Seymour promise reveals tension at the heart of government

1:18 pm on 29 January 2024
Coalition agreement signing ceremony between Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and Winston Peters.

David Seymour at the coalition agreement signing ceremony between National, NZ First and ACT on 24 November, 2023. Photo: Phil Smith

Somewhere in David Seymour's rhetoric there is a serious debate clawing to get out. In fact, there are a hatful of debates.

Seymour at his best has always been an ideas man. His problem in recent years is that rhetoric has tended to get in the way. The politician who so effectively twerked his way into public consciousness and so elegantly built a public and political coalition to pass the End of Life Choice Act has become an angrier and more divisive political figure, undermining his ability to spark more healthy debate.

Yesterday, in his state of the nation speech, Seymour reminded New Zealand of the insightful political mind behind the political persona we've seen through the Covid years.

ACT has courted conspiracy and division on its way to the cabinet table and, the closer it got, the more Seymour seemed to lose the charm and sincerity that helped him dig ACT out of its darker one percent years.

But as I've said many times, including on the Caucus podcast during the election campaign, ACT is looking to be the most active and interesting spoke in the wheel of this government. On Caucus I quoted Eminem, saying Seymour would not want to miss his one shot, his chance to blow. And lo and behold, Seymour yesterday said precisely that - he had "one shot" and if he didn't take it, a politician with different values would.

While National as a party seems to be trapped in short-term memory, obsessed with returning New Zealand to the Key years and governing like it's 2009, and New Zealand First wants to take us even further back - to some imagined halcyon days of the 1920s, 50s, or 70s - ACT is the one to watch. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his politics, Seymour's speech reminded us why.

Seymour spoke insightfully of a Pacific far from the "benign strategic environment" in which Clark said she governed. A world where "there be dragons" everywhere. And where US political polarisation is bad for smaller countries, from Ukraine to Israel to New Zealand. Critically, he says when trust in democratic institutions erodes, democracy itself is in jeopardy. These are important words.

David Seymour giving his state of the nation address in Auckland 28 January 2024.

David Seymour giving his state of the nation address in Auckland 28 January, 2024. Photo: Finn Blackwell

Seymour also raised the country's long-term political cycle - the "golden weather" of the 60s and 70s, the change of the 80s, the "good times" of the 90s and early 2000s. He rightly said transformational governments are few and far between in these long cycles. Jacinda Ardern famously claimed hers would be just such a government, before being derailed by New Zealand First, Covid and, arguably, poor politics.

So, without using Ardern's explicit language, Seymour painted himself as the next great transformational figure. The man of the hour. It's an ambitious take for a non-Prime Minister with just 8.6 percent of the vote, but is entirely consistent with Seymour's zeal and ACT's roots. This is, remember, the party of Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, arguably this country's most transformational political figures of the past 50 years.

Seymour called out this century's three main Prime Ministers - Helen Clark, John Key and Jacinda Ardern (ignoring Bill English and Chris Hipkins) - as responsible for "lost decades". He said they marked time and failed to innovate.

He's hardly the first whose political analysis says that those governments were defined as much by what they didn't do as what they did. To point to those Prime Ministers as political managers rather than leaders. (Although, to be fair, it fell to them to damp down the collective political trauma felt after the radical changes led by Douglas and Richardson).

For Seymour, we're due a new dose of reform.

In some ways it's too soon to tell if any of those Prime Ministers were transformational. Perhaps Ardern's government of 'kindness', for example, will be remembered as more significant than it is currently, in the shadow of Labour's election defeat. Reform can be cultural and behavioural, after all.

But for Seymour, reform means policy. Policy based on values, not political management or expediency. It's a refreshing promise in these cynical and polarised times. Seymour has become a hate figure for some on the left, but even they might welcome a politics based on values.

But which values will hold sway in this coalition? It is here that Seymour's speech lays out a vital tension at the very heart of this government.

National ran on a conservative platform; it didn't seek or get a mandate for transformation. The most appealing point for many voters was that they had different faces and may be more competent in political management than the previous lot. Winston Peters - for all his talk - is inherently conservative and New Zealand First is instinctively a 'back to the future' party.

Both parties campaigned on taking New Zealand back to imagined better days and there's nothing in the election results that suggest voters were looking for ACT-style (libertarian-inspired, market-driven, individual rights-based) upheaval. Nothing to suggest his coalition partners want that either.

NZ First leader Winston Peters, National Party leader Christopher Luxon and ACT Party leader David Seymour at the formal signing ceremony on 24 November, 2023.

NZ First leader Winston Peters, National Party leader Christopher Luxon and ACT Party leader David Seymour at the formal signing ceremony on 24 November, 2023. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Ironically, Seymour argued in his speech that many Americans will support Donald Trump in this year's presidential election because of some belief 'life was better before'. He didn't mean it as a compliment. Yet the government he is part of is built on much the same promise.

Seymour, for example, spoke critically of rising house prices under John Key. Yet this government is repeating the policies - such as interest deductibility and a minimal brightline test - that helped drive price rises. Just as it is set on repeating much from the previous National-led administration. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon idolises Key, one of the manager PMs Seymour called out. And Luxon is, as defined by his career, a manager.

Luxon and his cabinet is not built transformation - explicit or covert. The promises already made to over-turn so much of the Adern agenda will suck up much of its political capital and energy for the first term. There will be little time for the generational reform Seymour is seeking as this government's 'first 100 days' agenda bleeds out in months and years.

Which suggests that Seymour's grand designs will likely be suppressed by his coalition partners and events. If Seymour is to get anywhere near the transformation he sees as essential to strengthen the state of the nation, it will have been a remarkable act of political will.

ACT's best chance will be in the portfolio where he has most say - regulation. The one place where he may have caught his opponents and allies alike on the hop is getting control of a new ministry that has licence to reform every bit of state activity it comes in contact with. This is ACT planting its flag exactly where you'd expect it would be - not in the heat of identity or cultural politics, but in that most central of political debates - the size and shape of government.

It's in reforming the very machinery of government - regulations - that Seymour is best placed to take his one shot at transformation. To make his case for change and reinvention. Which means it's there his opponents will have to take up arms against him and there - in the dull trenches of regulation - that some of the most important debates of the next three years will come. The outcome of those debates will go a long way to determining the state of our nation in the 2027 election.

* Tim Watkin is a founder of political news website Pundit, has a long career in journalism and broadcasting, and now runs the podcast team at RNZ.

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