He went viral in an awkward campaign video that featured him repeatedly saying “hi” – with an emotionless, thousand-yard stare – at famous spots in his constituency. He twerked merrily on Dancing with the Stars wearing neon Lycra. He once proclaimed – with unintentional double entendre – in a news interview about national flags, that “the French, for instance, love the coq.”
That was the old David Seymour. The New Zealand lawmaker is the leader and sole member of parliament for ACT – a minor, libertarian party that has at times in its history been plagued by the inadvertent comedy of its eccentric members. The 37-year-old wears a sober suit and a quiet, serious demeanour when he meets the Guardian at his parliamentary office in Wellington.
The new David Seymour dialled down the antics two years ago, quit alcohol – he lost 14kg (“I was 18% beer!” he says) and gained “about an hour a day” – and emerged as the serious public policy nerd he claims to have been all along.
It could pay off: in the latest Colmar Brunton poll ahead of September’s election, the ACT party polled at close to 5%, reaching the threshold that would allow five other members to join Seymour in parliament and make them a stronger prospect for a coalition deal with the main opposition, the centre-right National party (which is still lagging in the polls).
“ACT has always had a much more expansive public policy agenda than usually voters were frankly interested in,” he says. “I’ve always thought that there’s too much politics and not enough policy out there.”
His fortunes appear to have changed partly because Seymour took centre stage in his questioning of the Covid-19 strategy of the wildly popular Labour coalition government while National was in disarray over a leadership crisis. And he spearheaded a law change that will legalise voluntary euthanasia, if the majority of New Zealanders vote for it in a referendum in September.
But the change has also, he admits, meant some people don’t know what to make of him.
“It’s the great irony,” Seymour says. Until two other New Zealand lawmakers published autobiographies recently, he added, “I was the only sitting politician who had written a book or twerked on TV. So there’s a paradox there, right?”
The earlier stunts were necessary because “it’s really fucking hard to get people to know who you are”, he says. Two months before the 2014 election, when he first stood in the wealthy Auckland constituency of Epsom, he had “personally knocked on 7,000 doors”, commissioned enormous billboards, and written to every home three times.
A focus group revealed that three in 20 people knew who he was. He won the seat because of a long-time deal between ACT and National.
Now, 77% of his electorate knows he’s their MP, Seymour says.
He knows well the criticism from his detractors: he has the least to do of any lawmaker in parliament; he was handed his seat on a platter; he is a racist, or at least courts racists; his free market policies reveal an empathy deficit.
None of that, he says, is true, but the suggestion he was gifted a seat seems to gall him the most. Voters in his wealthy electorate – among them captains of industry – don’t vote on command, he says, and if National pulled their support for him tomorrow, he would still win.
“I work harder than most local MPs and people acknowledge that,” he adds. “It’s so annoying.”
No hobbies but a cult youth following
Seymour has no life, he tells the Guardian. Years ago he built his own sports car, with which he once fatally hit a constituent’s cat (they are still angry at him about it, even though Seymour donated, “in Jethro’s honour”, to animal charity the SPCA), and rides an e-bike. But he cannot name a hobby beyond dinner with friends because he works every weekend.
The work has put paid to “a series” of relationships and he is currently single. “There are two-and-a-half million women in this country and none of them are that desperate,” he adds, with a flash of the old, quirkily-awkward Seymour.
In keeping with his libertarian principles, he opposes on “free speech” grounds the hate speech laws proposed by the government. A cartoonist once portrayed him being kissed by Hitler and David Duke.
But he does not relish an American-style polarisation of debate, he says, and worries the country is “losing” its local flavour to public disagreement. “We are just importing so much of our narrative,” he adds.
I am a bit quirky and I don’t really care what people think and I’m still quite successful. That’s quite powerful for anxious kidsDavid Seymour
Seymour has “sympathy for people who are minorities” he says (he considers himself a minority because of his political position; he also has Māori heritage). “It’s not that I don’t get it.”
People who hate others for their race or religion are “small-minded and stupid”, he adds. “But I do think the world is getting better.”
When it comes to hate speech laws, however, adjudicators are “always highly politicised”, he says, and “the remedy is worse than the cure.”
Seymour enjoys a cult youth following online (some of it perhaps ironic, a hangover from his old persona); the televised twerking led to invitations to speak at schools about the importance of being yourself.
“I am a bit quirky and I don’t really care what people think and I’m still quite successful,” he says. “That’s quite powerful for anxious kids.”
The politician – who grew up in the city of Whāngarei, in New Zealand’s north, and studied electrical engineering after boarding school – says he can retire from politics once the ACT party is bigger than just him.
At this election, he says, National is the only party he could conceivably support in power but the centre-right group and Labour are “no different”, he says, and he would like to build a consensus so the ACT could, in future, support either side in government.
Meanwhile, he’s urging an “open discussion” about Covid-19; most people want to keep the country locked down but he favours travel “bubbles” for relatively safe countries. The government should partner with the private sector to augment the country’s public health response and exploit economic opportunities.
He also wants reduced debt, regulatory reform, and prizes his past achievements in support of charter schools. So far, so libertarian; he was the only MP out of 120 to vote against prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s gun reforms after the Christchurch terrorist attack.
But he is campaigning, too, on home ownership for lower-income people, and reducing the flights lawmakers make to parliament (he believes in change to avert the climate crisis “if it can be done costlessly”).
As for the empathy deficit, Seymour cites his work on the voluntary euthanasia law, and the connections he has built with the terminally ill, as proof to the contrary. “All my friends are dying,” he says.
“I certainly want to be a good person and make people happy,” he adds, but he doesn’t always “click as quickly” with people as others do.
“But let’s face it, I’m an electrical engineer. So all these people who are really empathic, why don’t we do some maths and see how you go?”