Analysis: ACT has set an ambitious goal for itself in the 2023 election, but can it broaden its base enough to win another 250,000 voters? Marc Daalder reports
When ACT Party President Tim Jago suggested on Sunday that the 2023 election will double the party’s caucus in Parliament, there were more than a few raised eyebrows in the packed ASB Theatre.
Fully expecting that, Jago went on to point out that at this time last year, ACT leader David Seymour’s own return to Parliament might have been in doubt.
“Most of you would have been simply pleased if we had retained Epsom,” he said.
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Not only did Seymour win Epsom with nearly twice as many votes as the second-placed Labour candidate, ACT put up solid numbers in the party vote and brought nine new MPs to Wellington. That wasn’t the summit for the party either, Jago said, but merely “a milestone”.
While you might expect political enthusiasm to have waned in the aftermath of an election, the opposite appears to have happened with ACT. Seymour says his recent Free Speech Tour was a success, turning out hundreds in Tauranga, Napier, Nelson and Christchurch.
The tour climaxed in Sunday’s event, a two-and-a-half hour conference held in the ASB Waterfront Theatre after the party’s AGM that morning. More than 500 people bought tickets ahead of time, with enough walk-ins attending to force the crowd to spill over into the second floor circle.
Jago and Seymour both spoke, as did deputy leader Brooke van Velden and MPs Simon Court, Mark Cameron and Nicole McKee. Clinician and health system expert Des Gorman, a prominent critic of the Government’s Covid-19 response, served as guest speaker and delivered a blistering speech on the proposed health reforms.
Seymour’s remarks focused on two themes: ACT’s democracy reforms and a new education policy, in which $250 million would be distributed to schools around the country and principals could use their discretion to top-up the pay of the best teachers.
“The truth is that the Government does not value teachers enough by the amounts they are paid,” he said, to applause from the audience.
“What’s worse, perhaps the greatest insult is that they are all paid the same. The best teacher and the worst teacher in New Zealand are paid the same. Under union contracts, the only way for a teacher to get paid more is to serve more time.”
The crowd ate up the education policy, but was more circumspect around Seymour’s two-part democratic reforms. These included his Regulatory Standards Bill, pulled from the ballot in April, and the members’ bill announced on Saturday morning which would allow governments to sit for four years if they handed over control of select committees to the Opposition.
Perhaps part of the muted response to these suggestions was Seymour’s decision to embark on a lengthy and somewhat technical description of the changes – which he himself conceded in his speech.
“Now, I recognise that talking about parliamentary procedure is not a great way of driving voters into ecstasy,” he said.
After seven years in Wellington, David Seymour is very much a creature of Parliament. He is genuinely excited by the implications of these reforms, for better governance and for the ways in which they might change how the House operates. Is that compatible with stoking enthusiasm among 250,000 more voters – the number needed to bring 20 MPs to Wellington?
Seymour says it will, because voters will read between the lines and understand the general thrust of the issue.
“I’m hardly going to win votes by quoting the Standing Order that needs to change or the section of the Constitution Act that we would change, but I think there are things that are important to people that do shift votes,” he told Newsroom.
“That is accountability, transparency, a sense of being included in the conversation. I think people really feel that they are outside the tent as far as the direction that New Zealand goes. We need a much more sober, slow and, I guess, deliberative system of law-making.”
That’s just one part of what Seymour says is his effort to broaden the ACT Party base. He bristles at the suggestion that ACT’s 2020 voters might return to National under a more likeable leader.
“It’s this really basic analysis people have, they think all ACT voters came from National and at some point they’re going to go back. First of all, there’s no evidence for that, the evidence is the opposite.”
Seymour says the party’s voters came from all over the spectrum and highlighted Māori voters, who he said might support “Nicole McKee’s view of who speaks for Māori, not Rawiri Waititi’s view of who speaks for Māori”.
“We did polling, as an exit poll for the election, we hit 5 percent in every demographic, occupation – ethnicity, we got there in Māori, Chinese, European, we didn’t get there with Pacific or Indian New Zealanders. Still, a lot broader than people might imagine.
“Income levels, we got there in every income decile. ACT’s support is so much broader than people typically estimate. This is not the profile of a small, right-wing party, this is the foundation of a broad tent.”
Key to inviting more people into that tent is what Seymour calls a “constructive” opposition. Ahead of the election, he told Newsroom his “job is to give constructive criticism when necessary and helpful suggestions where possible. And that’s been our mantra all the way through.”
He reiterated those comments on Sunday, saying, “We just go out every day and say, ‘we are committed to a better future for New Zealand. And we’re not just going to talk about it, we are going to put ideas on the table’, which we constantly do.”