Man At The TOP: Motivated by founder Gareth Morgan’s desire to ensure that future generations of New Zealanders enjoy the same opportunities as his own Baby Boomer Generation, The Opportunities Party (TOP) aspires to attract the support of enough unaffiliated voters to “light a fuse” under New Zealand’s lethargic and risk-averse political class.
BY A QUIRK OF GEOGRAPHY, we have woken up on America’s election day while the American electorate is sleeping fitfully through the night before. It will be Thursday morning (let’s be optimistic!) before the outcome of the most important US presidential election since 1860 becomes clear. So, while nightmares weigh heavily upon the breast of America’s Lady Liberty, let us turn our thoughts to the incredible lightness of being a New Zealand voter.
Barely five days ago, on Guy Fawkes eve, our very own millionaire gadfly, Gareth Morgan, announced the formation of The Opportunities Party (TOP). Motivated by its founder’s desire to ensure that future generations of New Zealanders enjoy the same opportunities as his own Baby Boomer Generation, TOP aspires to attract the support of enough unaffiliated voters to “light a fuse” under New Zealand’s lethargic and risk-averse political class.
So far, so Trumpish? No, not really.
Donald Trump’s extraordinary achievement was to mount a successful reverse takeover of the Republican Party. Pivotal to his success was the support of America’s most ignorant white voters. Who can forget the moment, early on in the race for the White House, when Trump was proudly listing the demographics he was winning. “We’re winning the poorly educated”, purred the Donald, before flashing his trademark grin and cooing: “We love the poorly educated.”
Morgan is approaching politics from a radically different direction. His openly avowed goal is to wield “undue influence” over New Zealand politics. He cannot hope to do this by enlisting the most ignorant and alienated of voters. The demographics he must win are those containing the nation’s most intelligent and engaged citizens.
Nor does Morgan intend to place TOP’s collective posterior on the Treasury Benches. He’s ruling out coalition agreements with both National and Labour. Instead, TOP proposes to position itself on the cross-benches, from where it plans to assemble one-off majorities for a series of overdue, but essential, policy reforms.
Far from becoming a permanent feature of New Zealand’s political landscape, TOP’s aim is to assemble a transient political movement dedicated to goading the lacklustre and cautious politicians seated on both sides of the aisle into purposeful action. Having ticked-off its strictly limited set of policy objectives, Morgan and his party intend to pack up their box files and go home.
I have to confess to being more than a little intrigued. Whether or not a political party dedicated to achieving a handful of key policy objectives, and then disbanding itself, could attract a substantial measure of electoral support is a thought experiment upon which many productive hours can be idled away.
Naturally, money would be crucial to the success of such a venture – lashings and lashings of money. But, lashings and lashings of money is precisely what Gareth Morgan has got. What’s more, he has spent much of his time since becoming a multi-millionaire looking for answers to some of New Zealand’s biggest problems.
The radical American journalist, Upton Sinclair, famously observed that: “It is hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”
This largely explains why Morgan, the founder of Infometrics Ltd, was widely regarded as one of this country’s leading free-market evangelists. With his salary no longer dependent on preaching that old-time free-market religion, however, Morgan has shown dangerous signs of ideological agnosticism. Indeed, on matters as controversial as climate change, poverty and the delivery of a universal basic income, Morgan has shown himself to be a commendably open-minded intellectual pilgrim.
It’s a quality that could propel TOP a lot further than Colin Craig’s superficially similar self-funded electoral vehicle – The Conservative Party.
Depending on what Morgan and his fellow TOP members settle on as their half-dozen core policy objectives, the party has the potential to draw support away from practically every party currently represented in Parliament. Should this eventuate (and with proper political guidance and promotion there’s no reason to suppose it shouldn’t) it is even conceivable that TOP could achieve its goals without ever having to set foot in parliament.
When Morgan was Infometrics’ leading economist he was a passionate promoter of the virtues of competition. The arrival of a competitor in any given market, he’d argue, will always produce a galvanising effect on existing market players. Is Morgan hoping that, simply by entering New Zealand’s lamentably self-satisfied and sluggish political marketplace, TOP is going get the National/Labour duopoly off its bottom?
This is what differentiates Gareth Morgan from Donald Trump. Rather than goading New Zealand’s ignorant pessimists into doing their worst, our own millionaire-turned-politician is inviting his country’s intelligent optimists to get the best out of their fellow citizens by offering the best of themselves.
In doing so, TOP may even frighten the National/Labour duopoly into giving away the safe move – for the right move.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 8 November 2016.