Graham Adams: David Seymour is cast into hell… alongside Tova O’Brien

Graham Adams: David Seymour is cast into hell… alongside Tova O’Brien

Tweets about giving Maori priority access to vaccines have blown up. Graham Adams assesses the damage.


In his epic 14th-century poem Inferno, Dante depicted sinners who questioned established religion or whose heretical views damaged the fabric of society as trapped in burning tombs in the Sixth Circle of Hell, and suffering horrific pain.

This week, Seymour found himself tormented in the Sixth Circle of Twitter after he tweeted a code that enables Māori to be prioritised for vaccination at the Trusts Arena in West Auckland, run by Te Whānau o Waipareira. The code was accompanied by the tag: “If you’re worried about vaccination waiting times, you no longer need to make an appointment. All you need to do is use this access code.”

Seymour seemed taken aback to find himself being so vociferously condemned in the mainstream media and on swathes of social media. After all, the confidential code to give Māori priority to vaccination was hardly a secret. It had already been circulating on social media and a few non-Māori had admitted using it to see if they would be questioned about their apparent lack of Māoriness. One said that if anyone asked her for proof of her lineage she would simply shout “Racist!”. As it happened, she wasn’t asked.

In the rush to condemn Seymour, respect for facts was abandoned. Waipareira CEO John Tamihere announced: “The [vaccination] system has been designed by white, middle-class folk for people like Seymour.”

Tamihere must have been told after making that comment that Seymour is actually Ngā Puhi (through his mother) because when he put out a press release a few hours later the story had been changed to: “Seymour stumbled upon his Māori Ngā Puhi ancestry late in life and used it to advance his political ambitions.”

This seemed as ill-informed as the earlier assertion given that if Seymour had indeed used his Māoriness to “advance his political ambitions”, his fellow Māori politician certainly would have known about it — and presumably wouldn’t have implied hours earlier that Seymour was a middle-class Pakeha. In fact, Seymour virtually never refers to his Māori ancestry, unless asked directly — which is entirely in keeping with his stance that race shouldn’t confer advantage.

But a pile-on was in full swing and even political journalists couldn’t help rushing to put the boot in themselves. Most extraordinarily, Newshub’s political editor, Tova O’Brien, tweeted: “Based on his actions today, I’ve written a five-word opinion piece: David Seymour is a cockwomble.”

O’Brien soon found herself alongside Seymour in Twitter hell, with most of the hundred-odd comments on her Twitter feed castigating her for being unprofessional, catty, shamefully biased and childish — amid accusations that she was sucking up to Ardern as the Prime Minister’s “pet reporter”.

It’s hard not to conclude that this episode will be more damaging to her reputation than it could ever be to Seymour’s

After all, while tweeting a priority code can be easily argued to not have been Seymour’s wisest political move — and many have — Act’s leader has always strongly opposed preferential policies formulated along racial lines.

A political editor, however, who so clearly picks sides has immediately torched any claim she might have had to being an impartial journalist.

O’Brien may, of course, still be smarting from her interview with Seymour on Newshub Nation in May when she repeatedly tried to depict the questions he had raised about He Puapua in Parliament as dog-whistles to racists. Seymour calmly refused to be put into the racist dog-box that she repeatedly tried to place him in.

O’Brien was so clearly rattled at being bested that she insisted on getting in the last word before time ran out. Towards the end of the interview, Seymour asserted that those pushing Māori tribal rights were proclaiming them to be something new when, in fact: “It’s called caste, it’s called class, it’s called feudalism — where you have different political rights for different sets of people based on who their ancestors were.”

In an astonishing example of unprofessionalism and oneupmanship, O’Brien declared: “Another word is actually partnership” — before summarily cutting off the Act leader just as he began to reply.

In contrast, in what seems a remarkable move for a journalist to make in this heated brouhaha, Heather du Plessis-Allan actually interviewed Seymour on Newstalk ZB to ask why he had tweeted the code — and gave him the time to answer.

Seymour justified his tweet by taking the wider view: “I think the real problem here is that, whether it is the He Puapua document, the council [Māori ward] elections, Three Waters, the history curriculum, or the way healthcare’s being run, people are absolutely sick and tired of a government that frames every issue through the lens of ethnicity…

“And the second thing that really gets them is that if they speak up or question it they are immediately shouted down and called racist.

“I think we have to take a stand and say: ‘There is no country in history that has formally started treating people differently — in law and in policy — based on their race or ethnicity that [hasn’t] absolutely gone down the tubes sooner or later.’

“But at the moment, it’s totally unfashionable to have any other view… and it’s one of the biggest issues facing New Zealand in the long term.”

Seymour said issuing a priority code for Māori was an attempt by the government to cover for an exceptionally poor vaccine rollout. He said it should have approached GPs, who know which of their patients are “medically vulnerable” and could apportion vaccines on that basis, not race. “Instead, GPs have been left on the outer.”

He said GPs who have vaccinated “thousands of people before” are still waiting for the Ministry of Health “to approve they know how to do it”.

Amid the name-calling and condemnation of Seymour, some salient questions were raised on social media. Topics canvassed included the apparent failure of the government’s expensive Māori vaccination programme, which was funded to the tune of $39 million in March with a further $23 million for Whānau Ora healthcare providers announced last week.

Despite the millions spent, the numbers of Māori coming forward to be vaccinated are still relatively low. Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare has denied the programme has failed although he did concede on Q&A in the weekend that messaging on the issue “might not have been on point”.

”We’ve invested in a number of campaigns to support Māori and yet we find ourselves lagging behind,” he said. “I know the numbers are rising but they’re stubbornly low. We still need more of our people to come forward to vaccinate.”

Seymour says the government’s approach towards vaccinating people based on race rather than need “infantilises some New Zealanders and infuriates the rest”.

“The virus doesn’t discriminate on race, so neither should the rollout. Access to vaccination has been the same for people of all ethnic backgrounds. If fewer Māori are vaccinated it can’t be a problem with access, but this move by the government insinuates that Māori have trouble making a booking.”

Having handed opponents such a hefty stick to beat them with, many politicians would have apologised for tweeting the code and backed off.

Seymour, however, doubled down. He said non-Māori people using the code would undermine racial discrimination, and “if it undermines racial discrimination then that is well worth doing”.

“Wanting people to be treated equally regardless of ethnicity is the opposite of racism.”


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.