Act leader David Seymour on drama, politics and staying cool

by Clare de Lore / 07 September, 2017
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David Seymour. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images/Listener illustration

The launch of Act leader David Seymour’s book went virtually unnoticed as political dramas eclipsed his effort to create a policy-driven election.

When David Seymour settled on August 5 for the launch of his book, Own Your Future: A Liberal Vision for New Zealand in 2017, it seemed perfect timing for a politician intent on putting policy to the fore in the election campaign. Seven weeks from polling day should have given the Epsom MP and Act leader plenty of opportunities for valuable media coverage.

The carefully chosen timing was blown out of the water when Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei admitted committing benefit fraud, with the controversy directly or indirectly taking down Labour leader Andrew Little as well as Turei herself and two of her fellow Green MPs. Amid the changing political fortunes that followed, United Future leader Peter Dunne also decided to quit. Seymour is disappointed his book’s launch was overshadowed, but he joined in the calls for Turei to go and managed to insert a few last-minute pages on the unfolding drama just before the printing presses – and Turei’s head – rolled.

Seymour has been an MP in the strategically important Epsom electorate for three years and seems secure in the seat – confident enough of his support to break the rules and call New Zealand First MP Richard Prosser “a f---ing idiot” over a policy stance. National’s voters show no signs of bucking their party’s directive to vote for Seymour as their local MP, to provide a support partner and extra vote.

The 34-year-old Aucklander was born in Palmerston North and went to boarding school in Auckland before studying engineering and philosophy at the University of Auckland. After graduating, Seymour worked for think tanks in Canada before returning to New Zealand and entering Parliament for Act in 2014.

I spoke to him on the day of Turei’s resignation, four days after his book was released.

Why did you fashion your manifesto as a book?

Imagine if every leader wrote such a book and the debate was about who has the best set of policy proposals? That would be very different and better than what we are having right now. You will notice, though, that my book has had almost no coverage in the past four days, but my critiques of Metiria Turei have been widely covered. The Herald article about my mum and my girlfriend got enormous attention. That is the way it goes, unfortunately.

You’ve been around long enough to know there is intense interest in politicians’ private lives.

I can understand people are voting for representatives and want to know what sort of person you are, but what affects people more is: do we have the infrastructure, funding and regulations structure that enable us to build houses we can afford in places we want to live? For anyone under the median age or median income, the answer is no. Can we provide people with an education that will extend them to the fullest extent of their powers? The answer is no for a substantial portion of our population.

Whose book or writings have most influenced your thoughts and philosophy?

Probably Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies. [Author] Michael King described it as the most important book ever to be written in New Zealand, which it may well be. It’s a deep dive into the case for individuals pursuing their own interests in a free society, as opposed to Plato’s demand that philosophers must rule and we should all be subsumed into some grand government scheme. That is a terrible way to live. Popper, were he in Parliament today, would have all the same observations about the underlying philosophy of most of my opponents’ schemes, which are based on the idea that there is a good way for you to live and we are the philosopher kings, so we will impose something upon you, whether it be the Greens’ views of what the right type of energy is, the Maori Party’s targets for us all to learn a certain language or New Zealand First’s view that we should have a certain set of cultural mores that precede New Zealand’s enrichment through immigration. We say we should live in a society where we are free to flourish in self-chosen ways.

With what limits?

There are conflicts between people that have to be resolved, so the obvious starting point is the Crimes Act. It’s basically a list of things that you can’t do to other people and their property, so I think that is very important. We have some environmental regulations that are very important. For example, the quota management system in fishing. If it wasn’t for that system or something like it, the trend from the 60s to the 80s would probably have continued and we would probably have no fish now. Those are important and I think it’s reasonable to pay into an insurance scheme that basically says you will get an education, some level of healthcare, income insurance and a retirement scheme, regardless of your means.

David Seymour. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images


Aside from Popper’s, what other books have been important to you?

It is hard to go past Henry Hazlitt’s classic Economics in One Lesson. It’s a bit dated – written in 1945 – but it is surprising how much of it is still relevant and the lesson is very simple. The good economist looks at the long-run effects on all groups; the bad economist looks at the short-run effects on only some groups. If we conducted the election even with just that insight, we would have a very different contest.

What have you read recently?

I turned 34 in June and a close friend gave me Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by JD Vance. It’s the story of the Appalachian Mountains in the US and why people there turned to Donald Trump over a series of decades. They don’t have a particular lack of resources – they are one of the wealthiest civilisations that has ever existed on Earth – but they seem to have a real poverty of spirit. Part of that problem is that people just don’t want to work. He talks, for instance, about a guy who got offered a fairly well-paying job but spent 45 minutes in the bathroom four times a day because he was work-shy. He gets into the substance abuse, the family breakdown; it is fascinating.

Any parallels with New Zealand?

No, I don’t think there are a lot of parallels. Our welfare state has not been as pernicious as what has happened in the US. The irony is that in per-capita terms the US, despite its reputation, has more government expenditure than New Zealand has. I think we are in a relatively good space.

Your favourite author?

Alan Duff. I have read six of his books over the years and I spent a day with him once. Alan as a writer – aside from his style, which I think is fantastic – has courage in taking on hard topics. It’s commendable and interesting that in terms of books sold and influence on New Zealand, he has got to be our greatest living author – or at least close to it. He has never been invited to speak at a university and that says volumes about what it takes to shake up the Establishment.

How do you unwind during the campaign?

I generally catch up with close friends, such as my school friends, once a week, usually two at a time, because they are all busy. That has been very important, as it keeps me anchored. A lot of them say they support me, even though they may not be natural Act voters, because they say my basic approach and philosophy haven’t changed in 15 years.

What you would prefer to be a contest of ideas has more than ever focused on individuals. One Labour leader has gone and the Greens have lost a co-leader. It’s been more dramatic than anyone could have imagined, hasn’t it?

Yep, and my strategy is just to stay cool. At this rate, I could probably be Prime Minister by the time the election rolls round. It is such an odd business. If you had told me two weeks ago that Jacinda Ardern would be the Labour Party leader and that the Green Party would have had defections and dissent, I would have said you were mad, but it’s exactly what is happening. Who would want to bet on what might happen in the last weeks of the campaign?

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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