Act is about to hit 25 years in Parliament, a year on from its most successful election, jumping from one to 10 MPs. Michael Neilson speaks to the party – both past and present – about how a liberal party founded on individualism has stayed together so long, and why leader David Seymour says its members are focused on addressing inequities.
The Act party has been on a steep but steady rise, and the breadth of David Seymour's smile indicates how hard he finds it not to let everyone know.
Polls over the past few months have shown a united Act edge ever-closer to its historical partner on the right, National, which looks, comparatively, in disarray.
Seymour has even overtaken National Party leader Judith Collins as preferred Prime Minister.
"There is no reason why we can't keep this up," Seymour tells the Herald on Sunday, also refusing to rule out any prime ministerial ambitions, one day.
But the year hasn't been without controversy. The party's focus on what it calls "race-based" and "separatist" government agendas around addressing inequities for Māori and impacts of colonisation have themselves drawn accusations of racism and dog-whistle politics.
Act's meteoric rise began during the last parliamentary term, culminating in a lonesome Seymour being joined by nine new MPs after the last election.
The increase in numbers heralded a diverse range of MPs, with backgrounds from social development to firearms advocacy - many new even to the idea of politics, bringing variances to the classic liberal and individualist approach of the party.
Seymour accepts the party has broadened its appeal, but rejects any suggestion its core values have changed.
He also rejects suggestions its growth is based on National's demise, though he accepts that party's misfortunes may have helped, a little.
Instead, Seymour says, there has been increasing dissatisfaction from voters with the Government's "terribly ineffective social services", coupled with desire for "good policy".
Seymour has also criticised the vaccination rollout, including the slow acquisition of vaccines and the government-centric approach to distribution.
Deputy leader Brooke van Velden has put the Government under pressure over mental health funding, Pharmac, and housing issues.
Seymour has also been impressing business leaders, this week topping the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom survey.
It is 25 years since the party first came into Parliament under former leader Richard Prebble, taking out the Wellington Central seat in 1996 and just over 6 per cent of the nationwide party vote.
Former Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas and former National politician Derek Quigley founded Act in 1993 as a liberal party, focused on small government and free market principles, along with promoting individual freedom and personal responsibility.
When asked how he thinks this latest batch of MPs were faring, Prebble says they're "very well-disciplined".
"A classic problem liberal parties face is they believe in individual choice, and parties are the antithesis of that.
"It is why attempts to form liberal parties around the world often fail, and why I am overwhelmingly pleased to see it has lasted 25 years."
When Prebble first held the reins, he had seven list MPs. The next term he had eight, then nine.
Support plummeted to two seats in 2005, the year that saw the historic beginning of Act's hold on the Epsom seat through then-leader Rodney Hide.
Prebble says it has always been a strong party - "well funded" - even though the number of MPs has been small.
"It is important to remember it was originally a combination of National and Labour MPs, and brought together strengths of both those parties."
There has been a broadening from the mainly economic-focused policy of the early days, and under leaders like Hide and Don Brash, to social policy including Seymour's bill on euthanasia last term and advocacy in the debate about legalising cannabis.
Seymour says his proudest work with the party has been on charter schools, and seeing its impact on addressing inequity.
"The proudest moment of my political career was when I met a girl at a charter school who said, 'I never knew I was smart till I came here'."
Seymour also uses that example in defence of the party's overall approach to addressing inequity in society.
That commitment has come under scrutiny of late, particularly after Seymour encouraged supporters not to book in for a Covid-19 vaccine and instead use a code reserved for Māori sent via confidential email.
Seymour says the party is "deeply committed to a more equitable world", but decries "crudely profiling people by racial groups".
"Our view is that we should target the practical problems that people are facing."
On the vaccine rollout, this included extending opening hours to cater to people who might be working difficult shifts; and addressing transport problems and trust in authority.
This is why GPs needed to be brought on from the beginning, he says.
Including local, trusted providers, like Te Whānau Waipareira which sent out the codes he criticised, was "probably a good thing", but he disagrees with the way it was promoted.
"The longer we continue with these very coarse categorisations of people, the more trouble we're going to get in."
Seymour says he accepts these positions might come down to different interpretations of the Treaty of Waitangi, and its place in society today.
"Some people think the Treaty is a partnership where your membership of a group is more important than your inherent value as a human being.
"But that doesn't mean that it's a good way forward for a country."
Act MP Nicole McKee has also stepped into this arena around Māori identity and addressing inequities.
In her maiden speech, McKee spoke of being born to a Māori father and Pākehā mother, being raised by her mother.
"She told us, as we were growing up, that we needed to work twice as hard as everybody else because we were Māori and we were female," McKee said at the time.
Given the mainly male Act voter base, being wāhine Māori might make McKee seem a less likely member.
But she, and fellow newbie Karen Chhour, have a peer right back to 1996 in Donna Awatere Huata, a long-time Māori rights campaigner who's now the Māori Climate Commissioner.
McKee also certainly doesn't see her party choice as surprising.
"I get messages from Māori women who say thank you for standing up and for being our voice.
"I want better for Māori. I think that we are quite capable of developing and producing better outcomes for our children and for our families and for ourselves and for our communities.
"I've done that all my life, I've always fought for the underdog."
There are a lot of "predetermined views" about what the party is, but that is slowly changing, she says.
She had never thought about being a politician until just before the last election, and it was the values of the party around liberalism and personal responsibility - and a few requests from Seymour given her work with the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners (Colfo) – that drew her into the fold.
McKee has found her voice in the justice and firearms advocacy space, including drafting the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill pulled from the ballot box last month.
"They said they spoke for tāngata whenua, but they didn't speak for me.
"I didn't agree that we were being racist, and I don't agree that every single issue that ever comes up is to do with colonisation.
"We have to learn to live together, work together, if we're going to have a peaceful society, and that means a little give and take from everybody."