Epsom’s singularity

by Guyon Espiner / 29 January, 2015
Act’s baby MP David Seymour has a habit of straying from the script. Now he’s been thrust into the RMA reform limelight.
David Seymour
Parliamentary newbie: David Seymour sporting Movember facial hair. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Something odd has happened to Act. Someone odd has happened to Act. Yes, David Seymour is odd, in a more interesting and substantial way than I had expected, but he’s also surprisingly un-Act-like.

Actually that is wrong. He does espouse Act’s core philosophies and values. What makes him different is exactly that. Unlike his predecessors, he’s resisting populist dog-whistle politics and quietly jettisoning the stuff that made Act unnecessarily ugly.

The change is most striking on Maori issues. “I reject, for example, having a newspaper advertisement that says, ‘Sick of the Maorification of Everything?’ That was disgraceful. People like me considered leaving the party in 2011 when that ad came out and we will never be associated with the people who authored that ever again.”

Seymour has similar disdain for the way Jamie Whyte played the race card in the 2014 election, likening “Maori privilege” to that of the French aristocracy. “The French aristocracy comparison was completely unnecessary – completely over the top,” Seymour says.

Whereas Whyte and other Act leaders have used the growing legal and political power of Maori to try to frighten European New Zealanders, Seymour, who has spent five of the past seven years in Canada, is proud of our race relations. “We are so harmonious. If you want a dirty secret, go and ask Canada about its relationship with its indigenous people,” he says. “We have achieved a pretty harmonious society for the amount of diversity we have in New Zealand. Anywhere else in the world there would be people firebombing each other.”

He even claims to have Maori heritage, although he seems only partially convinced by his own lineage. He says the father of his “triple great grandmother” was a chief and Treaty of Waitangi signatory. “That might sound a little bit try-hard but it is true,” he says. “I was talking about this with my aunt – my mum’s sister through whom this line comes – and we were saying when these kinds of political issues, around the role of the Treaty and the role of Maori [come up], there is a little subconscious voice saying, ‘You are on both sides of this.’”

And then the real sacrilege for die-hard Act supporters: Seymour insults God, aka Sir Roger Douglas. He’s grateful the party’s first leader attended his maiden speech but extends this backhanded compliment: “I admire Roger immensely for what he did in the 1980s. I do think that he has remained fixated on the challenges we faced in 1988-9, or whenever it was that David Lange wanted the cup of tea, and that Act has to evolve somewhat.” Seymour even accepts man-made climate change – sort of – although he is a bit sceptical about some of the modelling. Even so, some of the old Act crowd must be asking, “Who the hell is this guy?”

David Seymour, John Key
Arriving at Parliament. Photo/Getty Images

Seymour seems to have a pretty strong sense of who he is. It takes time to appreciate this about him because he has a perpetually bewildered look. At first you think, well, he’s 31 – which nowadays only just qualifies you to have left home – and finds himself thrust beyond his station.

One minute, he was minding his own business doing something dreadfully dull at a Canadian think-tank. The next, he was the only Act MP in Parliament. Not only does he wind up an MP, but he also becomes the leader of the Act Party and a parliamentary under-secretary to boot.

But he has substance, even if it is a little raw and unformed. Playing back his voice on tape, I can hear the halting, repressed mania and volatile intelligence of a young Richard Prebble, Douglas’s successor as Act leader. Seymour’s confidence belies his years and he has a dry, self-deprecating wit. He’ll need some black humour if he is to rebuild Act, a once-influential party of nine MPs reduced to a lonely, discredited, embarrassment to the giants who built it.

Seymour has faced Herculean tasks before. He stood for Parliament in Mt Albert against Helen Clark at the height of her powers in 2005. He was 22. He got 746 votes. She got 20,918. “I was closing in on her in the final weeks. I was chipping away at her majority,” he says, deadpan.

Hang on. At 22 he stood for the Act Party. And this hysterical seriousness started well before that. “I was a serious young chap and used to really worry about things. I gave my first political speech at Manu Primary School in Whangarei about why we should have an aluminium can recycling centre in our school.”

He was six years old. “I recognise that is unusual,” he says, superfluously. “As a teenager, I was probably depressed, if you were going to be clinical about it, because I wanted to have a prosperous life. One of the first things I remember my dad did for my brother and me is make us, from scratch, a replica Ferrari Formula One car. Wanting a Ferrari doesn’t square very well with wanting to be a good environmental custodian and wanting to have a fairly egalitarian society – if you believe that wealth is a zero sum game.”

The story, which initially sounds like a tangential, personal anecdote, ends with him revealing his entire political philosophy. “I believed that if I became wealthy, other people would have to be poor, and that if lots of people were to become wealthy it would come at the cost of tremendous environmental degradation. I no longer believe that.”

David Seymour with car
David Seymour and his DIY sports car.

