Behind the scenes: The rise of ACT, and its leader David Seymour

"Oh, you're kidding": ACT leader David Seymour learns of the latest Auckland community Covid-19 case while on a walkabout with a Stuff reporter.

ACT is charting a meteoric rise that has leader David Seymour convinced he has the numbers to be in government next term. Kelly Dennett reports.

“Oh, you’re kidding. F... Alright. Cool, cool. I’ll leave this and go back to the office.”

David Seymour was chatting with business owners along Auckland’s Parnell Rise on Tuesday when the ACT leader’s phone rang, bearing bad news: “Positive case in Auckland,“ Seymour said, before cutting short Stuff’s interview.

As the highly infectious Delta variant saw cases rise in Auckland this week, Seymour was full-steam ahead, criticising non-Covid Government spending, calling for the return of the Epidemic Response Committee, and asking why wastewater testing wasn’t more widespread. His supporters say this is Seymour at his best, with some going further, labelling him the real voice of Opposition.

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ACT’s fortunes have multiplied off the back of 2019’s gun reforms, the popular and compassionate End of Life Choice Bill, and Covid-19, leading to a best-ever 2020 election. Membership increased by 44 per cent (the party declined to say how many members it has), it says more women and young people are signing up, and it’s polling well.

The new ACT is a 10-person revival that saw the formerly one-man-band in Seymour joined by a cast of others, the election propelling the likes of an ex-teacher, a farmer, an engineer, and clothing and water-blasting business owners into the halls of Parliament. Polling suggests the party is still gathering support, from both former Labour and National voters. Preferred prime minister rankings have plotted Seymour ahead of National’s leader, Judith Collins.

Whatever way you look at it, ACT is resonating.

ACT had a successful election, bringing nine new MPs into Parliament, but it’s continuing to do well in polls.
Ricky Wilson/Stuff
ACT had a successful election, bringing nine new MPs into Parliament, but it’s continuing to do well in polls.

“I guess if you were in the mind to begrudge ACT’s success the thing you’d point to is the weakness of National,” says political commentator and one-time ACT campaign consultant Ben Thomas. “That’s just a historical trend. That’s when people start looking around for options.” But, says Thomas, in comparison, you wouldn’t find many minor party leaders doing well in preferred PM polls.

“People in the political class don’t often appreciate what the low recognition of politicians is. Most New Zealanders, outside of the prime minister and whoever is in the wars, often struggle for name recognition. It’s significant enough that people know who Seymour is, to name him in polls.”

Look for answers, and you’ll find some in a late afternoon public meeting in the rural North Canterbury town of Rangiora. Last week about 100 filled out the Rangiora Showgrounds Function Centre, where Arcoroc mugs sat patiently beside biscuits and a Chelsea golden syrup tin filled with teaspoons.

The 40-somethingth stop on ACT’s Honest Conversations tour saw staff scrambling seats. ACT points to this as a sign it’s galvanising. Among the group were business owners, farmers, and retirees, parents and grandparents. New MPs Toni Severin and Chris Baillie introduced themselves as the everyday people who’d made it into Parliament. But the real star was Seymour who, over the ensuing hour, captured the attention of an unhappy room.

People were disgusted; with the education system, that their children can’t afford housing, the lack of debate about the handling of Covid-19, and the threat of being censored by hate speech laws. They see a race/culture/gender war and they’re fed up with the media, too. Some were firearm owners, many were business owners, a few were landlords. Seymour whipped approval, pontificated that the government considered landlords as good as terrorists, that ‘entrepreneur’ was a dirty word, that Labour had activated an avalanche of regulation. He was met with spontaneous applause and ‘dead right’ whispered under breaths.

“Can we win?” Seymour repeated an audience member’s question. “We are more than on track to change the next government in the next election.”

ACT party leader David Seymour on the black and white tiles in Parliament.
ACT party leader David Seymour on the black and white tiles in Parliament.

"It's been a year since the election when ACT became a party of TEN MPs!"

"Let's take a look at the Fifty-Two Things we've done in the past 52 weeks!"

Two days earlier at ACT's Parliament headquarters, Seymour and deputy Brooke van Velden grinned in front of a bright light. Seymour blinked exaggeratedly down the lens; smiled a wide-toothed grin as if it were a family photo, picked at his teeth. Van Velden was serious. When the cameras rolled, the pair was ebullient. Media manager Rachel Morton shouted last-minute script changes. The hearty speech, to be delivered via sparkly social media video, would mark a year for the fresh-faced party.

The night before, much of the Waikato was plunged into darkness after the country’s electricity grid peaked. Shortly after midnight ACT policy advisor John Brinsley-Pirie fired off an email requesting an urgent debate in the house, on behalf of MP and energy spokesperson Simon Court. By 8.30am, at a roundtable strategy meeting in van Velden’s office with Morton, van Velden, Seymour, and chief of staff Andrew Ketels it’s the first talking point, along others that they’ll need to be publicly addressing that day.

