He was once a social media joke. Now, the polls tell us, he's second choice for PM. Could the Act leader really lead New Zealand one day? By Michele Hewitson.
David Seymour, the Act leader, may or may not be an alien. Neither of us is able to provide a definitive answer to this intriguing dilemma. He had a go: "Well, you never know. And if you were an alien, would you know that you were?" If you did know, would you admit to it? "Well, that's the thing. If I was an alien and knew I was an alien, I'd probably deny it. So, you'll just have to wonder."
There is much to wonder, or at least ponder, about him. But how did we arrive at aliens, of all mad things? I was trying to find out what he believed. Because, as I told him, I am always accusing people of being libertarians and I had just realised I have no idea what a libertarian actually is. Believing in libertarianism is being certain about something you can't really know, perhaps. I had asked if he believed in God. He doesn't, although he says he is an agnostic rather than an atheist: "Atheism sounds like a lot of effort. You've got to be certain about something you can't really know."
He also doesn't believe in aliens, by the way, but I did have to ask. He believes, obviously, in libertarianism. He says he is a practical libertarian rather than a doctrinaire one. A libertarian is "someone who believes it's always wrong to initiate force against another person, which most people believe. I think where libertarians are different is that they extend it to government."
We have a mutual acquaintance who is a libertarian. Seymour said he'd pass on my regards. Don't, I said; I don't want to encourage libertarians. "Ha, ha. We don't need encouragement. We're just running around spreading ideas of freedom all over the show." What would be the end result of all of this freedom, I wanted to know. "People might do whatever they like."
To a point. What does it mean to be a practical libertarian when the Government decrees mask-wearing during a pandemic to be mandatory? "I support the policies that beat Covid with the least restriction on freedom and based on good evidence. It appears the aerosol nature of Delta means masks make a lot of sense. If it's a choice between masks or lockdowns, the choice is easy."
We were having lunch in Wellington at a Belgian bar. Rachel Morton, Act's director of communications, suggested we let him pick the place. She said, "He's quite a fussy eater." We had steak and chips. A bowl of salad was provided, to share. I said, "Are you going to eat any of that salad?" He regarded the bowl of salad with the utmost suspicion. "Well," he said, "it doesn't look like that great a salad to me." He said, gnomically, "A salad should be a salad." What could he mean? He did the little snuffly thing he does when he laughs, then said, cryptically, "If you didn't laugh, you'd cry."
He wasn't going to eat the salad. "I could. But it's a lot of chewing for the amount of nutrition." I said in that case I'd eat it with my fingers. He said if he had intended to eat the salad, having me sticking my fingers in it would not have put him off.
I had earlier accused him of being fastidious, which he quite vehemently denied. These fingers, I said, holding them up, were up a sheep's arse last night, delivering lambs. He didn't think this could be correct: "Sheep's arse?" Okay, I said, what we prudishly call the sheep's "volvo". He said, "That's a Swedish car, isn't it?" He told me an amusing story about his grandmother who, in the market for a new car, went about telling people she was planning to buy a Vulva. "It was awkward."
He is funny about food because, as a child, he had an illness that his mother, who "got into some kooky theories", decided to treat by feeding him sheep's liver. "So, the texture of that traumatic experience put me off a whole range of food for years."
I got in bad odour with him for asking about Morton, his former flame, whom he now works with. It seemed a bit odd to me, because he once told a journalist that she "might be the one". They were together, and broke up, I think, three times. Their relationship has been over, he says, for more than three years, and working together is not a problem because "she's the best in the business", and it is unfair of me to bang on about this. He doesn't have a current girlfriend. "I think I'd be lonely if I wasn't busy. But guess what? I'm always busy."
This might be a bit sad. "But it's a choice, right? I'm not forced to stand, to run for office." He says he is "married to Parliament". Oh dear. He is a tragic character. "Ha, ha. Well, we'll see. One day, who knows? I'm just responding to what's happening now." He's like a dog; he lives in the moment. "Woof! Woof!" he said.
He has a group of close friends he has known since school. He doesn't have any close political friends. "I don't think you should join politics to make friends. Oh, I've got lots of people I respect and like, but if you went to Parliament to make friends, you'd have a serious problem. I probably reserve friendship a bit more strictly than other people."
He might have been snuffling away after the latest political poll, which saw Act's support jump 6.1 percentage points to 13 per cent. Seymour narrowly beat National Party leader Judith Collins in the preferred prime minister stakes. He might even have gone "whoop, whoop", if he were a whooper. "I'm not much of a whooper, to be honest. And it's a long way to go. If you run a fast 100m, and you whooped every 100m, you probably wouldn't finish a marathon, would you? So there's not enough time for whooping in this business."
