Seymour plots ACT's climb back to relevance

David Seymour says he has started to turn ACT around after some disastrous election cycles. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

ACT leader David Seymour has been going it alone in Parliament for the last three years, but he’s confident about a three-stage plan to revitalise the party’s flagging brand. As part of Newsroom’s election coverage, Seymour speaks about the issues on Kiwis’ minds and his own ambitions.

As a young student at Auckland Grammar, David Seymour had the privilege of portraying his role model Sir Edmund Hillary in A View from the Top, a TVNZ documentary about the mountaineer’s early years.

In one scene from the programme, Seymour-as-Hillary is befuddled after his name isn’t read out at an assembly on the first day of school.

The other boys stream out to join their form classes, leaving the young boy sitting alone on the benches.

Seymour must know how Hillary felt: the ACT leader’s first three years in Parliament have been spent as a caucus of one, after he won Epsom in 2014 but failed to bring anyone else in off the list.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the 34-year-old from developing his own plan to knock the bastard off, openly speculating (somewhat optimistically) about returning five MPs to the next Parliament.

Seymour says ACT is the natural home for Kiwis worried that the Government has “gone soft and a bit far to the left”.

“Does this country need a party that stands up for free markets, private property rights, and the right to do as you damn well please so long as you don’t harm anyone else and you’re prepared to take personal responsibility for your actions? You bet it does.”

Yet the party remains in the electoral doldrums, routinely polling less than one per cent and well within the margin of error.

ACT's 'comedy of errors'

For that, Seymour blames the “comedy of errors” that has dogged ACT since its nine-MP peak in 1999 and 2002.

They include the strategic mistake of describing National leader Don Brash as ACT’s 10th MP after 2002 - a move that led to the larger party cannibalising the smaller.

While Rodney Hide “dancing to the height of his powers” led to ACT’s resurgence in 2008, Seymour says that brought in a caucus who were unable to work with each other.

“It was David Garrett and his misdemeanours, and Rodney was bullying Heather [Roy] and Heather was bullying Rodney, and good old Rog [Sir Roger Douglas] was sitting in the background, disheartened with the lack of progress...it really was a rough time.”

Follow it up with Brash’s “politically disastrous” takeover in 2011, and his successor John Banks’ conviction for filing a false electoral return (later overturned on appeal), and Seymour says there is more than enough to explain the party’s predicament.

His strategy to revitalise ACT has included pitching himself as “the country’s only millennial party leader” - undermined somewhat by the rise of Jacinda Ardern - and focusing on issues of particular interest to young Kiwis, such as housing and the environment.

Seymour argues fears about the housing market are core ACT, citing over-regulation and state monopolies on infrastructure as the major failing in public policy today.

Although the Government has held back on drastic changes when it comes to housing, Seymour believes we are reaching a turning point.

“It just happens that millennials that have been most affected by that because they’re the ones at the stage of their life where they’d like to be buying a home and discover they’re three or four times more expensive than they might have otherwise been.”

He believes housing will be the single most important issue at the election, with concerns about immigration, inequality and other issues all manifesting from a lack of houses.

ACT’s solution, unsurprisingly, involves more significant RMA reforms and reduction of red tape.

Although the Government has so far held back on drastic changes, which Seymour attributes in part to high home ownership rates amongst National MPs, he believes we are reaching a turning point.

“People I doorknock in Epsom say things like, ‘Well I’m pretty happy that my house is worth $3 million, but I also realise that doesn’t actually help me because if I sold it I’d just have to buy another $3 million house’.

“‘The real problem is I’ve got two kids and I don’t particularly want them to come and ask me for $6 million between them.’”

He wants a greater focus on the supply of land and infrastructure, in part by sharing the GST from construction with local councils for them to spend on the necessary foundations for new developments.

Have immigrants cover their costs

With immigration among the issues attracting the most attention this election, Seymour has sought to chart a course between National’s relaxed response and what some see as scaremongering from the opposition.

“We’re pro-immigration, we think immigration adds to New Zealand - the fact that we’ve got record arrival numbers and record low unemployment at the same time tells you that the traditional narrative of ‘those people come and steal our jobs’ isn’t quite right.”

Seymour says the issues about immigration that do exist can be solved not by “a socialist cap” on numbers, but ensuring that immigrants properly cover the costs of their arrival.

He also cites concerns about schools bearing the cost of children whose parents buy property then head back overseas to work, leaving their own parents behind.

“The traditional thing in the Epsom electorate is you come here, you buy a house for two or three [million dollars], you install your parents or kids here, return to your country of origin, pay tax to a foreign government, meanwhile your parents are in A&E every second day and your kids are attending some of the best schools in the world.”

His solution would involve better data sharing between Inland Revenue and schools, charging international fees to those whose parents haven’t been NZ tax residents for three years and a requirement that a migrant’s parents have health insurance and retirement savings, while he also suggested the Government implement a “drop-dead date” for building consents in school zones.

“You can build as many apartments as you like but they don’t come with the right to attend a school.”

The Government’s response? “Too radical, like most of my suggestions.”

NZ First 'a drain on our country'

Despite that, he’s keen to remain with National, having agreed a deal to help him hold onto his Epsom electorate.

Seymour cites Bill English as the politician he most admires, describing the Prime Minister as “one of the very few that has a conscientious approach to making public policy better”.

“His party has let him down in that regard, he’s been really pulled into the National Party’s conservatism, but I think Bill with the right support does want to reform the housing market, he does want to reform education, he does want to make social services and welfare better.”

That support isn’t unequivocal: Seymour won’t be part of a National-led government that involves NZ First, not pulling his punches despite the increasing likelihood the party will hold the balance of power after September 23.

“They are racist, they are a drain on our country...I think the danger is people think, ‘Well the guy’s a bit of fun when he’s in opposition’, but look, giving power to Winston Peters is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys.”

That could mean giving up the perks of government, and Seymour has unfinished business.

As parliamentary undersecretary to the Education Minister, he has overseen the rollout of charter schools and wants to do more work on the “ticking time bomb” that is the education system.

“It’s not because of the top end which is fantastic, the Auckland Grammars and Epsom Girls’ Grammars and Rangitoto College, that’s all great - it’s the bottom end where kids are being consigned to a life of futility in the 21st century.”

A three-phase plan

Seymour turned down a ministerial role so his End of Life Choice Bill on euthanasia could remain in the members’ ballot - it has since been drawn - and says a warrant could appeal if it was the right role.

“Ultimately the purpose of getting into government is to make the world a better place, so if they said, ‘We’d like you to be the Minister of Education and you can roll out the charter philosophy across the whole system,’ we’d say yeah that's worth doing.”

He has no desire to be a parliamentary “lifer”, spending decades in the House as some MPs do: “I don’t think that’s healthy for me or for Parliament.”

Instead, voters willing, he has a three-term exit plan.

Phase one has been about Seymour himself getting established; learning standing orders, the difference between a committee stage and select committee stage of legislation, generally getting to grips with Parliament.

The second phase, at this election, involves returning other ACT MPs and relieving Seymour of the burden of being a solo act.

“We have to start to rebuild a caucus culture and ACT brand that's bigger than one person.”

Then in 2020 comes the ultimate ambition: to have ACT again break the five per cent threshold and end its reliance on the whims of National in Epsom.

It’s ambitious in the extreme, particularly when the party is still polling below one per cent and highly unlikely to bring in new MPs, and Seymour himself acknowledges it’s reliant on a number of contingencies.

“Things don't always go as planned: maybe I ended up spending another three years, maybe another three after that.”

Seymour will hope he doesn’t have to make his party’s climb alone.