ACT leader David Seymour heads into election year with a modest but noticeable upswing in his party’s support, with his advocacy for personal liberties attracting more attention than ever. But does he risk attracting the wrong type of backer, and how much longer can he be a party of one?
Asked what was most likely to lead governments astray, former British prime minister Harold McMillan is (perhaps apocryphally) said to have responded: “Events, dear boy, events.”
But events can also fall in a politician’s favour, as ACT leader David Seymour has found in 2019.
“The events have played to our principles: I’m not saying anything different in 2019 than I said from 2014 to ‘18. I think I’ve got a bit better at saying it…but for the first four years I was in Parliament we generally didn’t have government sideswiping people’s basic rights in the way they have [this year].”
Seymour cites the Government’s oil and gas ban as one example, while he has also gone into battle with universities over their refusal to allow controversial speakers on campus.
But it is a far more tragic event – the March 15 terror attack – that has raised issues that are fundamental to the ACT leader’s beliefs, although not without some danger.
Talk of cracking down on hate speech has allowed Seymour to advocate for freedom of expression, while the Government’s firearms ban and buyback has also allowed him to trumpet ACT’s belief in personal liberties.
“It’s just a disaster from the point of view of the freedoms of the firearms community, and a disaster from the point of view of public safety.”
He believes he has been aided by National’s approach, being “collaborative with the enemy” as he puts it.
The libertarian MP for the well-heeled Epsom electorate seems an unlikely match for the sorts of rural Kiwis opposing further gun control, and Seymour confesses to some initial trepidation at swinging in behind their cause.
“The group of people who own firearms, I’d had very little to do with prior to this year – I’d been to the Whakatane pistol club once when I was invited to shoot, and that was about it.”
But having visited deerstalkers’ associations, pistol clubs and antique collectors, he now has a better understanding of “overwhelmingly good people who are wounded and dumbfounded as to why they are under attack, in part because they see it as almost an insinuation that perhaps they don’t care what happened”.
They were as hurt and shocked by March 15 as anyone else, he says, but they have the technical knowledge to know the legislation will not work as intended.
“To a lot of people, particularly in urban areas, they’ve never seen a gun, except perhaps in violent movies. Whereas to these people, if you’re a hunter, or if you’re on a farm, it’s just another tool.”
This is not the first time ACT has held some appeal to rural communities either, Seymour says, noting former MP Owen Jennings’ surprise second-place finish behind National in the 1998 by-election for Jim Bolger’s Taranaki-King Country seat.
“Obviously the party has retreated from a lot of demographics, more than I would like, but as the tide comes back in for ACT, it comes in for areas where it was previously.”
As for the less savoury elements of New Zealand who may back Seymour’s stance for darker reasons, the ACT leader is clear they do not have a friend in him.
“We’ve really only had one incident where those kinds of odious people did actually come to one event, and going on about the UN migration pact and stuff.
“I tried to be polite, they got pissed off, I gave them a massive beating and the crowd cheered, and they went and slunk away, and then they went and complained about me on social media, which was great because it just sent the message to all those people they should never get involved with me.”
Where in the past Seymour focused on traditional hip-pocket issues like the cost of housing and taxation, he now seems to spend much more of his time on more nebulous topics like freedom of speech – not that he sees it that way.
It is that not ACT has lost sight of its economic priorities, he says, but that the media and the public are more receptive to the party’s views on social issues than previously.
“I would love to be reported about why a single rate of tax would be not only fairer but more competitive, aspirational and administratively simpler for New Zealand.”
But another big social issue, and one close to Seymour’s heart – assisted dying, or euthanasia – is set to occupy a fair chunk of his time in 2020, after his End of Life Choice Bill passed its third reading with the addition of a public referendum on the topic at the next election.
He describes the victory in Parliament as “winning the semi”, but believes he can focus both on the final and the separate competition for his electorate seat and ACT’s party vote.
The party’s supporters are almost unanimously in favour of the bill, he says, while Epsom voters have also offered up their praise for his legislative success.
Naturally, there is plenty of interest in his Epsom seat: namely, whether National will attempt to wrest it away from ACT or maintain a gentleman’s understanding to stay out of the party’s way, as has often been the case in the past.
Seymour argues it would be crazy for National to “try and annihilate their last remaining partner”, but pushes back against the idea that he needs their backing to win the seat.
“I genuinely don’t understand why people think there’s a deal, because in order to have a deal you have to have consideration on both sides, and if you think about it there’s actually nothing I can give them.”
Surely knowing that he would never support Labour, and with a coat-tailed MP or two would make it harder to form a left-wing government, is enough of a consideration for National?
“Hypothetically, if I was to do what I’m doing now, for the rest of my working life, would that be a net positive contribution to New Zealand and to Parliament? I think it would.”
“Yes, but I don’t call that a deal – that’s a strategy. It’s not as though because they give their party vote to National, they’re property of the National Party…these are highly educated, highly articulate people who are used to making the most of situations and getting what they want.”
For the first time in a while, there is a decent chance that Seymour may not be a caucus of one in the next Parliament: recent polls have ACT on two percent, enough for an additional one or two MPs should he hold Epsom.
But even that outcome, by no means a certainty, would still leave Seymour a term behind his three-stage plan to revive ACT then bow out of politics – something which he attributes to circumstances as negative in 2017 as they seem positive now.
“You go into an election as a party leader at 34 and you didn’t expect to be the leader, and you think, well, it’s going to be pretty challenging. And then it turns out to be the worst election for third parties in the history of MMP – sometimes life gives you lemons.”
But he is proud of his achievements to date – working on charter schools, advocating for constituents, and representing a political ideology no other party does – and clear there are worse things than political life as a one-man band.
“Hypothetically, if I was to do what I’m doing now, for the rest of my working life, would that be a net positive contribution to New Zealand and to Parliament? I think it would.
“Would I be proud to spend my working career that way? I think I would.”
Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and/or included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.