David Seymour opens up about love and loss - and his new gig as a columnist
It is easy to underestimate ACT leader David Seymour. At first appearances he comes across as earnest, a bit of an oddball even, with his quirky humour, buttoned up suits and cowlick that refuses to die.
ACT's flintier supporters must have been shaking their heads over some of Seymour's more eccentric campaign trail moments; like tweeting selfies of himself at a Miley Cyrus pyjama party, or a campaign video that was so bad it was almost genius, given that it immediately went viral and got something like 40,000 views.
It seemed like a tall order putting the future of the ACT party on the shoulders of such a political greenhorn when you think of the political legends who preceded him - think Richard Prebble, Rodney Hide, Don Brash and John Banks.
But Seymour keeps surprising on the upside and not just because he is smart, in that showy, kid who has always got his hand up first, kind of way.
He was rated politician of the year in the annual trans-Tasman roll call and while that accolade was not universally applauded, no one disputed either that 2015 was a good year for the rookie MP.
His bill keeping the booze flowing during the Rugby World Cup was popular, he was offered a Cabinet post but turned it down (more on that later) and he showed a knack for profile-raising stunts (Seymour's famous line about the French loving the Coq also went viral).
This year could be an even bigger one. For a start there is a new love interest in Seymour's life, he's understood to be dating former TV3 reporter Rachel Morton, now a senior advisor in the office of Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce. Seymour and Morton politely declined to comment when approached.
On the work front, meanwhile, Seymour steps into big shoes as the new Sunday Star-Times political columnist, taking over from Judith Collins. And there seems to be plenty of momentum behind his assisted dying bill, ostensibly the reason he turned down the offer of a ministerial post from prime minister John Key in order to pursue it through Parliament.
Seymour says he is championing the bill because it's important to a lot of people and while his own mother died young from cancer, at age 50, that's not the reason. In fact, they never even discussed the issue - his mother's death came far too quickly for that.
"She was a liberal and an individualist and I think she would have agreed with me on this issue although we never discussed it. [But] we found out in November and she died in March.
"The prognosis was six months to a year and she just deteriorated far quicker than anyone predicted so she died before she could possibly have even thought about assisted dying."
But the calculation behind Seymour's decision to turn down a Cabinet post left a lot of people scratching their heads - especially once the political anoraks worked out that the odds of Seymour's bill being pulled from the parliamentary ballot and debated this side of the next election were slim at best.
But Seymour is unfazed - though he admits he wasn't aware of just how slender those odds were against his bill being drawn when he turned the prime minister down.
"But so long as there's a chance [of it being drawn] it's the right thing to do," he insists.
Besides, there were other calculations behind the decision to keep the prime minister at arms length.
"Once you're a minister and everyone's calling you minister and you're driving around in a limousine it really feels like the rest of the world is against you and you've kinda got to all stick together. I reckon the biggest obstacle to people voting ACT at the moment is people saying 'we think ACT's alright, but at the moment we've got National and they're bigger and better so what's the difference'."
That's probably the polite version. The less kind explanation for ACT's failure to pick up support is that its leaders have looked like dead men walking in recent years as the party's credibility took a battering.
That has made Seymour's task in getting traction that much harder, and so far even his successes - like the booze bill - have had little impact on the polls.
But he has been a surprising breath of fresh air in pinpointing the reasons for the party's decline and identifying the voters - and issues - it needs to target.
More importantly, he is not above taking the proverbial out of his own party, and with a sense of humour that has been sorely lacking in the party in recent years.
"The big danger is taking yourself far too seriously….I can lecture people for as long as I like about why I sincerely believe decentralised systems of education with greater autonomy do better for the kids, but it doesn't make a sound bite."
David Seymour in his own words:
"I was born in Palmerston North, learned to walk, promptly left, moved to eventually end up as a boarder at a school in Auckland, studied to be an engineer and philosopher, gave my email address to ACT on campus, got the bug of public policy and politics, went off and worked for think tanks in Canada, got more of the public policy bug, and then came back and some people think that I rose through the ranks in the Act party - actually I haven't changed much since i joined, it's just the party sunk around me. Now I live the life of a politician and nascent political leader.
An engineer and philosopher?
"Yeah I was hedging. Well, what happened was, I did know there were no girls in engineering but I didn't know there were no girls in philosophy. It's the only male dominated arts faculty department."
- Sunday Star Times