So that was it. The resolution – in his mind – of that problem is the basis of his politics. He believes wealth is created rather than taken from others. Agree with him or not, it is rare to find a young politician with such crystallised ideas. He went on to build a replica Lotus sports car, which he still has. It works. He built it from scratch. He studied engineering and philosophy at the University of Auckland and it seems that in his mind they are strongly linked.

Seymour is no stranger to politics. He joined Act in 2001 and worked as a ministerial adviser to John Banks. But finding himself in the debating chamber came as a shock. “On TV it looks huge. Traditionally it is two-and-a-half sword lengths between the benches and so your opponents are physically very close. People are calling me David See-less. No one has called me that for 20 years. No one over 12 has ever called me David See-less before.” Who is doing it now? “Oh,” he says wearily, “a near-septuagenarian leader of a populist, nationalist party.” That would be Winston Peters.

As Act’s sole MP, he admits he went into coalition negotiations with National, which had an absolute majority that was subsequently nixed by special votes, lacking leverage. He does, though, seem to have underplayed his hand over National’s proposed Resource Management Act reforms. With United Future’s Peter Dunne opposing the changes, Seymour looks likely to have the casting vote on their passage.

Yet he pledged his support before Environment Minister Nick Smith even announced the plan – and despite not being consulted in advance. He could have expected to have been, especially given his role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister for Regulatory Reform. Oddly, this gets him fired up. “Regulation, oh my god – we’ve got problems,” he says excitedly. Even here, though, he’ll disappoint ravenous Act supporters. Whereas Act used to talk about a bonfire of regulations and regarded red tape like a monster in a Stephen King story, Seymour doesn’t think it’s about getting rid of regulations so much as changing the culture, whatever the culture of regulation might be.

Of course Seymour’s main work stream will be as Parliamentary Undersecretary to the Minister of Education, where he will push ahead with Act’s charter school policy, so reviled by the teacher unions. He claims the policy is the best way to deliver for disadvantaged students – taking Remuera education to Manurewa, as he likes to put it. Does he know anything about being poor? Not a lot, he concedes, but adds that a formative experience was going to Raumanga Middle School, a decile-one school in Whangarei, closed long ago due to white flight. He remembers kids roaming in and out and safety and order being priorities well ahead of education. “The teacher would get the better-behaved kids, which being a geek I was one of, and he’d let us just do a project for a whole week to keep us out of his hair.”

David Seymour, Niagara Falls
At Niagra Falls.

Seymour – again, oddly for an Act leader – raises inequality as a major concern. “I believe a society has to have a certain amount of equality of opportunity to be cohesive,” he says. Housing affordability is the most obvious sign of that slipping away. His group of friends, who like him went to well-heeled Auckland Grammar School, are doctors, engineers and lawyers.

“They are successful professionals but they have serious challenges buying homes, and of the ones that have, most have done so with parental assistance. I don’t expect to own a home in the next decade,” he says. He rents in Remuera (cue the violins), making the point that if on a salary of $150,000 he can’t buy a house in central Auckland, what hope is there for other aspiring young home owners?

“I am unusual in several ways,” he says, meaning in his capacity as a first-home buyer, but the remark could be interpreted more broadly. Twice in the past four years he has taken a year off work to campaign. His “free-market crusade”, as he calls it has, ironically, cost him dearly. His think-tank work has been interesting but hardly financially lucrative. “I have been very indulgent, which is why I am in the position I am in, and now my job security – well, it’s not bad for three years and then you have a very public test. So I wouldn’t sign me a mortgage.”

His dad, an electrical engineer, bought a house at 19. But it’s Mum he wants to talk about. She died just short of her 50th birthday. David was 24. His mother had polio as an infant in Dargaville in the 1950s. She always told him that she wasn’t expected to live. Then she wasn’t expected to have children. Then she wasn’t expected to go to university. Then she wasn’t expected to work. She defied all that and became Northland District Health Board’s chief pharmacist. “That story is quite important to me in terms of individual determination.”

Seymour is a serious young man who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is already thinking about his legacy – “I want to be remembered as a good person” – but deflates himself during a brief foray into ethics. “Should you work on the basis that you treat other people as you would want to be treated? Well, probably not, because not everyone wants to be treated like a 31-year-old libertarian.”

What does a young libertarian do for fun? He likes to play the guitar. Big nights on the turps are largely a thing of the past but he loves craft beer. “I can’t stand the pseudo ones that the big industries produce,” he says, scraping another flake of paint off Act’s image as the fat cats’ party. He’s single. There is no girlfriend. “I’ve now moved from New Zealand to Canada to New Zealand to Canada and back to New Zealand, each time either for an election campaign or a political job,” he says. “I’ve lost four relationships, one of which lasted two-and-a-half years, and another lasted a bit over a year. They were quite serious relationships that unfortunately I have lost by putting my career first.”

And so here he is. A singular man. The odd man out in a caucus of one. He’s the leader of a party reviled for worshipping money who is not exactly broke but nor is he rich. “I still want the Ferrari. But it’s not going to happen. Not in this job.”

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