Soon after, a staff and MP-wide meeting in the tearoom. A staffer was anointed the ‘freedom fighter of the week’ and given a gaudy statue. Seymour touched on the upcoming anniversary party. There are congratulations for those who got media time during the week.

David Seymour, pictured in Auckland, right before the new Covid-19 community case was announced.
Ricky Wilson/Stuff
David Seymour, pictured in Auckland, right before the new Covid-19 community case was announced.

The new MPs want to make Seymour proud, they say. Aside from van Velden, whose work underpinned the success of the End of Life Choice Bill, they are a little green. Seymour in turn casts a head duckling figure.

Their offices, the former Parliamentary library, are bright and airy; no dark corridors for MPs to become lost or forgotten. A whiteboard reveals idioms, famous quotes – a hallmark of a productive, highly motivated person's diet.

Prefacing with all the right things – can’t pick a favourite child, etc – Seymour highlighted van Velden as “clearly having an X factor” while also praising Nicole McKee (“a reassuring calm about her”) and Mark Cameron (“taken like a duck to water”). Pertinent in Seymour’s success is his team, some say, and it’s Morton challenging Seymour in a series of rehearsed questions before the pair head to the famous black and white tiles for press questions (they take a more convoluted route through Parliament’s rabbit warren so they can make a better entrance before the cameras).

“The mark of a good leader is to surround yourself with people who will tell you what you don’t want to hear,” says ex-Epsom National MP Christine Fletcher over the phone. “Leaders love the power, and the sycophants around them, but that isn’t going to take you anywhere. I’ve berated him on several occasions.” (Fletcher declines to say why.) “David takes it on the chin.”

The Epsom seat comprises several affluent suburbs with median household incomes topping $100,000. While Seymour may have initially benefited from the National agreement, he’s arguably since won the electorate on his own merit. More than 19,000 people in Epsom voted for Seymour last election, encompassing nearly 47 per cent of the votes cast in the electorate.

Fletcher says the seat is misunderstood. Thanks to its Grammar-school zoning, many parents have over-extended themselves to get into the area, and it’s home to state housing, and a prison. Seymour himself describes seeing families of immigrants in small flats while door-knocking, painting a picture of Epsom as a land of aspiration and opportunity.

Seymour has great visibility, Fletcher says, and goes out of his way to help constituents. ”If you can’t be seen to solve your local issues, you’re pretty ineffective. People are more likely to trust you with the big issues, if you can demonstrate you are effective locally.” An Epsom voter Stuff met while walking the electorate is effusive. “I like him a lot,” said clothing designer Natalie Marseille. “I think he's different and unique. He is very popular around this area. .”

While last year National was still encouraging Epsom voters to tick Seymour’s name despite standing Paul Goldsmith there, commentators say Seymour hasn’t needed that endorsement. Thomas thinks, “National couldn't have dislodged Seymour in 2017, even if they had tried... they would have had zero chance in 2020, and they would be dreaming on the current state of affairs.” Blogger and pollster David Farrar answers with a fast ‘no’ to whether ACT still needed that National endorsement, but believes it would still be there in 2023. “ACT don’t need it now, of course, they’d have to do something really bad.”

David Seymour and deputy leader Brooke van Velden, who he describes as having “the X factor”.
David Seymour and deputy leader Brooke van Velden, who he describes as having “the X factor”.

By Friday Seymour was again asking why saliva testing wasn’t a more widespread approach by the Ministry of Health, as thousands queued for hours for Covid-19 testing.

Ben Thomas points to Covid-19 as demonstrative of Seymour being a constructive voice. “Their strategy is really well-informed by research, they’ve got very good people working on polling, but at the same time, he’s actually a very idiosyncratic guy.”

That can be in contrast to National’s approach. Says Thomas: “You can almost predict what Judith Collins is going to do by asking what would an American Republican who spends too much time online would think about this, whereas Seymour has definitely got his own particular approach to things. He’s not an easy person to pin down for charges of hypocrisy.”

Former Labour senior adviser Neale Jones says the advantage of being a minor party is “no-one taking anything they say too seriously. National or Labour have to think, could I do this in government? Act has the luxury right now of coming out with some outlandish, populist things...You think, well if that was put into practice it goes against expert advice, but he goes out on a limb.”

Seymour has not been without his critics or embarrassments. In 2019 he was urged to apologise to Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, after he labelled her a “menace to freedom” and was accused of riling up critics who sent her threats. More recently he admitted he was the beneficiary of property-holding trusts, after positioning himself as an MP unable to afford a property (Seymour has since bought), and in an epic gaffe missed a key gun law vote by spending too long talking to media.

