Tears and resignations after ‘train wreck’ ACT Party election campaign, sources claim

By Tova O’Brien of

ACT Party leader David Seymour speaks to media following its campaign launch in Auckland on 17 September 2023.

The ACT Party is accused of creating a culture of fear during the election campaign that forced some staff and volunteers to quit. A leaked recording reveals the moment two senior volunteers resigned. Stuff’s Chief Political Correspondent Tova O’Brien investigates.

The ACT Party is facing a declaration of no confidence in its board, allegations of a culture of fear, unfair treatment for women and a “train wreck” campaign as senior staff and volunteers quit their roles.

At least half a dozen staff and volunteers have left their roles with the party since the election. Some sources have told Stuff that elements of the campaign were like the Hunger Games, that candidates and volunteers were regularly left in tears and that a culture of fear took over the campaign when problems started arising with candidates.

A leaked recording obtained by Stuff reveals the moment two respected volunteers resigned expressing no confidence in the board and raising concerns about the party’s treatment of women.

Questions Stuff put to the party’s leader, David Seymour, about how much he knew of the concerns were all referred back to the party.

ACT says an independent review into its campaign has been completed. All staff, volunteers and candidates were invited to provide “free and frank” feedback as part of that process.

ACT party deputy leader Brooke van Velden speaks to media following the party's campaign launch in Auckland on 17 September 2023.

In a statement, party president Catherine Isaac told Stuff: “I am confident that all feedback, both positive and critical, has been taken into account and the recommendations will be taken on board.”

“Political campaigns are stressful environments and despite best efforts, are often tough on people, many of whom are juggling their own lives and careers while supporting the party,” Isaac said.

“If someone had concerns on the campaign, they would be expected to make this known so appropriate support could be provided. The party was not made aware of anyone facing serious mental strain.”

In late April Stuff received a tip-off about resignations and cultural concerns within the party. Since then Stuff have spoken to current and former ACT Party staff, volunteers and candidates, some of whom have alleged that campaign leadership:

  • Created a culture of fear that candidates and volunteers would be penalised if they raised concerns, unfair treatment of women who had to fight too hard to be heard, and a “train wreck” campaign where those involved felt used.
  • Failed to support people mentally struggling on the campaign and blamed volunteers and candidates when things went wrong. It created a divide between two critical wings of the party.
  • Made elements of the campaign seem like the “Hunger Games” with some volunteers reduced to tears and left feeling like they were ranked based on usefulness.
ACT Party is launching its election campaign at Auckland's Civic Theatre on 17 September 2023.

Leaked recording

Stuff has been leaked a recording of an ACT Party committee meeting held in Auckland in March in which two volunteers quit.

In the recording, Dani Taylor tells the meeting she is resigning before saying, “it is a vote of no confidence in our board”.

A second committee member, Lauren Jeffares, follows with her resignation, saying she is hoping the committee and party focus on how to build the culture and not just focus on self-promotion.

She ends by saying, “I’m looking forward to seeing things becoming better in terms of how we treat women in our party”.

In her statement to Stuff, Isaac said Taylor and Jeffares were “well known to the party and had previously met with the party president and vice president to talk through and address their concerns”.

She also said the pair remained members and continued to attend ACT events and had been invited to meet with the full board to address any further concerns.

However, both Taylor and Jeffares said as far as they were concerned they had not been invited to speak to the full board and that they had quit their membership in March; it just does not take effect until July.

Taylor understood the meeting she had with the president and vice president last year was relating to other matters.

Jeffares said she was invited to speak to the board but only last Friday – and only after the party was made aware that Stuff was making enquiries.

Taylor worked on revamping ACT’s “School of Practical Politics”, the training and development course for aspiring parliamentary candidates.

Speaking to Stuff, she said she stood by what she said at the time of her resignation.

ACT's campaign bus, Big Pinky, en route to walkabouts in Sandringham businesses hit by crime 12 October 2023.

She said her proudest moment was working on the candidates’ course, but believed their hard work was undone on the campaign.

“Those of us involved felt we had left the jersey in a better place, so to speak. Then some vandals came and set the changing rooms on fire because they knew they didn’t meet the new standards and they had no place in the future of the team.”

Jeffares said there was a cultural shift during the election campaign. “I resigned very deliberately because, sadly, the party had turned from being very warm and voter focused to a party focused on the baubles of office and that had treated our women badly.”

Asked to elaborate, Jeffares said: “Women have to fight too hard to have their concerns and ideas heard within the party.”

Taylor agreed, saying voters and volunteers signed up to ACT because it was a party of policy for the people. “Mission Control let us all down by transporting us back to the Dark Ages and charging us for the trip.”

Several sources told Stuff about a divide between “Mission Control”, the former parliamentary staffers running the campaign, and “HQ”, the home of the ACT Party outside of parliament which runs the show when it is not campaign season.

There was a feeling that the campaign management was quick to blame HQ when things went wrong and that there was no accountability when “Mission Control” miss-stepped.