He was Act's sole MP for six long, rather lonely years until the 2020 election, after which he was joined by nine new Act MPs. He's not a sprinter. "People say 'one-man band', but actually we ran a $2 million campaign in 2020. It didn't just happen. We were building a big team for several years. The fact that we've now got nine extra MPs in the caucus is not as big a change as it might appear on the surface."
Those six years were at times bleak. "Oh, of course." But never throw-your-hands-in-the-air-and-giving-up sort of bleak. "What makes life good is if you feel like you can actually make a difference and that what you do will actually change things somehow."
Somehow. He is not generally given to flamboyance – that would count as whoop whooping, wouldn't it? And yet the one thing almost anyone knows about him is that he twerked on the telly, which surely counts as whoop whooping. Before he went on Dancing with the Stars, he had next to no public profile. He insists his decision to appear on the show was in no way a conscious, or cynical, ploy. He just thought, "You know what? I'm going to get to compete in a televised dancing competition for charity and I'll never get that opportunity again. Let's go for it. And it worked out reasonably well.
"What I found was that if you just be yourself and back yourself, you might be surprised how supportive New Zealanders will be."
He didn't have any worries about, as I inelegantly put it, making a dick of himself. "Well, it was too late."
He once said that, of all the Act candidates, his deputy, Brooke van Velden, was the most likeable. This is an odd thing to say, because what he is really saying is that she is more likeable than him. "The difference is that some people might like me, but people want to like her. And that's a really critical difference. It's so much easier if people are looking to like you."
But why do people want to like van Velden and not him? "If I knew, I'd do something about it." He was talking about that hard-to-define and impossible-to-manufacture elusive charm that is charisma, which he knows he lacks. "Yeah, and I realised this a long time ago." Is that also an odd observation to make of oneself?
It might be a sort of freedom: if you know you don't have whatever it is, there is no point in worrying about it. You can be free to be your own charisma-free self. People are free to either like you or not like you and, if you happen to be a libertarian political party, freedom to choose is the philosophy of choice.
He might be an oddball. "I probably am. I guess the thing I'd add is that I think I'm well-meaning and I think I'm empathic. So, I think I'm certainly different, but that doesn't mean I don't understand other people or try to do good stuff. And that's the part I would reject, because I think some people you'd describe as an oddball are aloof, maybe unaware or even contemptuous of other people. I'm not like that."
That "kind of oddball wouldn't put all of their political capital into things like charter schools or assisted dying. I didn't go to a charter school and hopefully I won't need assisted dying." It's a great irony, he says, that belonging to Act, "you occasionally get accused of being in favour of selfishness" whereas, relying on his support for charter schools and assisted dying, he and Act are actually essentially "altruistic".
Another accusation: "Act has always been the party of white grievance." That is taken from a Stuff column by political journalist Andrea Vance. "That's bullshit. I wrote a reply to that column. Stuff wouldn't publish it and we got $5k in donations off 30,000 people reading it. So, screw you, Stuff. That's why Stuff is stuffed!"
Yes, very mature. He reckons, about politics and life in general, "You've got to have some fun, don't you?" He likes Miley Cyrus.
He is a peculiar mix of serious geek aiming for gravitas and goofball schoolboy. He's 38, but he could be 18 or 58. That he studied both engineering and philosophy at university tells you almost all you need to know about him. He used to be fat, before he pretty much gave up drinking. He once estimated that he was "18% Heineken".
I asked, hopefully, if he used to drink too much because he was unhappy. He looked at me as though I were a bowl of salad. "No. I just drank because I loved it. It was great."
He is too busy to drink now, and he likes having a clear head. But he would no doubt drink if he still wanted to. A libertarian is free, presumably, to drink or to not drink. I had a glass of wine. He had Coca-Cola.
He likes being on his own because he is seldom alone, "except when I sleep". This liking for being alone may be a hangover from his days as a boarder at Auckland Grammar, where he lived in a dorm room. He wheedled to go to Grammar; he knew other boys from Whangārei going there and at 13, he knew "Grammar was about opportunity and it was about academics". His view, from his experience of intermediate school, was that in Whangārei, "basically, if you did well at school, that was a bad thing and I didn't like that".
His parents "traded down" their house to be able to afford to send him and his two younger brothers to boarding school. His mother, Victoria, had polio as a child and spent some of her childhood in homes for those afflicted with that horrible disease. She was told she would never work, have children or drive a car. She went on to become the chief pharmacist at the Northland District Health Board.
"A pretty phenomenal story of personal determination, I guess." She died, at 50, of cancer. His father, Breen, is an electrical designer and consultant. He is also a former Labour voter turned enthusiastic Act supporter. His son takes him to "boomer concerts". Boomer concerts feature acts such as Th' Dudes.
The mind does boggle, rather, at the idea of David Seymour bopping to Th' Dudes alongside his dad. The mind does boggle, rather, at the very idea of David Seymour. He may not be an alien, alas. He is certainly an acquired taste, like a salad. I quite like a salad.