Nearly 30 years ago, Roger Douglas was on the verge of a three-year stint as the leader of the newly formed Act party. Then Richard Prebble had eight years as the Act boss — and he was followed in that role by Rodney Hide, Don Brash, John Banks and Jamie Whyte, until David Seymour stepped up in 2014.
David (aged 40) is still in charge, and he’s now heading a team of 11 Act MPs, a group substantial enough for Christopher Luxon, as the National Party leader, and Winston Peters (New Zealand First) to be especially courteous and accommodating as they go about putting together a government for the next three years. Act first made it into parliament in 1996, with eight MPs — and this year’s election has been its most successful outing so far.
This week, Dale Husband caught up with the Act leader, to find out more about who he is and what makes him tick.
Tēnā koe, David. I appreciate you making time for this kōrero when you’ve got so much on your plate. I know you as David Seymour, but I suspect that there could be a middle name as well.
Yes, I do have a middle name. It’s Breen, and that came from an Irish singer who was popular when my dad was born. So his first name is Breen. And my full name goes back to my dad’s family, who are mainly English, and who settled in the Manawatū early last century. My dad grew up there, in Feilding.
My mum’s family were a mix of the McKays and the Faithfuls. My maternal grandmother’s McKay family came to New Zealand at the beginning of last century. They arrived in Gisborne in about 1907. And the Faithfuls, on my mum’s dad’s side, lived in the Dargaville area.
The Faithfuls were related to descendants of Maraea Te Inutoto from Waimate North. She was a high-status member of Ngāti Rehia. We understand that she and her husband Stephen Wrathall settled near Taipa. She’s my great-great-great-grandmother. That’s my Māori whakapapa.
My mum and dad met in Trentham in the late 1970s. Mum (Victoria) was there studying to be a pharmacist, and Dad was a cadet with the New Zealand Electrical Department. They settled in Palmerston North where I was born, but they eventually moved back to the north where my mum’s family comes from.
I have two brothers — Mark and Alexander. My mum unfortunately is no longer with us. She died in 2007. My dad still lives in Whangārei. One of my brothers just returned there, and the other one lives in Tauranga. Our wider family is mostly in the north, or Auckland, and some are in Australia.
Tēnā koe. Where did you do your schooling, David?
I went to school in Whangārei. I went to a decile 1 intermediate, Whangarei Intermediate School, then to a decile 10 high school, Auckland Grammar. I boarded at Tibbs House, a Grammar hostel. Then, I studied arts, philosophy, and electrical engineering at the University of Auckland before I did my OE in Canada for five years in my 20s.
I see that you ended up following in your dad’s footsteps with electrical and electronic sort of mahi.
Well, my dad studied engineering or electrical subjects through the New Zealand Electricity Department, and my mum’s family were also electrical contractors. So, on both sides of my family, people seem to be interested in electricity. But I always was interested in arts and history and philosophy, so I did a BA as well, so that my full name would be David Seymour B-A-B-E.
Did you have much contact with things Māori as you were growing up?
Yeah. I went to a school (Raumanga Middle School) where probably most of the students were Māori — and I grew up in Northland, which has a higher proportion of Māori than most other parts of the country. So, I was at ease in a Māori world, or at least in a mixed Māori and Pākehā world.
There are always people who say I’m not a proper Māori because I don’t go to a marae. Well, the way I look at it, some people have a religious faith but don’t necessarily go to church every Sunday. And I don’t think it’s right to tell people they’re wrong about their identity because they don’t live it the same way that you do. I think we need to be a bit more accepting of people, and a bit more accepting of difference.
When you were growing up, did you cross paths with any whānau Māori from “Struggle Street”?
Well, I did notice that Māori, on average, are disadvantaged. But I’ll make a couple of points. One is that it’s not only Māori who are disadvantaged. There are also non-Māori who are disadvantaged economically and socially. And some people live with a disability that makes their life harder for them.
And the second is that not all Māori are disadvantaged. Growing up in Northland, I’d see Māori who were extremely successful and don’t face much disadvantage at all.
Also, I think that, when people say Māori are disadvantaged, that does a disservice to non-Māori who face the same challenges. So, I don’t think we should be looking at disadvantage and categorising people according to race.
The number one thing that I’m opposed to is the thinking that there’s a Māori world or a Māori way of thinking. Well, for some people there might be, but it doesn’t make you any less Māori if you don’t subscribe to that worldview. And it’s not helpful if your true commitment is to address disadvantage for all people. Disadvantage and Māori are not one and the same.
What are your feelings about the Treaty? Has its promise been fulfilled?
Well, clearly the Treaty has been breached, and the most obvious are the breaches of Article 2. People lost their rangatiratanga and their land. And the Treaty settlement process, though imperfect, has been a very good attempt to mend the obvious breaches.
