The David Seymour Enigma

Imagine, if you will, that David Seymour of ACT becomes the next MP for Epsom (it’s easy if you try). He is likely to argue that his victory was not one pre-arranged by some cup if tea between his leader and the PM, John Key but, rather, because of his prolonged door knocking campaign (or maybe his inadvertently amusing campaign videos). Now, maybe you think that’s nonsense; a victory for ACT in Epsom would almost certainly be the product of National gifting them the seat (especially given the evidence), but for ACT’s David Seymour surely that’s not the point. He went through the motions necessary for saying he won the seat fair-and-square. I mean, you can’t actually tell from any anonymous vote why it was cast (despite what exit polls might possibly tell you).

There is something clever about David Seymour, which if said in the right tone of voice is the snarkiest thing I could possibly say (snark robbed of its strength, mind, by the transparency of that admission). Whatever concessions he gets from National for his support of the next government (oh, how I hope in a fortnight that this post is wrong), Seymour can claim that he might not be a gerrymandered candidate but Epsom’s real choice. Indeed, for ACT to have any credibility with regards to their “one law for all” campaign he really needs to be Epsom rather than empty scare quotes. A small party candidate representing the wishes of a suburb (even a wealthy, white one) is democracy in action. If Seymour can say “Look, I earned these votes!” then his views are worthy (if not worthwhile).

Electorate MPs are, when you think about it, strange in an MMP world. When you cast a party vote you’re endorsing a party and the party then gets someone off of their endorsed list. But electorate MPs are different, since you might (and some do) vote for them not because of their party affiliation but because they are effective at representing their constituency. Now, no one thinks Seymour will be an effective MP (or, they shouldn’t: we just don’t know yet, given his new-ness) but a vote for Seymour doesn’t seem to be one for representation by him but, rather, a way to get a party into Parliament by side-stepping the pesky “appeal to the general public” thing parties like the Greens and New Zealand manage to do.

Seymour might be token in a grand game of politicking or he might have shaken enough hands to really qualify as someone the people (good, bad and otherwise) wanted to vote for. In the end, all we know is that come this time in a fortnight, it’s likely that David Seymour will be looking at accommodation in Wellington and thinking of warming a seat in our Parliamentary debating chamber. He’ll present himself as the man Epsom voted for.

Maybe he will be. Such is the enigma of being a David Seymour.

Jamie Whyte has not been thinking

Jamie Whyte is a philosopher and leader of the ACT Party, a right-wing, libertarian, political party which believes in one law for all, as long as that law is the white man’s set of edicts. He recently gave a speech to the party faithful down in the Waikato, and, not to mince words, it was a load of race-baiting tripe of the kind John Ansell routinely engages in.

Aotearoa (New Zealand) has a race-problem or, to put it more accurately, a perception problem when it comes to the treatment of our indigenous people, the Māori. Many political parties have engaged in race-baiting – telling the white majority, the Pākehā, that despite being at the top of the heap they are somehow suffering because of affirmative action towards the marginalised first people of this place – including New Zealand First, the Conservatives and the National Party. ACT, which stands for equality for all regardless of position, has dabbled from time to time with race-baiting, and Jamie Whyte seems to have gone full gusto (in part, I suspect, to gain the racist vote from the debris of the Conservative Party, which has also been campaigning in a race-baiting mode).

Whyte’s speech is an interesting affair: he starts off by stating that he supports historical redress for the land confiscations Māori suffered under the Pākehā, reiterating that ACT is all about property rights, but then he says:

Some state run or state directed organisations openly practice race-based favouritism. I know a woman who has raised children by two fathers, one Pakeha and the other Maori. If her Pakeha son wants to attend law school at Auckland University, he will have to get much higher grades than her Maori son.

The Māori quota for some university courses is a very real thing, but people like Whyte either haven’t looked into how the quota operates, or he has deliberately chosen to ignore said processes in order to make an inflammatory point. The quota provides extra seats aimed at getting more Māori into certain subjects (like Medicine and Law), so Pākehā do not miss out: if, for some reason, there were no Māori applicants for places in Law or Medicine one year, those spaces simply would not be filled. It’s not, then, as if Māori are taking places away from Pākehā. The quota is a top up, rather than a reserve system. As for the lower grades allocated to these quota seats; this is simply a recognition that most Māori come from lower socio-economic areas and we know, from the statistics, that grades on average are lower across the board in lower socio-economic areas. As such, the quota recognises this disparity as being yet another barrier to entry1. That being said, it’s not as if universities let morons into these courses, and people who get in under the quota have to perform to the same standard as other students once they are in.

Now, does Whyte know this? Maybe not, but if it’s going to be a talking point he is going to use whilst campaigning, he probably should school himself on it.

He then goes on to say:

The question is why race-based laws are tolerated, not just by the Maori and Internet-Mana Parties, but by National, Labour and the Greens.

I suspect the reason is confusion about privilege.

Maori are legally privileged in New Zealand today, just as the Aristocracy were legally privileged in pre-revolutionary France.

