Act marks its 20th birthday with a dinner in Auckland before its annual conference. John Armstrong profiles the politician responsible for saving his party from oblivion.

From start to finish, it took David Seymour a good nine years to put together his treasured replica Lotus Seven sports car. That is about the same period of time that Act's leader of six months, and the party's sole MP, believes will be required to re-establish his party as a permanent and far more influential fixture on the centre-right of politics.

It is also a long overdue concession to realism from a party which has a long history of making outrageous and largely self-serving predictions as to how people will vote with the express intention of changing how they will vote.

Seymour is talking of Act winning 100,000 votes in 2017 and bringing five Act MPs into Parliament. But he stresses that is a target. It may also be a definition of optimism.

Act had deluded itself on previous occasions that it had not hit rock bottom. In picking up 0.7 per cent of the party vote, Act could no longer be in denial. Its ignominy was complete. It had finished well behind Colin Craig's Conservative Party and not much ahead of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party.


While the installation of former philosophy lecturer and libertarian Jamie Whyte as leader back in February proved to be a breath of fresh air in an otherwise fetid election campaign, it did not make a blind bit of difference to Act's fortunes.

Whyte wasted little time in submitting his resignation following the election, thereby handing the leadership to Seymour by default by virtue of the latter being Act's only MP, courtesy of National gifting the seat of Epsom to Act and Seymour being Act's candidate.

David Seymour also portrayed the young Sir Edmund Hillary in the 1997 documentary A View From The Top.
David Seymour also portrayed the young Sir Edmund Hillary in the 1997 documentary A View From The Top.

Seymour's sole claim to fame at that stage was his quirky "Hi, I'm David Seymour" video capturing his campaigning in Epsom which was posted on YouTube. It gave totally the wrong impression of Seymour who had long been singled out by senior Act figures as potential leadership material.

A product of Auckland Grammar, Seymour graduated with degrees in philosophy and engineering from Auckland University, having made a name for himself as president of Act on Campus, the party's equivalent to Young Nationals.

In a party which has not always put principle ahead of pragmatism, Seymour has stood out both in terms of his rock-solid adherence to Act's tenets of classical free-market liberalism and his ability to uphold and espouse those values when it comes to framing a policy solution to some societal woe or other.

It is the kind of ideological discipline that Act needs right now as the party seeks - in the words of former leader John Banks - to refocus and regear.

Seymour says he has not always been someone espousing the view from the right. He was a "terrible leftie" when he first went to university and voluntarily joined the student union as an act of solidarity.

"It was a bizarre thing to do."


However, a major formative influence was his time at Auckland Grammar, in particular the introduction of NCEA.

He says he could not understand why the Labour Government was attacking everything the school stood for in terms of competition, achievement and standards.

"It was just anathema to the culture of the school ... I could not understand how the Government which I had previously regarded as a beneficial force could possibly want to mess with our school's community.

"That set off a whole lot of questioning in my mind. I sort of drifted into Act on Campus."

Following his graduation from university, Seymour worked in the engineering sector.

But politics prevailed. He subsequently divided his time between New Zealand and Canada where he has worked for a number of conservative think-tanks.

Back in New Zealand, he did a stint as a ministerial adviser to John Banks during the former Auckland mayor's term as Act's Epsom MP. He was persuaded to stand for the leadership, but ended up running on a ticket with Whyte in part to shut out John Boscawen, whose candidacy was viewed as being old guard.

With Whyte's resignation, Seymour was thrown in the deep end. He has unquestionably faced the steepest learning curve of any of the 2014 intake of new MPs.

While other newbies were still finding where the toilets are in the parliamentary complex, Seymour and Act president John Thompson were negotiating Act's third confidence and supply agreement with John Key and National.

Act's severely limited bargaining power plus Seymour's complete lack of parliamentary experience saw the compromise of him taking the post of parliamentary under-secretary with a salary of $175,600 and with responsibility for developing charter schools and measures to cut red tape strangling business - two of Act's highest priorities.

As the person casting Act's one vote, Seymour has to wade through a mountain of paperwork as a never-ending queue of National Party Cabinet ministers seek to get Act's backing for their legislative agenda.

Then there are the regular consultations with the Prime Minister plus meetings of Cabinet committees where detailed policy is nailed down.

If that was not enough, Seymour has a seat on Parliament's powerful finance and expenditure committee. There is some concern in Act circles that Seymour will get swallowed up by the system. But he is conscious of the danger.

Just to round things off, Seymour has found himself being constantly sledged in Parliament by Winston Peters who detests Act with a loathing.

Seymour has struck back, most notably when he claimed that he and Peters had something in common. "We both have a monopoly on intellect within our caucus." The point being that Seymour has a caucus of one - himself.

Unlike Peters, Seymour, however, is the one grasping for gravitas. He comes across as much younger than his 31 years.

That gravitas will come in time. The Prime Minister describes Seymour as a "serious, considered and thoughtful" MP.

"While it won't be flashy, I think he will quietly build up both the brand of the Act party and his base and profile in Epsom," Mr Key said.

Seymour confirms there will be no going down the Rodney Hide route for recognition through such means as wearing a canary yellow jacket in Parliament or appearing on Dancing with the Stars.

For starters, Seymour says he can't dance.

"I have been accused of dancing, but I was just trying to get to the other side of the room."

David Seymour



Education: Auckland Grammar School; University of Auckland

Degrees: Bachelor of Arts (philosophy); Bachelor of Engineering (electrical and electronic)

Political posts: MP for Epsom; leader of Act; parliamentary undersecretary; member of Parliament's finance and expenditure committee.

Little-known fact: Portrayed the young Sir Edmund Hillary in TVNZ's 1997 biographical documentary A View from the Top

Heroes: Sir Roger Douglas, former finance minister and co-founder of Act; William Wilberforce, 19th century anti-slavery campaigner.

Q&A with Act's leader

Should the Government fund Team NZ in the America's Cup?

No. It is not the Government's role to fund yacht races. It is taxing poorer people to give to wealthy people. It is wrong on every level.

Should people who smoke be entitled to free hospital care?
Yes they should. How inhumane. They pay tax (on cigarettes). And even if you decided you wanted to go down that path, how would you enforce it?

Do you support sending NZ military personnel to Iraq to train that country's troops?
A very uncomfortable yes. I don't think it is going to make a blind bit of difference. But I do think ... we must stand by our allies.

Should list candidates be able to coat-tail into Parliament on a constituency seat win?
Yes. This was included in the German version of MMP to ensure proper representation of minorities.