Inside ACT's annual conference: 'Laundry list' of reversals, digs at National, COVID response investigation

By Giles Dexter of RNZ

New Zealand may be more than a year away from the next election, but as far as the ACT Party is concerned, the campaign has already begun.

The party's annual conference in Wellington had a series of glossy videos, overly dramatic walk-in music for the speakers, and party leader David Seymour's father in the audience.

Seymour took to the stage to reveal his plans for the first 100 days of an ACT-involved Government.

"We must not only campaign like we have to win, but prepare like we're going to win," he told the party faithful.

While the Government and co-governance were predictably in his crosshairs, Seymour also spent time taking digs at his potential coalition partner.

"They've been in power for 47 of the last 72 years. If the National Party were the solution to any problem, we wouldn't have that problem now," he said.

In a 40-minute speech, Seymour laid out what he wants to take to the negotiation table, a "laundry list" of reversals in the coalition's first hundred days.

Three Waters, the Māori Health Authority, the 39c tax rate, and Fair Pay Agreements are just a few policies on ACT's scrapheap, while 90-day trials, three strikes, oil and gas exploration and charter schools would be reinstated.

Most of the things on Seymour's list are likely to get National's support, or are changes National has already said it will enact. He admits getting them to repeal the Zero Carbon Act will be harder.

"We're going to have to push the very hard on that one, because they've committed themselves so heavily, but I think it's worth doing," he said.

Seymour is also pledging to launch a full inquiry into New Zealand's COVID-19 response. The terms of reference include the effects of the response on mental health, the fiscal and economic costs, and whether restrictions were always justifiable under the Bill of Rights.

Seymour hopes it will prepare New Zealand for any future pandemic.

"We literally can't afford to do what we did in the last two and a half years again," he said.

But the investigation wouldn't come cheap for the taxpayer.

"I suspect it would costs tens of millions but it would save tens of billions. If you've got something that has a profit ratio of 1000:1, you should do it," he told media afterwards.

Like its commitment to scrap many of the things ACT is saying it would scrap, National has also pledged to launch a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the COVID response if it gets into power.

"I think the challenge is will National follow through? Because National has always campaigned vociferously against Labour from opposition, but it's very difficult to identify Labour policies they've reversed once they get into power," Seymour said.

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub.

Of course, first ACT has to get into Government.

A Roy Morgan poll last week put a National-ACT coalition on 48.5 percent, five points ahead of Labour and the Greens.

But they would need Te Pati Māori's support, and former ACT leader Don Brash said there is no way that will happen.

"I was asked 'how will ACT handle the fact that the Māori Party will refuse to join a coalition with ACT?' I said 'why would ACT join a coalition with the Māori Party?' They're totally diametrically opposed on that issue, I just can't see a coalition involving the ACT Party and the Māori Party," he said.

In 2020 ACT received 7.5 percent of the party vote, and its 10 MPs are the most it has ever had at once.

The lowest ranked of those, Damien Smith, just edged in last time.

But he is confident next year will be more comfortable, and with more MPs.

"Coming in at number 10, I was always confident but nobody probably expected that. But now I think the polls are holding up, there'll be more MPs, we'll have a bigger talent pool," Smith said.

While ACT is encouraged by its polling, it has slipped since Christopher Luxon replaced Judith Collins as National leader.

Seymour is not afraid a resurgent National may decide it finally wants his Epsom seat.

"My proposition in the Epsom electorate has always been that you get a good local MP, and you get additional ACT MPs elected. Of course the way the polling has been for the last two years, that second proposition doesn't apply.

"If it does apply again, then that would be a pity in one sense but it would make the proposition and Epsom much stronger," he said.

The conference was also celebrating 25 years of ACT in Parliament. A time to look back, and ahead.

While ACT has had its ups and downs, and its fair share of colourful characters, it has never had a female leader.

Seymour believes it will happen.

"Well, you never know, I always watch my back," he joked.

His deputy Brooke van Velden, grinning just behind him, declined to stick the knife in.

"It doesn't actually matter whether our leader is male or female. It matters whether they believe in good public policy," she said.

Public policy that ACT is already campaigning on, even with an election more than a year away.