David Seymour and Act are showing the National Party how the job should be done. By Jane Clifton.
It's hard to find a pundit or pollster who would stake their reputation on a future David Seymour-led government, but the Act leader shares some useful commonalities with two prime ministerial standouts, Sir John Key and Jacinda Ardern.
Seymour's rise from lone MP to leader of a caucus of 10 would once have seemed as improbable as Ardern's 2017 ascent to the position of prime minister, but, like her, he has grabbed opportunities and made the most of them.
Like Key, he's comfortable in his own skin. He makes the job look easy, and even fun. Although his larky demeanour initially tempted bystanders not to take him as seriously as previous Act stalwarts such as Sir Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble, he is now well on the way to superseding them in what he has achieved so far.
Act's poll rise to 10 per cent-plus was not all his own doing. National's ungainly flounderings, ructions such as the Jami-Lee Ross affair and former leader Simon Bridges' chronic unpopularity have clearly helped. Act has also inherited an estimated 1-2 per cent of former New Zealand First votes. Some pollsters' analysis of Labour voters' dawning disenchantment suggests Act may even be starting to draw a useful cache of votes from the left.
But there are certainly signs the party's rise is not yet over. As Politik's Richard Harman reported last month, Act's caucus regional tour this year at times drew three times the audiences the party attracted during the election campaign.
Act always tries to send several MPs to any function, to cement the impression of heft. Still, National's deepening disarray has to be a major bonus, and that is likely to be self-limiting. National's bedrock has never fallen below 20 per cent. Recent history has shown that after a few leadership leap-frogs, both Labour and National eventually get Beehive-worthy traction when in Opposition.
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Even so, National may well find itself bound to Act in a three-legged race.
Perhaps Act's most remarkable achievement is its caucus discipline. So far, the party's troops have been pratfall-free. That suggests leadership and managerial competence few would have suspected in the plucky but emphatically lone Act MP first elected in 2014 after a renewed Act-National deal over the Epsom seat.
Knocked off the grog
Seymour has admitted struggling early on in the job. Once he knocked off the grog, he seemed to come into his stride. But it wasn't until an unusual baton pass that he showed voters he was more than just the chipper neo-Rogernome who infamously twerked on Dancing with the Stars.
In 2017, he introduced a private member's bill originally sponsored by Maryan Street to legalise euthanasia. That a former Labour president and stalwart of the left would entrust an Act MP with her hard-fought project was a tremendous compliment and sent a powerful public message. She saw in Seymour the sincerity, depth and political skill needed to get the bill through – which he did, albeit with compromises.
Seymour distinguished himself in his new mission by never disparaging the bill's opponents and maintaining a reasoned, calm dialogue. It also brought him before diverse audiences the length of the country, and he was able to show he was more than a good sport with a flinty libertarian agenda.
As fate would have it, National spent the same period foundering and disunited, and Seymour's self-deprecating humour helpfully distinguished him further.
Act is now in a similar position to that of the left's breakaway Alliance Party in the 1990s, with a strong case to say that it's showing the bigger party, National, how the job should be done. As with the Alliance's Jim Anderton, it's possible we'll one day be calling the Epsom MP Deputy and even Acting Prime Minister.