David Seymour is the current leader of the ACT Party. At only 32-years-old, he is one of the youngest members of parliament and has been touted by many as a rising star in New Zealand politics. ACT believe in lower taxes, a smaller state and greater personal responsibility. Last year he was accused of telling students with mental health issues to ‘harden up’. Seymour took part in email exchange with Massive to discuss what he really feels about students suffering from mental illness, his views on Double Brown and euthanasia, and where ACT stand on student issues.
1. David, asked to describe yourself in your own words you said: “I was born in Palmerston North, learned to walk, promptly left…” What is your opinion of Palmerston North now? Do you have any good memories of the place?
I have family in Feilding and visit Palmy regularly. I still cheer for the Turbos although it requires strong faith some seasons. I don’t have memories because I literally left when I was eighteen months old, but today I think the Square has developed nicely, it is one of the best urban environments in New Zealand.
2. You recently defended the craft beer industry, saying it had the potential to rival New Zealand’s wine industry. Joking aside, are craft beer drinkers wankers? Do you consider Double Brown a craft beer?
I think craft beer shows what a free and responsible drinking culture can be. People focus on the quality rather than the quantity, and it could become a big export for New Zealand, too. Sadly the government chooses to make so many regulations that actually suppress that culture, most recently forcing the New Zealand Beer Festival to be cancelled. DoBro is an acquired taste that I haven’t mastered yet.
3. You studied both Engineering and Philosophy. Why did these two pretty distinct subjects appeal to you?
Engineering is about making useful things.
Even though I don’t practice as an electrical engineer anymore I’m proud that engineers are solving problems every day – for example, electric cars and solar power will do far more for the environment than politicians ever have. Philosophy teaches you how little we really know about the world. A lot of my parliamentary colleagues want to tax and regulate their way to a better life for you. My response is always that it’s better for the government to do a few things well and allow people greater freedom to pursue their own dreams.
4. What was your abiding memory of your own university life? What would be one piece of advice that you would offer today’s students?
Being in the engineering computer lab (laptops were really expensive when I studied) at midnight on a Friday and every single computer being in use. Students should get more credit for how hard they work. My main advice is to get work experience, start thinking about where you want to be in five years career wise. And if you’re really not happy don’t keep studying to keep your friends or parents happy, stop and re-evaluate because you only get to be young once.
5. ACT wants to remove all price controls on tuition fees, believing that this would lead to lower course costs for students – particularly those who study online. Is this a realistic outcome?
Anything is realistic if there is political will, the real question is whether it’s a good idea. Students are paying a lot and taxpayers are paying even more for tertiary education. When you get to the workforce you want to have quality degree. Does it really make sense to cap fees, have our universities tumbling down the world rankings, and at the end of your study have large student debt anyway?
6. ACT would like to reintroduce interest on student loans. In their 2014 Election Guide, the NZUSA (New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations) had this to say about that: “Ninety-three per cent (of MPs) support interest-free student loans, with just 2 per cent strongly opposed – which reflects popular support for The ACT Party, the only party that advocates restoring interest.” Do you think this policy is harming ACT’s chances of attracting student voters?
It depends. If a student wants to pay higher taxes for the rest of their life because their colleagues dined out on an interest free loan then they won’t support ACT. If they want to pay for their own education once, and then pay lower taxes for the rest of their life, then ACT should be very attractive.
7. The NZUSA do not appear to be big fans of ACT or other right wing parties. Recently, the current NZUSA President Linsey Higgins said: “I think we (NZUSA) definitely have a strong relationship with political parties on the left but this is more often due to their willingness to work with us.” Could ACT work with the NZUSA in devising policy platforms for students? What are your opinions on the NZUSA?
We had a very congenial meeting with the incoming student presidents last year, so it’s better than the quote above makes out. One area we should be cooperating on – and I have said this to them – is housing affordability. The average student borrows about $9,000 per year but house prices have been going up $26,000 per year for the last three years. If your goal is to graduate, get a job, pay off your loan, and eventually buy a house, students should be far more concerned about the housing market. I hope NZUSA will take this on board because I’d like to work with them on it.
8. Last year you were accused of telling students with mental illness to ‘harden up’. Were you misquoted? If so, what would your message be to students suffering from mental health issues?
Totally misquoted. The student gave a long list of concerns, one of which was mental illness, but I didn’t recognise it as a question about that. If it had been a clear question about mental illness I would have told her what I’d tell anybody: aside from your immediate network there are a range of agencies, voluntary, at uni, and in the health system which can help and you should seek the level of help you believe you require.
9. It was ACT MP Heather Roy who introduced the Voluntary Student Membership Bill in 2010. The Bill subsequently passed and students’ associations now have threadbare memberships, if they have a membership at all. Are you happy with this result? Do you believe students have benefited from not having to belong to their student union?
Absolutely. The UN Declaration of Human Rights and New Zealand’s Bill of Rights say you should not be compelled to join an organisation. Compulsory unionism was morally wrong. In practice, O-Weeks, clubs and student services are still there because universities have a strong incentive to provide them. The only losers have been student politicians who now have to compete to be relevant like everyone else.
10. You are a passionate supporter of voluntary euthanasia and would like to see New Zealanders suffering from terminal illness have a choice in ending their lives on their own terms. Most students are a long way from having to contemplate the end of their lives. Why should students/young people consider this issue?
Even if you’re older it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have an assisted death, in countries where it is allowed there are as few as 0.3 per cent of people who die actually using the policy. The reason we should all care is compassion. We know from studies of coroners’ reports that 10 per cent of suicides are actually people with terminal illnesses. We know from surveys of doctors that as many as 4.5 per cent of people are deliberately given pain killers to end their lives. We also know from evidence submitted in the Lecretia Seales court case that palliative care does not work for everybody. My End of Life Choice bill is about giving a person a legal choice rather than those alternatives.