Act’s MP bootcamp: How the nine newly minted politicians are getting match-fit

Before the election was delayed in August, the Act Party’s polling was hovering around 5 per cent and the Herald’s press gallery interviewed five of its potential new MPs. Act’s support continued to surge and the party won 7.6 per cent awarding it 10 MPs. Amelia Wade speaks to its MPs who were once considered a long-shot.

Act’s nine new MPs have all been doing bootcamp since the election to be match-fit Parliament – though instead of burpees they’ve been drilling policy.

They’ve been schooling up on legislation and party history, had presentations on issues from different industries and spent a day with former leader Richard Prebble.

Between lessons they crammed in a three-week tour of New Zealand to say thank you to the 219,030 Kiwis who voted for them, allowing leader David Seymour to bring nine MPs with him into Parliament.

The crash course in being an Act politician culminated in a 40-minute presentation to their caucus colleagues on their portfolios – though for some that was a bigger task than others.

Auckland corporate banker Damien Smith, who at Number 10 was the last MP to make it in, has eight portfolios so had to give his colleagues homework and circulated much of his ahead of time.

The purpose of the presentations exercise was so the caucus can weigh-in and form a collective view on policies and ensure everyone was briefed on all areas.

“When was the last time someone really established a new caucus, culture and team?” said Seymour.

One example was the Māori Party in 2005 when four MPs joined Tariana Turia in Parliament.

The other was 2002 when Peter Dunne’s United Future and brought in seven other MPs, including some which hadn’t been properly vetted, went rogue and caused scandals.

“Dunne would be an obvious example to follow,” said Seymour.

The plan for this term for Act is to play as a team and stay on message so the party can grow its support in the 2023 election.

Seymour doesn’t even tolerate the suggestion that there’s any commentary on how the caucus will marry-up opinions on climate change.

“No one’s talking about it.”

Northland farmer Mark Cameron openly tweets that “global warming is a farce” while deputy leader Brooke Van Velden identifies as an environmentalist and once voted for the Greens.

Cameron said he, Van Velden and their environment spokesman Simon Court got along like “a house on fire” and that they were working on getting the language right to balance urban and rural New Zealand.

“We’re a really, really cool caucus and we’re a really, really cool team and we know we can actually get the right dialogue to fix the problems.”

Seymour said he was hugely relieved that after nine years as a party of one, he can now split the workload.

“I’m not in any way worried, I’m really relieved that finally we’ve brought in a good range of people that can do great stuff.”

As well as more cooks in the kitchen, the election result means Act’s parliamentary budget has increased significantly allowing it to boost its staffing numbers from three to 13 this term.

And bringing in nine colleagues meant Seymour’s salary also had a healthy bump from $179,713 to $195,415. It’s understood Seymour didn’t realise he was in for a pay rise until late in the campaign and thought he was in line to do a much bigger job for the same pay.

It will also be a very different job.

Seymour said he was focused on using this term to grow a team culture and grow support for the party because it was lazy to assume politics was cyclical.

“I don’t think that’s a viable way of looking at the world.

“We want to see Act twice as big next team… and one of the reasons I think that may happen is that, firstly, I do think we have a really good team.

“But you think about how many people took a punt on what they saw as a one man band, how many more might have voted Act if it wasn’t such a big shift.”

Karen Chhour, Number 7

At 9, Karen Chhour ran away from home for the first time.

“Some things were going on in my house that day where I didn’t feel safe and I didn’t feel happy then I got to the point where I got up the courage to run.”

She ran to a friend’s house who called Child, Youth and Family – now Oranga Tamariki – who sent her straight back to her parents’ house and didn’t listen to what she had to say.

In family group conferences, decisions were made around her.

“So as a child, you’re hearing that you are a burden, you’re hearing you are a black sheep, you are the problem. You have a bad attitude. You have this, you have that. And nobody wants you. And they literally said that to me.”

Chhour said that’s what made her get into politics and went with Act because she didn’t see meaningful change from consecutive governments.

The self-employed clothing manufacturer has been given the social development portfolio.

But almost five weeks after the election is yet to familiarise herself with Labour’s $1 billion social development package and can’t name one policy she’ll be a strong voice in Opposition on.

“I do know them. But there’s not one specific thing that I can say I am opposing because I haven’t looked into it yet.”

After a brief overview of the Training Incentive Allowance which Labour promised to reinstate, Chhour said that was something she would probably support because it would allow sole-parent beneficiaries to go to university to better themselves.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with it. It’s about going out and doing it and making something of yourself and if that’s what does it then fantastic. I think it’s a great idea.”

Seymour agreed Act wouldn’t oppose reinstating TIA and said Chhour, more than anyone, embodied Act values.

“She shows you can literally ‘change your future’. That was kind of made for her.”

Mark Cameron – Number 8

Mark Cameron in person is a very different character to the one he paints online.

On Twitter, the Northland farmer calls himself a “hard arse conservative no bulls****er” with a climate skeptic meme as a profile.

He says “global warming is a farce”, rages against Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and calls her a “buffoon”, a “vacuous teenager” and “feckless wench” and takes aim at National for “brown nosing to virtue signalling politics”.

