“Four times in New Zealand history, there’s been quite significant turning points,” says David Seymour. He takes a miniature chocolate bar from the bowl in front of him and twirls it on the table, listing them off: the Treaty of Waitangi, marking the beginning of the nation. New Zealand granting universal suffrage, the first country in the world to do so. The creation of the current, party-based political system. And the free-market reforms brought in by the Labour government in the 1980s.
“I just make the point that … in my view, there’s never been reform from the right.”
Seymour, the leader of Act New Zealand, hopes that in less than a month that will change and the country will see its first drastic swivel propelled by the right wing of its parliament. Act, the once-minuscule, sub-1% libertarian party now polling about 10%, has risen to become a decisive force in the looming October election. If current polling holds, it hopes to usher in New Zealand’s most rightwing-reformist government in decades.
Touting a platform of welfare and government spending cuts, crime crackdowns and opposition to Indigenous “co-governance” reforms, Act has risen to be New Zealand’s third-largest political party, with 10 MPs in parliament. It is likely to hold significant leverage in any centre-right coalition, which current polling projects will form the country’s next government.
“We do intend to use that power,” Seymour says.
This month, Seymour threatened his party might not accept a usual coalition deal with National if the larger party does not agree to implement enough of Act’s policies. Instead, he told reporters, he might propose an arrangement to approve spending and laws on a case-by-case basis. It signalled a boost in confidence for Act, which once relied upon National’s tacit support for Seymour’s electorate seat to remain in parliament.
Comeback from political oblivion
Just five years ago, the idea of a New Zealand government with such a dominant Act flavour would have seemed laughable. Seymour took the helm of the party in 2014, after what he calls “a few really reprehensible scandals”. Act had survived an MP’s disgraced resignation for using the name of a dead child to get a fraudulent passport, and a party leader who said incestuous marriages between consenting adults should be legal. While it retained a single electorate seat in parliament, the party kept hitting new polling lows: 0.69% in the 2014 election, and 0.5% in 2017. Then in 2018, a poll put Act on 0.1%: political oblivion. “That was pretty bad,” Seymour says.
The party’s change in fortune has been rapid and substantial. Some polls forecast the centre-right National party could rule alongside Act alone, while others suggest it would need to include a third coalition partner. Act has been consistently polling between 10% and 13%, a result that could place up to 17 of its MPs into parliament, alongside National’s 44.
The pair have formed coalitions in the past, but Act has never been such a dominant player in those negotiations, or made up such a substantial chunk of a governing coalition in which its members could hold a number of ministerial positions. In former coalitions, “with no authentic leverage, the ability to really have much influence was pretty limited,” Seymour says. “This would be quite a different prospect.”
He says Act will focus that leverage on three priorities: significant cuts to government welfare, spending and regulation. Tougher criminal sentences and more people in prison. Lastly, reform on Indigenous issues – including a referendum on the legal status of the Treaty of Waitangi, which provides a framework for the relationship between Māori and the crown – and an end to “co-governance” with Māori.
A precipitous rise
Seymour tracks the beginning of the party’s renaissance not to a speech or policy announcement, but to his appearance on reality television show Dancing with the Stars, which gained him a national following for consistently dire dance performances, including one where he twerked wearing a leotard.
“While people will laugh, going on Dancing with the Stars allowed me to be seen for who I was by a large group of people,” he says. “Everybody knew that I was a terrible dancer. And I was kind of in on the joke.”
His success in introducing euthanasia laws via referendum helped push him into the mainstream, and demonstrated he could push policy over the line. He credits, too, the rise in profile that came after the Christchurch terrorist attack, when a white supremacist gunman killed 51 people at two mosques. Seymour was alone in opposing gun control reforms to ban semi-automatic weapons – winning enduring support from gun-rights activists, and helping to brand him as a counterweight in a political era dominated by the former prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s popularity.
Those choices have ultimately served Seymour well, says Lara Greaves, an associate professor of political science at Victoria University. “He’s objectively, even for people who disagree with him, a good politician who is good at politics,” Greaves says.
“Rocketing up in the polls from being a one-man band to having what will probably be a good chunk of cabinet … that’s good political skills by any measure.”
As the pandemic wore on, Ardern’s popularity began to wane, and Seymour’s criticism of the Covid response drew in new followers – New Zealanders who were dissatisfied with lockdowns or sceptical of vaccination mandates. Seymour maintains that vaccines are safe and effective, but mandates making them compulsory in some workplaces were wrong.
Act’s rise has also been achieved by a concerted effort to keep control of the party’s fast-growing base of MPs and candidates. By the end of August, one candidate had been ousted for comparing New Zealand’s Covid response to the concentration camps, another stepped down after calling Covid “mass hysteria”, and a third apologised for claiming drowning deaths were caused by vaccination side-effects.
In late August, MP Mark Cameron – who will probably re-enter parliament and may gain a ministerial position – was in the headlines for social media posts from before he became an MP. Cameron had said climate change was concocted by “global warming nutjobs” and called Ardern a “feckless wench”, “pea brained halfwit” and “vacuous teenager”. He apologised for the statements, but remains an MP. Seymour says his party is not a port of call for those who hold anti-vaccine, anti-government or anti-science beliefs. “The comments you’re referring to, they’re all made in a very different time from where we are now. This was … late 2021, early 2022.”
He says his commentary around vaccination has been “extremely orthodox … However, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we can find a way to better accommodate people with … views I may disagree with.”
New Zealand ‘disillusioned’
The growing popularity of Seymour and his party is also part of a trend in New Zealand politics, where dissatisfaction with the two major parties is boosting support on the fringes. For the first time in about two decades, polling indicates, New Zealand’s two largest centrist parties are claiming less than 70% of the vote: that has been redistributed to smaller parties on the left and right, contributing to polling bumps for the Greens, the Māori party and the New Zealand First party, which disappeared from parliament at the last election and has made a recent comeback.
“What’s surprising is that National is not doing much better than it is,” the associate professor of politics at the University of Otago, Brian Roper, says. He adds that when the National party leader, Christopher Luxon, has lagged in preferred prime minister polling, Seymour has risen in part to fill that vacuum.
His party’s calls for a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi have put debates over race at the centre of the election campaign. Some critics – including the Māori party – say that debate has become increasingly inflammatory. Seymour says the issue of ethnicity and Indigenous rights is “vexed” but defends his party’s discussion of the subject.
“It would be worse not to talk about it.”
Seymour returns to reflect on seismic shifts in New Zealand’s politics. With the country facing heavy cost-of-living pressures and record-low support for the two mainstream parties, he believes the time is ripe for another.
“Just look at the right direction, wrong direction data,” he says, referring to surveys on New Zealanders’ views of the country’s trajectory.
“Every poll now has massively net negative figures there,” he says. “New Zealand is pretty disillusioned.”
Additional reporting by Charlotte Graham-McLay and Serena Solomon