ACT leader David Seymour lies about his ties to the Atlas Network

David Seymour has denied any connection to the Atlas Network in an interview - which is weird, because there are just so many connections!

ACT leader David Seymour lies about his ties to the Atlas Network
David Seymour, interviewed on RNZ, lies about connections to the Atlas Network.

To say "politicians lie" is like saying "fish swim." It's such an obvious truism that it's become a cliche – and yet, the sheer audacity of some political lies can still be breathtaking.

Such is the scope of David Seymour's denial of his connection to the Atlas Network.

To recap, quickly: The Atlas Network is a "think tank that creates think tanks"; a global network of more than 500 right-wing think tanks and lobby groups. New Zealand members of Atlas include the Taxpayers' Union and the New Zealand Initiative (formed from a merger of two think tanks, one of which was the infamous Business Roundtable.)

Seymour's extraordinary denial came during a recording of Mata with Mihingarangi Forbes on RNZ, recorded and released on Waitangi Day, February 6 2024. The relevant parts of the transcript are excerpted below.

Forbes: And those indigenous Australians are now warning Māori that the same groups are behind this referendum. Are they, do you think?
Seymour: Well, if you're about to go into the new Pizzagate of the left conspiracy theory, then I'll be real disappointed.
Forbes: What's that, the Pizzagate?
Seymour: That's some crazy conspiracy theory that Trump has had in the US.
Forbes: The campaign in Australia had links to the Atlas network.
Seymour: Oh, here we go.
Forbes: A network of think tanks, which promote individual liberty and free enterprise. And it said that the network pushes opinion pieces in favour of free speech. Do the ACT Party have any links or connections to the Atlas group?
Seymour, very quietly: No.

That is a lie. David Seymour and the ACT Party have numerous links to the Atlas Network. Here are some of them.

After a 10 month stint as an electrical engineer – his sole non-political, non-think tank job – David Seymour worked for a Canadian think tank called the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, from 2007 to 2011. From January 2013 to February 2014, he worked for The Manning Foundation (now called the Canada Strong and Free Network). Both these think tanks were members of the Atlas Network at the time. (They possibly still are: the Atlas Network no longer discloses member organisations on its website.) Just in case there's any doubt, here is David Seymour in the Atlas Year in Review, 2008. He is pictured composing a song about school choice to celebrate Milton Friedman Legacy Day, which is one of those sentences you never expect to find yourself writing.

ACT Party Leader David Seymour is pictured at Atlas Network events, in the publication Atlas Year-in-Review, 2008
Image credit: Atlas Network 2008, resurfaced by Michael Bain on Bluesky.

There are other overt ACT links to Atlas. According to his LinkedIn profile, Louis Houlbrooke is currently "working at Parliament in support of ACT's vision of an open and benevolent society in which individual New Zealanders are free to achieve their full potential." Before this, he worked as Campaigns Manager for the Taxpayers' Union, an Atlas Network member, for four years, eight months. During this time, Houlbrooke attended multiple Atlas Network events, as documented by the Atlas Network.

A screenshot of a photo from the Atlas Network website. Louis Houlbrooke is pictured in the back row, fifth from the right. CORRECTION: An earlier version of this screenshot identified the wrong person as Louis Houlbrooke.

Hilariously, the most comprehensive debunking of David Seymour's 2024 Waitangi Day lie about the ACT Party's connection to the Atlas Network comes from David Seymour's 2021 Waitangi Day "State of the Nation" speech. Helpfully, you can read Seymour's reference to "my old friends at the Atlas Network" at the ACT Party's website, and on a video hosted on the ACT party's Facebook page.

A screenshot from the ACT Party's website. The text reads: Then the Global Index of Economic Mentality was released in November by my old friends at the Atlas Network. Atlas is an umbrella organisation for free-market think tanks all over the world. It is based in Washington, DC, and chaired by a New Zealander, Debbi Gibbs.
Image credit: @char_kiwi on Twitter/X

It's worth noting that Debbi Gibbs, the Atlas Network chair that Seymour references, is the daughter of Alan Gibbs, who was a long-time member of Atlas Network member organisation, the Business Roundtable (now the New Zealand Initiative). Alan Gibbs is also a founding member of ACT, and he and his wife have often donated large sums of money to the party.

Also, I feel compelled to mention that before her tenure as chair of a multinational neoliberal lobby network, Debbi Gibbs was the manager of New Zealand rock band Straitjacket Fits, because nothing is weirder than reality.