But, the End of Life Choice Bill, and of course, his famous Dancing with the Stars appearance, has made him affable. (When MP Nicole McKee is asked what she knew about Seymour prior to first contacting him about gun control, she answers “Dancing with the Stars”). Twerking aside, “People like him,” says Thomas, “Because (the End of Life Choice bill) associated him with the idea of compassion... which is so different from every ACT leader in the past.”

Supporters say Seymour gets cut-through because he focuses on the issues at hand.
Ricky Wilson/Stuff
Supporters say Seymour gets cut-through because he focuses on the issues at hand.

“If we find a dairy that sells Red Bull...,” Seymour gestured towards a Christchurch dairy. Dark was falling after the Rangiora meeting and Seymour was en route to the opening of its Christchurch office. Clocking 13-hour-plus days, six-seven days a week, Seymour is in the 80-90 hour working week category.

Dinner parties with friends – he counts his school friends as his closest – are booked three months in advance, and to maximise sleep he’s basically teetotal. His Fitbit tells him he sleeps about six hours a night. “It’s match fitness – what becomes normal,” he says. “I’m way, way better in a campaign. Now I’m useless really. But in a campaign I’m way more disciplined and focused. It sounds really hard, but you just get into a rhythm. It’s like those crazy people who run 20km every day, once they’re in that rhythm it’s not actually difficult.”

With his little down-time Seymour e-bikes, swims, and enjoys driving around incognito in his Lotus 7, which he built in school, armed with steel, a welder, and an instruction book. He understands the interest in lifting the lid on a politician’s life – ”You can understand one of the shortcuts people use to understand you is insight into your private world” – but is reluctant to get into his personal relationships.

That said, there may be little about Seymour's life that isn't widely known. A trained engineer, he worked at a Canadian think-tank. He’s talked publicly about his mother’s death, his former relationship with Rachel Morton, and his search for love. (He seems surprised that stories have painted him as lonely and seeking a partner.) The nation has seen him dancing in short shorts. In person he speaks quietly, jokes frequently, and seems a tad overwhelmed at the attention he receives. He's convinced if Stuff hadn’t driven him away from the Rangiora event, he’d have been there into the night, talking to members of the public who wanted selfies.

He’s recently bought his first home, a two-bedroom unit in Epsom. How did it feel to finally become a homeowner? “It felt like I just spent a huge amount of money on a very small house.”

What you see is what you get, says Malcolm Powell, of David Seymour.
What you see is what you get, says Malcolm Powell, of David Seymour.

Ben Thomas thinks there's an interesting question for ACT now.

“ACT is pretty clear in terms of what it stands for – low tax, business success and personal freedomso, the issue for ACT is, keeping those principles in mind, what does that mean in the 2020s and the 2030s, and are some of their historical policies still relevant in a post-Covid world?”

Says Farrar, “There may come a point when (they) will end up disappointing some stakeholders. They may have to make trade-offs. If at some stage they are in government, that’s when minor parties lose their support. They will at some stage have to face, how loyal will these voters be when they have to make the inevitable trade-offs that are part of being in Parliament?”

Jones believes Judith Collins will be quite concerned about their loss of voters to Act, and that to form a stable coalition National needs to improve its fortunes by doing what Seymour appears to have done: show a party that's united and disciplined, without in-fighting, or backstabbing, and to have a leader people can put their faith in. “National kind of has neither right now, and that’s what’s so hard.”

Seymour is clear the public wouldn't see a Labour-ACT coalition anytime soon – “At present it’s almost impossible to imagine” – but despite National’s dismal election performance, Seymour believes its numbers are improving. A recent poll suggested National had lifted its vote to 28.7 per cent, while Act had increased to 11.1. Other polls put Act at 13. “If you look at that combined ACT National vote, it’s made a lot of progress in terms of the gap we’ve got to close... so they wouldn’t have to change by a huge amount.”

Should Collins still be in charge, that poses no problem. The pair has worked together before, and Seymour doesn’t disparage her. “If you measure by her effectiveness by the fact National is polling four points above where it was on election night, you’d have to say that’s effective.”

Would he jostle for a prime minister or deputy role? Seymour once turned down a ministerial role in a previous Key Government, in favour of pursuing the end of life choice (EOLC) policy.

“Most people think it’s total insanity to turn down being a minister, right? For so many reasons, but getting the EOLCA passed was more important. So, I don’t care... I must be the most senior MP by far who hasn’t been a minister, Louisa Wall is a special case, but the positions I haven’t really thought about. Not really. I haven’t got this far by thinking I was going to be the Prime Minister, so I’ll probably just keep doing what I’m doing.”

- additional reporting by Adam Jacobson