocks in Northland to stop the virus getting into communities. All this shows a strange mixture of principle, courage, dog-whistling and cynical opportunism. Among it all, Da- vid Seymour seems to know exactly who he is and where he wants to go. Whether you like him or loathe him, I think you’re going to be seeing him around for a long, long time.
BOB You and Jacinda Ardern obviously had a love–hate relationship. Just weeks before she tossed in the towel, she was caught on microphone in Parliament calling you an “arrogant prick”. Mr Seymour, are you a prick?
DAVID I would be amazed if nobody thought that, but I would also point to a lot of people who I have gone out of my way to help. I love New Zealand. Someone said to me that this [the hot mic comment and Ardern’s apology] couldn’t have happened anywhere else. While the policy disagreements between Jacinda and I are substantial and irreconcilable, there is a common humanity there.
BOB Did you wake up one morning and decide, “I could be prime minister”?
DAVID I’ve always been astonished at how far I’ve gotten. I remember in 2011 [when he stood in the Auckland Central electorate], an ad-man told me he thought I could go quite far. I was surprised. The further you get in politics, the more you realise a lot of people are winging it. When people ask if the government engaged in a giant conspiracy with the World Economic Forum, I say, “I’ve got good news and bad news.” The good news is the government is incapable of thinking of conspiracy. The bad news is that they are not very good at health, education and law and order either. There is an old saying that it’s much easier to fool someone than demonstrate they are being fooled.
BOB Do you watch yourself after you’ve made a speech or been on TV?
DAVID As little as possible. I don’t like doing it. I do it to try and imagine what other people are seeing, which is sometimes difficult.
BOB Do you like yourself?
DAVID Fundamentally, yes, but I’m always thinking about things I haven’t done well, and you have to have that tension. You have to occupy the zone between nihilism and conceit.
BOB Tell me about your judgement.
DAVID I think gut feel is only as good as the experience and the knowledge that you have taken in. When it comes to public policy, I had a long apprenticeship in that I effectively did a second degree while working for five years in Canadian think tanks. My Canadian experience was remarkable. When I was on CBC [appearing on television for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to speak on policy issues], they demanded that I learn French — even though it wasn’t often used. It was a great discipline for me. You just had to learn French and understand what was going on. It was very complex and a great learning curve for me.
BOB Whom do you most admire?
DAVID Sir Edmund Hillary is the greatest New Zealander by far in my book. I met him once — oddly enough, I was a child actor at the time. They were filming a documentary about him at Auckland Grammar and they chose me to play him. So we spent a couple of days filming together.
I remember that between shoots he actually talked to me. He was prepared to indulge in conversation with a precocious 12-year-old. I felt there was something quintessentially Kiwi about that.
BOB What worries you about New Zealand?
DAVID I think at a high level there has always been a risk of New Zealand being like most island nations, if you think about Greece, Jamaica, Cuba, Fiji. Nice climate, nice temperature, but most of them end up being pretty basket case — often their standard of living is low and their culture regresses. I think New Zealand has always been in danger of becoming a big Fiji.
I think Act can save New Zealand. If you go back in history, back to the Treaty even, the country was in a lot of trouble, then again in the 1870s. There was a depression under the First Labour Government when it introduced its welfare programmes. There have been a number of times throughout history where New Zealand has been on a dangerous trajectory of becoming an island nation and has pulled out of it by looking into the abyss and deciding they want to be a First World country. That’s always been the goal here. I don’t think it’s wrong to want the best healthcare in the world. I think there’s a good reason to want to be First World, and I think there’s a good reason to be a liberal democracy. It’s not wrong to want those things.
BOB What do you most like in people?
DAVID I like when people choose to be kind. You see examples of that — I was with someone over the weekend who volunteers for Victim Support and while we were there they got a call and had to go and sit with someone who had been subjected to a brutal assault. I just thought, “What a cool thing to help with.”
BOB What do you dislike about people?
DAVID Gratuitous nastiness. I see people who I think basically enjoy or think it’s to their advantage to be nasty. There has been one media outlet that has been particularly nasty to Act. I think in a lot of ways the media has much to answer for, particularly around the parliamentary protest [in February–March 2022]. Often the protesters who were violent and making the death threats were doing so because they felt the media weren’t doing their job.
BOB Are you charismatic?
DAVID I don’t think of myself that way, but what I look at — and we do a lot of research on where we do well — is on trust. I think that goes back to having that public policy basis. We tried to maintain coherence with what we say, because ultimately it’s your policies that have to work. What I’ve learnt to do is stand in a room where nobody likes you, and everyone hates what you’re saying, but you say it anyway because you’re saying it on behalf of the people who aren’t in the room. That’s how democracy works. That’s quite a fearful thing to do, but sometimes you have to do it. One of the times that I did that was over the firearms laws.
BOB Why did you decide to get into that bloody mess?
DAVID You’ve got to measure by outcomes rather than by intentions. If you look at the outcome, the police advised the government there were about 240,000 firearms in scope. The buyback bought back about 60,000, so logically there are now 180,000 of the allegedly most dangerous weapons, that used to be owned openly and legally by people who have passed a good character test, that have now disappeared. That is truly scary.
BOB So you’re prepared to keep going and doing what you are doing despite people not agreeing with you?
DAVID I think humanity is important. I think humanity is being forgotten and in New Zealand today you are basically being told that your status is based on your ancestry to an extraordinary extent. It’s my belief that nobody should have greater worth because of your ancestry. I am coming from that place. I want to retire in my mid-40s and have half my life left — with my legacy being that New Zealand has a liberal party to vote for and Act is a going concern.