If the GST on KiwiSaver debate is anything to go by, David Seymour says he is deeply sceptical about the country’s ability to have a serious policy debate at next year’s election

As political parties turn their attentions to 2023, the ACT Party leader is dubious whether comprehensive policy around superannuation, education and regulation can be seriously debated by politicians and voters.

“Our big concern is whether the capacity for serious policy debates is there.

“When I look at the treatment of the GST KiwiSaver issue last week I’m seriously concerned that it might not be,” he said.

The Government proposed charging GST on fees paid on KiwiSaver accounts, but u-turned the following day under political pressure from both the Opposition and a public outcry.

“It was a relatively sensible change to tax policy – there was fundamentally an inconsistency with the way fund managers were treated, and there were various options to fix that,” Seymour told Newsroom.

“A large part of the fee would have been absorbed by the provider … and yet it was totally blown out of proportion by the press, seized on by the National Party in particular, and never properly explained by the Government who tried to hide it.”

Seymour said he could understand the temptation by National to cry “Labour’s day of shame” but he questions if they’ve taken an impossible position.

“Is it tenable for the National Party to be opposed to any kind of base widening forever given the way they responded to this one?

“You’d assume they have to, but I don’t think that’s a sustainable strategy if we’re serious about improving New Zealand’s policy settings and digging ourselves out of fiscal, productivity and educational holes,” he said.

“The other big issue is, are we really still a first world country, and on a spectrum from Fiji to Australia, which end is New Zealand closer to?” – David Seymour

While the economy will feature heavily in next year’s campaign, Seymour says it’s a “mug’s game to try and predict how right now”.

“It’s been a bad decade for pessimists economically. Despite many concerns things are about to go bottom-up, the economy has managed to survive just about everything and I don’t think that can carry on indefinitely.

“You’ve got inflation that’s looking a lot more stubborn than anyone thought.”

But for ACT the bigger issues will be New Zealand’s identity, and status as a first world country.

“Are we a modern, multi-ethnic, liberal democracy or are we trying to become a Te Tiriti-centric Aotearoa with two separate bundles of rights where you might get two votes on your local council potentially, depending on birth?

“The other big issue is, are we really still a first world country, and on a spectrum from Fiji to Australia, which end is New Zealand closer to?”

Seymour says some try to make him sound divisive purely for wanting to have a debate about New Zealand’s identity.

In an interview with Newsroom this week Labour’s campaign chair Megan Woods raised serious concerns about the increasing difficulties around debating political ideas without it being polarising and dividing the nation.

“I think the world has changed and New Zealand has changed quite a lot since 2020,” she said.

The challenge will be how to “navigate our way through having a contest of ideas which is actually constructive … rather than becoming something that’s polarising and divisive,” Woods told Newsroom.

Seymour told Newsroom he didn’t “entirely disagree with what Megan says”.

“I talk to people who work as focus group moderators, and they say their job has become materially harder because of the fact people are more hesitant to share their views in the current climate,” Seymour said.

The battle for Epsom

Seymour is always quick to get defensive when asked about his Epsom seat, which he’s held since 2014.

It’s been ACT’s seat, and ticket into Parliament after failing to meet the 5 percent threshold, since Rodney Hide first won it in 2005.

The party’s fortunes changed significantly at the 2020 election when Seymour not only won the seat (Labour’s Camilla Belich coming second and National’s Paul Goldsmith third) but also took the party vote to 7.6 percent bringing nine MPs into Parliament.

Asked if he thought National contested the seat in 2020, Seymour responded, “They certainly had a candidate there that anyone was welcome to vote for”.

Seymour says it’s beside the point whether National truly contests Epsom or not in terms of his own success.

“Last time I persuaded 50 percent to vote for me. I don’t know if you’re suggesting it’s only because National didn’t try, I think those voters are capable of making their choice for themselves.”

In 2005 Hide really threw all his energy into securing Epsom to ensure the survival of the party because of the 5 percent threshold requirements.

Seymour told Newsroom the work to secure Epsom has been in play since Hide first tried the strategy in 1999 and it has now become “part of the culture of the electorate”.

He doubts the party will concentrate on investing that sort of energy into any other seats at next year’s election.

Instead the focus will be on bolstering the party vote with its much larger caucus having the ability to cover more of the country, and now with 36 years of “collective Parliament experience in our caucus”.

Seymour described leading a caucus this term as a “wonderful challenge”.

“When we started out we said we wanted to create an All Black-level culture,’’ he laughed.

“We had to change that a bit … shit, who would have thought that could be a bad thing – certainly our guys are a lot more consistent.”

Seymour credits the party’s success and lack of caucus scandals or relationship breakdowns on running the caucus like a “modern organisation and people business”.

“We’ve modernised and we’ve innovated … look at our open plan office, quarterly getaways and team building … I think it’s paid off and I’m really proud of what we’ve done here,” he said.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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