He described someone as having lips “as tight as a flinching anus” and attacks the mainstream media.

And Cameron has frequently retweeted President Donald Trump and reuses his catchphrase “MAGA” – Make America Great Again.

“Keep up the great work,” Cameron tweeted Trump.

“The world at large needs real leaders.”

Yet in person, Cameron is charming and polite to a fault. He peppers his comments with “goodness me” and “good gracious” and doesn’t swear once.

Asked about the Trump retweets, Cameron said he’s “not necessarily” a supporter though has “perhaps a more conservative view” than others.

“The man uses visceral language that I don’t like,” Cameron said about Trump.

“I’ll be quite candid about that. I’m also acutely aware that the man has been viewed as a misogynist and perhaps he is. It’s not for me to judge.”

“There’ll be members of my caucus that perhaps don’t have a MAGA reality. Farmers tend to be a slightly more conservative bunch.”

In his 30 years as a farmer, Cameron reckons he’s milked close to 3 million cows.

And in that time, he’s also had to bury four of his friends who’ve taken their own lives so mental health will be a big focus for him.

Cameron said many farmers were now embarrassed to admit what they do in urban settings because they’d been demonised and left behind in climate change discussions.

He said he’s “absolutely not” a climate change denier – though believes some of the rhetoric is hyperbolic.

“We are at risk every day of further hyperbolic statements that don’t arrest the problem of climate change at a farm gate level.

“We’ve got a primary industry worth billions and billions of dollars. If we get the conversation wrong, there’s going to be a lot of emotional push-back. Farmers are at odds with a lot of the language that’s coming out of the current Government.”

Cameron sees every farmer as a member of his constituency.

“So they’re concerned about my authenticity, my delivery, working with the Act caucus so we can actually get the right language so we can stick our head above the water again, metaphorically, and have some honest conversation so we’re no longer that soft target.”

Toni Severin – Number 9

Toni Severin is still in a bit of shock that she actually made it to Parliament after standing for Act in five elections.

“When I first put my hand up, I wasn’t sort of looking at being in Parliament, because it was more to get the principles out there.

“And then as time progressed and I moved up the list I’m still in a little bit of a shock because of how well we did. But it’s an amazing shock.”

She’s had to leave her husband in charge of their water-blasting business in Christchurch East so she can get her feet under the desk in Parliament and acquaint herself with being an MP.

Severin didn’t put her hand up for her ACC and corrections portfolios – though she suspects she was given ACC because she’s a small business owner but she’s at a bit of a loss as to why she got corrections.

“I’m not really sure what the thinking was behind our leaders was but I’m happy with it.”

On ACC, Severin isn’t sure whether Act’s party line is still to privatise it saying that was something they still had to discuss.

“That’s something that needs a bit more investigation before I can say yay or nay.”

Seymour said later their caucus hadn’t investigated whether to pursue privatising ACC as a policy “but it should be”.

Severin, who has a firearm to occasionally shoot rabbits at her friend’s farm, is also in staunch opposition to the new gun legislation.

It’s a bad law that’s been rushed through, she said.

Severin admits she might not be an Act MP for the long haul and isn’t looking to climb the party’s rankings.

“I’m not young, but I’m not old either and I’ll see if I’ve had a very good, enjoyable three years here and we’ll see what happens with re-election.

“But also there could be some better people who are coming through that I think could make a bigger difference than myself.”

But she won’t go so far as to say she’s a placeholder for Act and said the party wouldn’t have put her at number 9 on its list unless it thought she had skills to offer.

“They probably had more expectations than probably I did.”

Damien Smith – Number 10

Damien Smith is the lowest ranked Act MP but has the most portfolios of his caucus – though struggles to list all eight.

He forgot racing and state-owned enterprises when quizzed by the Weekend Herald.

Smith’s responsibilities this term are rounded out with associate finance, land information, commerce and consumer affairs, revenue, sports and recreation, and arts and heritage.

Smith said he was given so many because he asked.

“I’ve got a passion for business, but I’ve also got a passion for the arts and I’ve got a passion for sport as well so it just felt appropriate.”

Smith said he believes Act chose him because there was a skills gap in their list for finance and expenditure.

Originally from Northern Ireland, Smith moved to New Zealand in 1996 to escape the bombing.

He’s had two careers – one in sales and marketing in Britain before moving into corporate banking in Australia and New Zealand both as an employee and consultant.

Smith said he was pleased to be Act’s number 10 as there were more senior people in the party who deserved to be ranked ahead of him.

And it wasn’t until election night itself that he was confident he would make it into Parliament.

“It was quite funny because David rang me on the Saturday afternoon and said, ‘Don’t bet the farm on it but if the polls hold you could be in’.

“And I thought, ‘Yeah, you know, right’.”

But unlike Severin, Smith is already thinking three terms ahead and one of his goals is to help build the size of the party at the next election.

Job number one, said Smith, is to meet everybody in Parliament then get to work on the finance and expenditure committee while not neglecting the constituency.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We still have a constituency out there that we believe we can build.

“It’s a great time and I’d love to stay involved with it. But every three years you’ve got to go out to the country.”

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