But, of course, in our ordinary use of the word, it is absurd to say that Maori are privileged. The average life expectancy of Maori is significantly lower than Pakehā and Asian. Average incomes are lower. Average educational achievement is lower.

Legal privilege offends people less when the beneficiaries are not materially privileged, when they are generally poorer than those at a legal disadvantage.

Of course, many Maori are better off, better educated and in better health than many Pakeha. And these are often the Maori who take most advantage of their legal privileges, especially those offered by universities and by political bodies.

Alas, people are inclined to think in generalities, and they fail to notice that it is the materially privileged individuals in the legally privileged group who capture the benefits. They think of Maori as generally materially disadvantaged; and they see their legal privileges as a form of compensation.

Let’s just let that sink in. He first compares the status of Māori in Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the aristocrats of the Ancien Régime, which as analogies go is pretty weird. In the Ancien Régime the nobles were gluttons whilst the people of France starved. Yet, in Aotearoa (New Zealand), it is Māori who play the role of the French populace and Pākehā who are predominately living the high life off of the back of the unfortunate, indigenous people of this place. Whyte’s analogy is made even stranger when you think about who is more likely linked to revolutionary activity in Aotearoa (New Zealand): Māori or Pākehā? I can’t quite remember the last Operation 8-like event which struck at supposed Pākehā revolutionary activity. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention.

Then there’s Whyte’s “Māori aren’t privileged, but… actually they are!” double-handed. Whyte’s argument seems to be “Well, some Māori are well off, therefore Māori aren’t in a bad place after all”, which is analogous with saying “Look, the plague only kills most of its victims, so it’s not really a fatal disease is it?”

Maybe I’m being unfair to Whyte’s argument: he is, after all, making the claim that it is Māori who exercise their legal “privileges” (quote marks because, really, we’re talking about affirmative action designed to counter the statistical data Whyte’s admits shows Māori are not doing well in Aotearoa (New Zealand)) are doing well. However, he doesn’t just say “well”, because if he did he’d be forced to admit that affirmative action works. No, he says “better”.

Better? Does he have evidence which backs up that claim? And better than who? Other low socio-economic Pākehā? Other Pākehā who have also got into Med or Law School? It’s a spectacularly empty claim. It also buys into a common conspiracy theory found among elements of both the liberal left and right: that all the affirmative action afforded to Māori really only goes to a certain part of Māoridom, the mysterious, shadowy Māori elite.

Also, even if affirmative action worked, Whyte would oppose it. He writes:

Race-based favouritism is doing Maori no real good.

But even if it were, ACT would still oppose it. Because society should not be a racket, no matter who the beneficiaries are – be they men (who continue to enjoy legal privilege in many countries), the landed nobility or people of indigenous descent. Law-makers must be impervious to the special pleading of those who wish to set aside the principle of legal equality.

The entire speech is “legal equality this!” and “legal equality that!” Whyte, despite acknowledging the deplorable state most Māori are in compared to Pākehā, wants to ignore any notion of social inequality in Aotearoa (New Zealand) – since it would indicate there are arguments that central government have a role in doing something about it – and focus on repealing any laws which might be seen to give Māori a leg up. Whyte wants to ignore evidence so he can focus on ideology. As long as Māori legally have the opportunity to be equal with their fellow Pākehā it doesn’t really matter that the reality is that they rarely, if ever, are able to achieve it because of their entrenched position at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

Whyte is race-baiting. Nowhere is it more obvious than when he writes:

There are many cultures in New Zealand. People identify with all sorts of things. Some New Zealanders identify with their sexuality, some with their profession, some with their religion, some with their political beliefs and some – perhaps most – with nothing in particular.

The government should not select some of these “identities” as special and confer legal advantages on them. Culture should not be nationalised.

Yet this ignores two things, one legal (which you’d think a party all about law and order like ACT would be attentive to) and one cultural.

  1. Māori signed a treaty with the British Crown. That gave them special status in this place.
  2. Māori are indigenous to this place. They are special insofar as they are a culture not found elsewhere and thus you might think that looking after your unique, indigenous culture is something a country is entitled (and ought) to do.

Whyte, however, only seems to be concerned with the spectre that, somehow, Māori legal privilege means they are eating five course dinners off of the back of the starving peasants in France, while we Pākehā have to plot revolution in the cafes of Paris.

Whyte is a philosopher, yet it seems he has traded in thinking critically about subjects like the unique place of Māori in Aotearoa (New Zealand) for the easy – yet fallacious – politicking of the politician. For someone who said ACT would not trade in race-baiting politicking back in January, Whyte has quickly grown accustomed to trotting out the usual canards expected by the party faithful, rather than challenging them to rethink their bigotry.

It’s a shame, then, that we’ll likely see ACT and it’s prejudice towards Māori rewarded by a seat in the upcoming elections, especially since they’ll likely only get in because the National Party is gifting them an electorate seat.


  1. Whyte characterises it as Pākehā need As when Māori only need Cs. That’s not how it works at all.