But ACT refutes that. Issac said: “The campaign team and HQ were different units performing separate functions, as is appropriate.”

Stuff has seen text messages from a candidate describing the campaign as a “train wreck”.

“Too many ‘friends’ looking after ‘friends’. The campaign was pretty much a waste of many people’s time and I don’t think I (and many others) ever felt so used.”

ACT party leader David Seymour

Allegations of a culture of fear

Several people close to the party spoke to Stuff on the condition of anonymity.

The divisions between “Mission Control” and “HQ” were at the heart of the ructions, they said.

“HQ became a bit like a military hospital,” one source said. “Mission control, were shooting their kneecaps out faster than HQ could patch everybody up.

“It wasn’t unusual to be at HQ and see people in tears, be it candidates or supporters, just sitting down saying I can’t do this anymore.”

Things got worse when problems started arising with candidates – one compared vaccine mandates to concentration camps, another compared the vaccine to drownings and another referred to Covid as “mass hysteria”.

“There was a culture of fear in the party when the wheels started coming off around candidates, anyone that stuck their head up above the parapet was seen as dispensable.”

One source told Stuff, the party had reassured candidates they would be supported even if something went wrong but instead, when things did go wrong, they felt candidates were left to deal with the fallout on their own and in some cases were thrown under the bus.

They described the campaign and treatment of volunteers as being like a “bizarre hunger games” where supporters were ranked and rewarded based on their usefulness.

That was backed up by another source who said volunteers felt used by senior campaign figures who reduced them to statistics.

“People were becoming numbers. [ACT board member] John Fernandes, for example, was ranking supporters on their usefulness and whether or not they should be invited to a supporter party or not.”

They said that sort of thing was “uncomfortably common” during the campaign as it became less focused on the party and more about playing personal politics.

“It caused a lot of stress and I think it was undue stress… a lot of people came out quite worse for wear mentally and the strain was visible in a lot of ways, across a wide range of people. That was supporters, candidates, staff members, they were looking worse for wear. It was very disheartening.”

The mental strain was particularly tough for some.

“There were at least one or two who ended up in quite dark places, they reached out to the party and didn’t receive adequate support for that.

“I don’t think some people would have made it out the other side with their whole selves without the support of HQ.”

Fernandes did not respond to Stuff’s questions but party president Isaac said volunteers, staff and candidates were provided support.

“Any suggestions that people were treated differently because of their gender, ranked by usefulness, or had concerns ignored are untrue,” she said.

Another source laid a share of the blame on ACT’s campaign manager, Stu Wilson.

“As far as I can tell Stu Wilson pretty much single handedly blew the second biggest budget of that election, had nearly nothing to show for it, burned off half the party and 90 percent of the goodwill, then somehow … got a cushy job out of it.”

Wilson is now David Seymour’s specialist ministerial advisor.

One of the other, earlier sources, said, “It takes considerable talent to take a party which is polling 12-13 percent at the beginning of the year, spend millions of dollars on a campaign and manage to drag it down to 8 percent by election night”.

“That type of talent is better used in some kind of political Stephen King novel, rather than advising the man who’s set to be the deputy PM.”

An ACT Party spokesperson provided a response, saying: “These allegations are baseless. Stuart has been involved in eight ACT campaigns and the financial state of the party following this campaign was the best of the previous two decades.”

Senior management quit

The party’s senior management has also quit. Party secretary Danae Smith, and operations manager Ann-Louise Hyde have resigned from their roles.

Both told Stuff it was natural timing after a big election.

“I’ve been here a long time now, near on eight years,” Smith said. “It’s time to move on.”

She said her views of the party had not changed over that time and her relationship with Seymour was good.

Hyde said she was always planning to leave after the campaign and called the “exodus” of staff, as it was described by one source, a “new broom”.

“After a big election and a big win, people take stock, it’s really the only time you can go.”

She said there was also a sense that some people were leaving the party as a result of the culture, though she did not believe the campaign period was the right time to question that, that it’s the time to just get on with it.

“Most of the time we played as a team but you know, there’s people who throw their teddy’s out of cot all the time, people get cross, people like to swear and be dramatic and stomp around, that’s all just part of it.”

The party’s photographer, Guy Quartermain, told Stuff that he left early on in the campaign and resigned his party membership as well. “I’m used to being my own boss,” he said.

Quartermain still does some work with ACT and would not comment on the campaign, only to say, “it’s a hustle and bustle, hurly burly environment the way campaigns are set up – they’re like that for all parties”.

Another volunteer, Matt Mason, who did community outreach for ACT, connecting with voters, said he left his role because the job changed to become more focused on travel. He has not quit his party membership and said he did not hold any ill-will towards the people he worked with.

Isaac said it was common for volunteers and staff to move on at the end of a political campaign. “There has certainly been no unexpected ‘exodus’ following this campaign.”

– This story was originally published by Stuff.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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