There’s a wider question of what role the chiefs thought they’d have in the government of New Zealand. Some people may argue that they thought they’d have Queen Victoria as the new paramount chief of New Zealand.
Others would say that they probably didn’t really think the British Crown would play much of a role in their lives at all, that they’d carry on with self-determination and very little would change except that the Crown would protect them from the French and the settlers, and perhaps keep law and order with other hapū and iwi, as well.
I think, on balance, there was some misunderstanding, but what’s clear is that there’s no future for New Zealand if it’s going to be a country where tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti have different rights and duties.
I think we need to place more weight on Article 3, which said that all people, not just Māori, would have the same rights and duties.
Now, there’s a group of people who don’t want to have that debate, because they’re quite happy with the way that the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal and the public service have interpreted the Treaty over the past 40 years.
I think New Zealand does need to have that debate, because the way the Treaty is currently interpreted is increasingly divisive — and I agree with Dame Anne Salmond who says that the Treaty would never have required the public sector to be split down the middle, and co-governed by two races. That’s a 1980s corporate interpretation of what the Treaty meant, whereas I think it meant that each person would have the same rights and duties as a citizen.
That debate needs to occur, even though there are some people who don’t want it exposed to any sunlight.
Do you think that kids growing up today have a level playing field?
No. Certainly not. But the disadvantage is not only for Māori — and it’s not for all Māori. And regardless of whether there’s a Treaty, we’ll still have to deal with disadvantage in New Zealand.
So, I would say that we’d be better to be dealing with disadvantage in a liberal democratic society where everyone has the same basic political rights — and then we can work on the problems of getting more homes built, getting kids more engaged with school, and connecting the remote, disadvantaged communities.
We need to ensure that New Zealand is a place where we have high-paying jobs, and we can afford good healthcare, and we have long and healthy lives. Those are challenges that don’t apply to just Māori or just Pākehā.
Who have you taken guidance from in your understanding of Māori history and the Treaty?
Well, I read a lot. I’ve read various histories. Claudia Orange, for instance. And Chris Finlayson’s recent book He Kupu Taurangi is very useful. I think Chris himself is a valuable person to talk to. And the long series of short essays that Dame Anne Salmond has had published on Newsroom over the past few years is very useful too.
So, I’ve read widely to understand the history of how we got to where we are — and I’ve also talked to a wide range of people over the years. Like the late Sir Toby Curtis. Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi, a very impressive woman, is another. I’ve been lucky to have talked with a lot of well-informed people over the years, but some of them probably don’t want to be identified.
What are some of the kaupapa that you’ve tabled in Act’s approach that might differ from what we’ve seen from other political parties?
Well, there’s the idea of tino rangatiratanga or self-determination at an individual or community level. And one of the best examples of tino rangatiratanga in recent political history has been kura hourua, or charter schools.
The idea that a group of individuals or a community could get together, create their own school, and then contract with the Crown to get a share of the education funding — well, nobody’s done anything like that, that I can think of in recent times.
The Labour government was mostly interested in centralising power to Wellington. But we believe in the opposite — and, as a general rule, in personal self-determination and decentralisation.
How do you feel about people who say you want to rewrite the Treaty? And who are angry that you want to dismantle Māori initiatives, including Te Aka Whai Ora — to the point of questioning your Māoriness?
Well, it’s mainly disappointing, because when people make those personal attacks, and spread misinformation about my position, they’re really saying they don’t want to have a rational debate about the future.
You might ask yourself, if you don’t want to have a rational debate about the future, then why are you in politics? The whole point of politics is that it’s a meeting to exchange ideas and find a way forward. But what you’ve got is a group of people who, in effect, say: No, I don’t want to debate the merits of your idea. I just want to attack you, personally.
Well, that’s disappointing. But they’re doing something else. They’re losing the opportunity to persuade other people to come to their point of view. So, I just keep working away to persuade people that self-determination at an individual level is consistent with te ao Māori. That it’s good for Māori — and good for all of New Zealand.
You sound like a pretty confident debater, and as if you’re pretty confident in your political viewpoints. Were you a debater through your young years?
No, I wasn’t. I joined the university debating club for a year, mainly in the hope that I’d meet girls who were, at that time, pretty hard to find at the electrical engineering class. And I wasn’t very successful as a debater, but I think I’ve got better over the years.
Tēnā koe. How is your love life?
Fair enough. Do you play an instrument, David? Are you musical? Do you have some hobbies that help keep you fresh?
Well, I started taking guitar lessons in 1993. I’ve just celebrated 30 years of being completely hopeless at playing that instrument. I just don’t have a musical ear. But I’ve still got a guitar in my living room because hope springs eternal.
I try to spend some time working on my car, going for a walk, heading out to the beach. Just ordinary, boring ways that many other New Zealanders use to relax.
What sort of wheels have you got in your garage?