The interview continues:

Forbes: Have you spoken or taken advice from them or any group associated with them about the treaty?
Seymour, even more quietly: No.

This is not true, as Forbes quickly demonstrates. Seymour attended a Taxpayers' Union (which is part of the Atlas Network) function in Wellington where British politician Lord Daniel Hannan – one of the principal architects of Brexit, and founding president of the Initiative for Free Trade (which is, if you haven't guessed, part of the Atlas Network) – spoke specifically about the Treaty.

Seymour: I can't believe you're doing this. I've read about this conspiracy theory and you're actually running it, but that's cool.
Forbes: Well, no, I'm just trying to understand it because we went to Australia and we analysed...
Seymour (interrupting): We did the conspiracy theory...
Forbes: We analysed the Yes campaign over there and we spoke with indigenous people about their fears, about what would happen in the referendum. And so when you consider, you know, actually you and I spoke about it. You said that you had met Lord Hannon and then the TPU, the Taxpayer Union, had invited you to come along. And he spoke about this treaty and the possibility of a referendum. So isn't that in fact, you know, these movements and these groups talking about our referendum?
Seymour: Well, going along to meet someone who's a famous figure, in world politics.
Forbes: What did he come to New Zealand for?
Seymour: I have no idea, but I was really pleased to...

(Seymour can find out what Hannan came to New Zealand for by either a.) consulting his memory of the speech he attended, b.) re-watching the speech Hannan gave on YouTube, or c.) by reading the video's title, which is "Lord Hannan, Daniel speaks about equality, the Treaty and the Taxpayers' Union in Wellington." The video is helpfully subtitled throughout.)

Forbes: Well, you were there.
Seymour: I was really pleased to have dinner with the guy. I mean, he's, you know, he's world famous as a politician. You get to meet him, hear what he has to say.
Forbes: But you went along to that function to listen to him where he talked about the Magna Carta and the treaties and...
Seymour: Oh my God, the Magna Carta.
Forbes: He did. And then...
Seymour: Scandalous.
Forbes: Well, I'm not saying that that's scandalous. I'm just saying this is what he talked about. I listened to it online because it was posted by the TPU. And so he talked about that and he talked about the danger of the misinterpretation of treaties and what they meant. And he's, you know, and he also says, what you say is that the judiciary is getting too involved or they're making the interpretation of it as too wide.
Seymour: You do know that people have had concerns about judicial activism all over the world for all sorts of reasons for hundreds of years, right?
Forbes: No, I don't...
Seymour (laughing): And you're trying to say that this is somehow some crazy conspiracy theory. I mean, come on.
Forbes: No, no, I'm just asking the question. I'm asking whether you know if there's any kind of connection. So you're answering there is no connection?
Seymour: I've told you that there is no connection.
Forbes: Ka pai.
Seymour: I'm just disappointed in you for picking up a known conspiracy theory that several people have sent to me and I never thought I'd get asked about it by you, but hey, you go.

To be very clear: there is a connection, and it's a comprehensive one. Seymour's lie is beyond the pale, even for a public habituated to lying politicians. He must know that he worked for Atlas Network think tanks for years, and that he was a guest at Atlas Network events. He must also know ACT party staff members worked for Atlas Network think tanks for years and attended Atlas Network events. I'll happily grant that a global network of think tanks dedicated to spreading far-right thought around the world sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's not journalists' fault; that's the fault of the Atlas Network for giving itself a name that would make a Bond supervillain blush, seeding and partnering with over 500 think tanks worldwide, and making grandiose statements like this on its own website:

A global network for global impact. Today, Atlas Network partners with over 500 think tanks worldwide to drive change in ideas, culture, and policy...

The reason for David Seymour's abject (yet extremely funny) denial seems obvious: now that the links between neoliberal think tanks and far-right politics are becoming clearer and more well-known than ever before, the Atlas Network is becoming a political inconvenience. Too bad. The ACT Party's association with the Atlas Network is ironclad – and no amount of lying, prevaricating and accusing respected journalists of "conspiracy theories" will make it any less so.

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Corrections and edits to this article:

8 Feb 2024: I did some minor spelling, grammar and sense edits, and added some information about Atlas Network chair Debbi Gibbs being the former manager of Straitjacket Fits, because it's somehow true and I find that very funny.

9 Feb 2024: Updated several links to point to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, in case the pages are edited.