The humbling of National and the demise of New Zealand First has been accompanied by the rapid rise of ACT. The party has gone from one MP to 10 and is now the third biggest party in Parliament. Mark Jennings looks at how it turned its fortunes around.

A little over a year and a half ago, ACT appeared to be in dire straits. The polls had it at 1 percent, the same as the New Conservatives and The Opportunities Party. David Seymour admitted he was struggling to attract quality candidates. Frankly – and Seymour is the frankest of our politicians – the future looked bleak.

Last night, Seymour stood on the raised platform at an Auckland waterfront bar with a posse of new MPs as Hot Chocolate’s 1978 hit ‘Everyone’s a winner’ blasted from the speakers. The ACT leader looked like he often does, slightly awkward, and the crowd ripped into “Three cheers for David – hip, hip, hoorah”. 

In less than 18 months, ACT has gone from possible political failure to a political force. Seymour, the party’s accidental leader after Jamie Whyte quit in 2014, has been its saviour, and the ACT supporters jamming the viaduct bar knew it and thanked him.

Last night’s result was hardly a surprise; the polls had been building and then holding in recent months. Seymour was confident enough to indulge in the flamboyant gesture of arriving at the bar by boat early in the night – a night when most leaders waited until at least half the votes were counted before heading to their party functions.

Asked if he could pinpoint a turning point in the party’s fortunes, Seymour nominated the exposure he received as a permanent member of the Covid-19 Epidemic Response Committee. The committee was set up in late March to hold the Government to account for its response to the pandemic and disbanded in May. 

It was chaired by leader of the opposition, Simon Bridges, but it was often Seymour asking the hard questions. Parliament TV broadcast the committee hearings during the nationwide lockdown. Or, as Seymour puts it, “The country was under house arrest and had to watch it”.

Airtime is the oxygen of political momentum and sometimes there are pivotal events, but generally it takes a string of good performances to turn the tide.

“I haven’t really changed anything but I have got better explaining and connecting,” said Seymour.

Of course, the story is more complex than that. Seymour and new president, Auckland businessman Tim Jago, have been steadily rebuilding the base. Membership has climbed from 600 to 3200 in the last year and a half.

ACT has gone where others have feared to tread. Starting with free speech. “Freedom of speech is the foundation of all freedoms,” Seymour told Newshub’s The Nation back in June 2019. 

This year left wing media commentator Martyn “bomber” Bradbury described him as “extraordinarily” brave for criticising China. 

The Chinese Consulate General in New Zealand had condemned Hong Kong democracy protests at the University of Auckland.  Seymour told him to “Stop interfering in New Zealand’s internal affairs”.

In a riskier move Seymour took on Ardern’s government on over the ban on semi-automatic rifles following the mosque massacre.

“We are not a party of gun nuts; we are for good law making,” Seymour told Newsroom at the time.

Principled or pragmatic, the stand drew firearms advocate Nicole McKee to the party and with her came a swathe of gun owners upset with the Government’s stance.

McKee is number three on the party list and at least seven of the 55 ACT candidates who contested seats are registered firearms owners.

Seymour’s improved political skills have shone in the last few months. He and his media advisor Andrew Ketels are probably the fastest responders in politics. Seymour’s comments arrive in media inboxes minutes after Government announcements. National’s arrive hours later.

The messages are tailored for social media and quotable enough to get quoted. The targets were many.

“If Labour brought in full blown communism, the Nats would campaign on managing it better.

“If you study hard and get good grades, get a good job, save money and invest wisely … we’re going to tax you harder.”

“Jacinda Arden: ‘We went hard and early.’ Fact check: false.”

Seymour is probably the only leader currently capable of matching Ardern’s and Labour’s skill in communicating the message.  Even when he scored an own goal, Seymour’s speed and wit minimised the damage. 

During the campaign, Ardern attacked ACT for making the same accounting error as National in its economic plan. ACT had used an outdated figure from the budget, $39.3 million instead of a more recently reported $30.6 million for the Covid-19 recovery fund.

Ardern jumped on ACT’s $8 billion hole, but with lightning speed, something not seen from National, Seymour fired back with “they are spending our money so quickly nobody can keep up. We need to get rid of them before they bankrupt the country.” It was damage control and attack in one tweet.

Stewarding the End of Life Choice bill through Parliament with his deputy Brooke van Welden won the party respect, if not votes, from many quarters. Nobody disputes Seymour’s work ethic. The sole ACT MP, until tonight, he had to be across all portfolios but rarely did his knowledge of any issue seem to be lacking.

During the Covid lockdowns, commentators started to suggest that Seymour had effectively become “the leader of the opposition”. The mantle might seem premature, but Seymour and his party are already looking to the next election and beyond.

“The result we have overall tonight is not good for New Zealand. For ACT it is just a stepping stone to building a platform for real reform that will make New Zealand a better place. This is not the end; this is not our 2020 election night party this is our 2023 election campaign launch!” he told supporters.

As Seymour left the stage after three more cheers and another “Hip, hip hooray,” I asked him why he thought National did so badly? “A political party has to stand for something and when all you stand for is opposing … people are not going to vote for you.”

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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