For the first time in 25 years, ACT’s leader can credibly talk about becoming Prime Minister.
Buoyed by increasingly large audiences at his provincial speeches and now by the train wreck that was National’s weekend conference, David Seymour is on a roll.
Everyone wants him.
Yesterday morning he squeezed an interview with POLITIK in between a standup for the Press Gallery on the Skegg report and then a session with Business New Zealand on the economy.
And he dares to hint at what would have seemed impossible only four years ago in his first election as leader when the party got 0.5 per cent of the vote.
“The Nats have been in power five times following a Labour government,” he told POLITIK.
“The pattern is crystal clear that they oppose whatever Labour does, whether it’s introducing the welfare state or dismantling economic controls, and then they do the same thing.
“We simply cannot afford to have the next government bed in Jacinda Ardern’s world view the way that John Key bedded in Helen Clark’s world view.
“And so we not only need a change of government but also a government of change, and a change of direction.
“And that’s what ACT proposes.
“And depending on how many voters like that approach will decide the answer to the question.”
In the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll, ACT was on nine per cent against National on 29.
Act needs National to slip to around or below 20 per cent and for those votes to go to ACT for it to become the leading centre-right party.
That is not an impossible task.
In July 2002, National got down to 21 per cent in two polls immediately before the election.
His “Honest Conversations” provincial speaking tour, which winds up on Friday in the National stronghold of Methven, has seen attendances in some centres (like Nelson) three or four times as large as he got on the election campaign.
He got 100 in Whanganui; POLITIK went to a 2020 campaign meeting he held there with less than 20 attendees.
The campaign is clearly targeted at provincial and rural National voters.
Anecdotally there are persistent stories of National Party farmers resigning to joining ACT.
And the party is easily able to make a clear pitch to farmers with its core messages of less bureaucracy and less regulation.
The party’s agriculture spokesperson, Mark Cameron, a Ruawai dairy farmer, says he is the only active farmer in Parliament. The others are farm owners.
“Farmers haven’t been listened to, and they are justifiably aggrieved,” he told POLITIK.
“We at ACT certainly not only oppose a lot of what the government has done in terms of what it’s done against the rural sector.
“But certainly we are proposing something as well; there are better solutions.”
Cameron is concerned about the amount of compliance work that farmers have to keep up with; on his own farm; he reckons he spends up to an hour and a half a day on paperwork.
“I want to see the freshwater reforms allow for regional specificity,” he said.
He believes the creation of significant Natural Areas is a land grab and says ACT wants to see farmers compensated.
“We’ve proposed a contestable fund of ten million dollars a year so farmers and landowners can continue investing in such things as the Queen Elizabeth trusts things like this.
“RMA reform has got to happen.
“Long term storage for water, especially in areas like where I live; the avocado industry and the horticultural sector wants some certainty.
“They haven’t got it.
“And there’s a myriad of other things in and around climate change.”
But perhaps surprisingly, Cameron is not a climate change denier.
“We don’t want to fall into being either a pariah or a martyr when it comes to our obligations in terms of climate change.”
The party has just made a video showing Seymour visiting Cameron’s farm and being taught how to milk.
Seymour is clearly pitching for the farmer vote.
He is confusing on two areas; the reform of the Resource Management Act and the response to the Climate Change Commission.
It would seem like ACT will oppose both.
On the RMA, he says ACT will look at how far the government gets with the current process.
“The more they implement, the more chance you’re going to have to introduce to get to where you want to go,” he said.
“But I would say we’re going to be opposed to it.
“What they are proposing is just basically the Resource Management Act by three other names with mandatory consultation.
“They haven’t got to the real core of it, which is what is the underlying purpose of resource management legislation and our view?
“It’s to stand up for the enjoyment of property by property owners.
“You’ve got the right to develop the property so long as you’re not harming other people’s enjoyment of the is.
“What this government’s proposing is basically the same principle that your property is owned by you sort of almost in a transitory way and used to achieve other people’s objectives.
“And then you know, if we win in 2023, we’ll have to survey how far they’ve gone and how much we can change without any extra disruption.”
But Seymour is quite firm about the Climate Change Commission; it has got to be dumped.
” It can’t work any more than import licensing worked; this whole idea of carbon budgets per sector and prescriptions about what sort of technology you can use,” he said.
“The fundamental problem is the lesson that we learned through the middle of the twentieth century is that governments do not have the information to anticipate what sort of resource allocation decisions should be made across this.
“It will eventually collapse under its absurdity.
“We’re proud we saw it for what it is; we said what it was, and the Nats again said, oh, we better hunt, with hares and run with the hounds cuddling up to James Shore.
“The public policy was wrong. They put the politics first, and they got that wrong, too.”
Apart from an old poster of Derek Quigley in ACT’s office kitchen, there are not many signs of its origins in the breakaway Rogernomes (or neo-liberals as their critics call them) who left Labour and National to form the party in 1993.
But Seymour invokes Douglas when he defines how the party plays politics.
“People need something to vote for, not just against,” Seymour said.
“Sir Roger founded the party as a policy party.
“Unfinished Business (Douglas’s book) was a 400-page policy manifesto.
“And it’s always been in our DNA that we don’t just oppose, we also propose, and I think the other thing about that that’s really important is that it gives us a purpose that’s external to us.
“So the purpose of the party is not just to perpetuate the party, it’s to achieve better policy for all New Zealanders; that’s really, really critical.”
And then another poke at National.
“if your only purpose is to perpetuate your own organisation. Well, what’s in that for other people?”
A lot could happen between now and the next election.
National could recover its mojo and reconnect with its rural heartland. Or it might not.
If it doesn’t, ACT might be the catalyst for a realignment on the centre-right of New Zealand politics.
Jim Anderton and the Alliance sparked that on the centre-left. It could easily happen on the other side.