(Bloomberg) -- A libertarian politician who shot to fame on Dancing With The Stars looks set to play a pivotal role in New Zealand’s next government.
David Seymour, leader of the right-wing ACT Party, could become a senior minister — possibly even deputy prime minister — if, as polls predict, the ruling Labour Party is ousted at the Oct. 14 election.
ACT is on course to secure the biggest share of the vote in its 30-year history, and the main opposition National Party will almost certainly need its support to secure a majority in parliament.
Warning that New Zealand is in decline, ACT wants to slash taxes, sell stakes in state assets, crack down on welfare beneficiaries and reduce the size of government. It also wants to do away with moves to guarantee the involvement of indigenous Māori in decision making.
While ACT can’t expect all of its policies to be adopted, Seymour will seek to extract several ministerial posts and policy concessions from National if a coalition is formed. New Zealand’s German-style electoral system usually results in one of the two major parties teaming with a smaller partner to govern.
“Our goal is to be a third of a new government,” Seymour said in an interview. “That would give us some real leverage to achieve the kind of real change that we require if New Zealand is going to maintain its first-world status.”
Polls suggest ACT could comprise a quarter of the next government. It had 12% support in a 1News/Verian poll last week while National had 37%, enough between them for 61 of the 120 seats in parliament. Such a result would give ACT 15 seats, up from its current 10.
A qualified electrical engineer, Seymour, 40, spent several years working for libertarian institutions in Canada — the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education — before entering parliament in 2014 representing the affluent Auckland electorate of Epsom.
He was ACT’s sole MP and supported the National government of then prime minister John Key, who made him an under-secretary.
Seymour gained some profile by pushing through a euthanasia law, but ACT was a minnow during his first six years in parliament, rarely registering more than 1% support in opinion polls.
That all changed at the 2020 election, when ACT jumped to a 7.6% share of the vote. It has continued to gain ground, and could this year overtake the Greens as the third largest party in parliament.
While smaller parties have benefited from voter disillusion with the major players, ACT’s rapid rise may in part be due to Seymour’s participation in New Zealand’s edition of Dancing With The Stars in 2018.
His cringe-worthy attempt to imitate the “twerking” dance made famous by Miley Cyrus didn’t win him the competition, but it catapulted him into the public eye.
Seymour said the television show was “absolutely critical” in boosting his profile, giving him “prime-time exposure to people who wouldn’t normally watch political news.”
“Each week I needed to do enough to be the indispensable figure in the show, but also not so much I’d bugger the rest of my political career,” he said. “The twerking week was probably the one week that I crossed that line. But you know, you’ve gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet.”
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The changes ACT is proposing would amount to a radical overhaul of New Zealand’s economy and society if fully implemented.
Advocating a greater role for free markets, the party wants deep cuts to government spending and a flatter tax system that benefits higher earners, arguing the path to a wealthier country is rewarding hard work and success.
It would abolish what it calls demographic ministries, such as those for women and Pacific peoples, increase prison capacity and repeal gun-law reforms such as a firearms register.
A key plank in ACT’s election campaign is a pledge to hold a referendum on co-governance. That’s the policy of honoring the Treaty of Waitangi — New Zealand’s founding document that sets out the relationship between Māori and the Crown — by guaranteeing Māori representation on decision-making bodies, such as the authorities that manage natural resources.
Seymour labels this approach “neo-apartheid,” saying it gives Māori additional rights “by virtue of ancestry” just as apartheid in South Africa privileged the white minority over the black majority.
“Apartheid is a policy of treating people differently based on their ethnic background, and it’s absolutely grotesque and despicable,” said Seymour, who has Māori ancestry himself. “We now have many government policies which say that you have a different role in society due to your background. No society can succeed that way.”
The Māori Party, which currently has two members of parliament, says ACT’s stance emboldens racist rhetoric. According to Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson, Seymour is “the most dangerous man that we’ve ever seen in New Zealand politics” because of his views on Māori.
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ACT, an acronym for the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers, was formed in 1993 by former National Party cabinet minister Derek Quigley and former Labour Party finance minister Roger Douglas, who was the architect of New Zealand’s free-market reforms in the 1980s.
Douglas recently distanced himself from ACT, saying it has “lost the plot” and now “represents only the wealthy.”
“We’re a party that wants the government out of the bedroom and the boardroom,” he said. “We are a party that believes in personal freedom. We believe people should be judged on what they actually do, not what their group, gender or sexuality is. So we’re liberals in the sense that we take each human being as we find them.”
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