A Lotus 7 replica. I built it myself, back when I was at high school and university. I built it from scratch, by stitching together a whole lot of steel tubes with an old arc-welder. But it goes. And it’s all legal, too.
Good on you. In te ao Māori, humour is an important asset, and I’ve noticed you making use of it at times. But some of your comments aren’t always well received, are they? For instance, when you said you fantasised about sending Guy Fawkes over to the Ministry of Pacific Peoples.
Well, humour is important. It’s important in every culture, with the possible exception of Germany. But I think it’s useful. If you look at that Guy Fawkes comment — well, that’s a comment I’ve made about many government departments over a long period of time. It was really a reaction to being frustrated about waste.
Remember that, at that time, the Ministry for Pacific Peoples had spent $40,000 on a farewell party. And I was just reflecting the frustration that many people have with endless government waste that you can’t control.
I saw you on Dancing with the Stars, and I have to admit that I didn’t think your dancing was that hot. But I did respect your willingness to get in there and raise money for charities. Any regrets?
No regrets. It was very good fun. And you’ve got to remember, I was asked to go on there, late in 2017, and we’d just had Act’s worst ever result, so I really had nothing left to lose. And I just wondered: What would I regret more? Participating in a live televised celebrity dancing competition? Or not participating in a live televised celebrity dancing competition?
In the end, I decided I’d regret it more if I didn’t do it. So, I did it. I think it was a good opportunity because, I agree, my dancing was horrendous. However, it also allowed me to show that I was someone who had a good sense of humour and could take on adversity week after week. And it grew a big following for me, so that was very helpful.
You were the lone wolf out there. How do you feel when you think back to those days when you were on stage solo, and now have a substantial team that can advance the interests of the party?
Yeah, I’m really grateful for all the people that have made Act’s growth possible. All the voters, the volunteers, the candidates, the people who’ve donated their money, put signs on fences. AlI that.
It’s pretty cool that the party has grown, but it’s really about the ideas. Politics is filled with people who want to centralise power, want to run your life better than you can, want to spend your money better than you can.
Act is the only party consistently saying: “No. While people make bad decisions, people make better decisions for themselves than other people do for them. Therefore, we should return more choices to the individual person.”
That, more than anything else, is what drew me to Act. And it’s drawn a lot more people to Act, as well.
When you look at influential politicians who’ve helped to shape your political views, David, who would you acknowledge?
Well, you have to acknowledge Sir Roger Douglas. Roger did a huge amount to decentralise power and create opportunity for people — people who mainly didn’t have much opportunity. They had the most to gain.
The deregulation of the economy was very good for women. Women were able to advance much more rapidly than they would have if the economy had remained a closed shop with rigid labour laws and union hierarchies and all the rest. New Zealand did well out of deregulating, to give more opportunity to people who were disadvantaged.
Also, I admire what Richard Prebble did. Deregulating the radio waves made the iwi radio network possible.
You’re being criticised for suggesting now that we have a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi. What’s your response?
A lot of the critics haven’t taken the time to understand what we’re proposing. The Treaty will never go away, and it will always say exactly what it says. What we’re suggesting is simply that parliament should define the principles of the Treaty. I think parliament should define them — and I think that everybody should be involved in signing off what they mean.
That would be a positive discussion for New Zealand to have. Why would anyone oppose that? It seems to me that there are some people who are afraid to see the Treaty principles being open to some sunlight, because they’ve largely been decided behind closed doors by the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal, and the public service.
We just think that, if five million of us have to live here under a set of rules, then we should all get to ratify those rules.
When I asked you to mention politicians who’ve influenced you, the politicians you mentioned were from the Act party. Are there some from other parties, or even other countries, who you’ve respected?
I’m a big admirer of Margaret Thatcher, who became the UK prime minister in 1979 and carried out a big programme of reforms. Then, the other person I’d mention is Chris Finlayson who did quite a good job with Treaty settlements. He’s been an impressive operator.
What personality similarities do you see between you and Winston Peters?
We have very little in common. We’re motivated by quite different things. I got offered the chance to become a minister and turned it down to pass the End of Life Choice Act. By contrast, he seems to be primarily motivated by getting the status, rather than doing the mahi.
Let’s turn now to te reo Māori, David. Have you been doing some work on the language?
I’ve tried taking lessons. In fact, I had a tutor for a year. I did French for two years as well, and I was even worse at that. I’ve just never been able to pick it up.
Growing up in the north has helped with my pronunciation, because there’s a lot of reo speakers around. I’d like to get better but, based on my attempts to learn both French and Māori so far, I don’t hold great hope. I just don’t think it’s one of the things I’m going to do well at.
Do you love politics enough to consider yourself a career politician?
No, I’ve always thought being a politician is just something to do in order to get better policies for New Zealand. If I didn’t have to do it, if there was another way, I would. My goal is to make the Act party much bigger than me so that, when I leave, it carries on without me. That’s my real goal.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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