By Jenée Tibshraeny
The Opportunities Party (TOP) isn’t missing an opportunity to up its profile ahead of this year’s general election.
It is shaking things up in the Mt Albert by-election, last week announcing its chief of staff, Geoff Simmons, is running for the seat.
TOP leader, Gareth Morgan, has described Simmons as the “thorn between two roses”, making reference to Simmons’ main rivals - Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and the Green Party’s Julie Anne Genter.
The question is, to what extent will Simmons also be the spanner in the works for the Opposition, capturing votes from National supporters, if not for their genuine support, then in their efforts to prevent ‘Team Labour/Greens’ from securing the seat?
And what will the debate sparked by the Mt Albert by-election reveal about New Zealanders’ appetites for fresh thinking in the political sphere?
“Well of course, we’re a new party. But we really weren’t expecting to stand - we haven’t even got all our policies out yet. So it was National’s absence that really pushed us across the line.”
He says Labour and the Greens don’t give voters much choice, “so we thought we may be able to broaden that palette somewhat”.
He describes TOP as being radically centrist.
“We’re absolutely centralist in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. We think that very much appeals to middle New Zealand.
“But what we’re talking about is much more radical… So instead of the same sort of business as a usual establishment party - ‘We make great promises, but we don’t actually deliver anything. We just tinker at the edges, so that we don’t upset anyone’ - we’re proposing some bold changes.”
Simmons maintains politics is entering a new era.
“Left and right are disappearing. Politics all around the world is changing. It’s time for something fresh.”
THE TRACK RECORD
Mt Albert’s issues are national issues
While Simmons was born in Mt Albert, went to Avondale College and studied economics at Auckland University, he hasn’t lived in the Super City since 1999.
Rather, he’s worked as a senior analyst at Treasury, a manager in the UK Civil Service, and most recently, the general manager for the Morgan Foundation.
Yet he maintains Mt Albert is facing the same issues as the rest of the country - high rents and house prices and lack of infrastructure.
Central and local government should split light rail costs
TOP hasn’t released its transport policy yet, but Simmons says public transport needs to be improved if Auckland wants to do “density well”.
“Otherwise we’re getting these new dense developments put up without carparks, which is great (it will encourage people to use public transport) but if the public transport’s not there, then they are going to buy the cars and they’ll end up clogging the roads.”
As for the light rail proposed to eventually run from the North Shore, along Dominion Road to Auckland Airport, Simmons sides with Labour in suggesting the cost be shared between local and central government.
The New Zealand Transport Agency is still deciding who is to pay for the project, with the Green Party suggesting central government should go the full hog and fund the whole lot.
Auckland Council needs more freedom
“We think the crucial thing here is that local government needs be given more ability to raise revenue. That applies on the environmental front - being able to charge polluters - but it also applies on the transport front,” Simmons says.
“Things like congestion charging; giving local government more tools to be able to manage the issues in their local area; collect revenue and invest.”
Ardern and Genter also support congestion charging.
Simmons says local government is constrained by a number of “silly rules”, like limits on debt and rules around the infrastructure funding.
He also agrees with Ardern and Genter in saying the New Zealand Transport Agency should have the remit to invest in all modes transport infrastructure - rail, cycle, etc, not just roads.
Government must lead by example on the environment front
Simmons says: “If we are going to increase the population, we’re going to have to make more use of what we’ve got. That’s transport, that’s sewage infrastructure. It boggles me that we are still pumping raw sewage into the Waitemata Harbour.
“We’re sending a message to farmers and corporate polluters out there that if you are polluting, we expect you to pay to clean up that damage. By the same token, if you are actually farming in a very environmentally friendly way, we’ll pay you…
“We can’t lecture farmers, if we’re dumping raw sewage into the Waitemata Harbour. It just totally lacks integrity.”
All home and land owners should be taxed on their equity
TOP wants to stop house prices increasing with an equity tax.
It wants to expand the definition of annual taxable income to include a minimum rate of return an equity owner gets from their productive assets - houses, farms, equipment, cars and even intellectual property in a business.
Those that already declare at least that level of income will be unaffected and those that don't will pay more.
The only exemption would be financial assets such as shares, deposits and bonds which already have tax paid on them.
TOP would use these funds to deliver income tax cuts. It promises 80% of the population would be better off, with the wealthiest 20% taking the biggest hit.
NZ’s tax system ‘rigged’ in favour of property
Asked how palatable National Party supporters in Mt Albert might find this policy, Simmons says National is supposed to be about growing the economy, yet our distorted tax system that favours housing, is holding us back.
“The game is most rigged in New Zealand towards housing. And then we stand back surprised when all of our money goes into investment in housing. I mean, it’s absolutely crazy.
“If we want a productive economy, we have to steer money away from housing. That means stopping the rise in housing prices - which the equity tax would achieve - and push all our investment money, our saving into much more productive uses…
“I would say to anyone who is actually really concerned about the economy… it may make sense for you individually to invest in a house, but if we all do it, it’s collective madness. We can’t all get rich off buying houses off each other folks. It’s madness.”
It will take time for houses to become affordable
Simmons acknowledges it will be a while before people feel the benefits of the policy.
“Eventually incomes will grow and housing affordability will be restored through that route.”
While the Greens straight up want house prices to fall, Labour wants an increase in affordable housing supply to stint house price growth and eventually see the house price to income ratio fall below where it is now in Auckland at 10:1.
“The thing with the Labour policy is that they assume the housing market is broken and that’s why no one is building houses. But the housing market is doing exactly what we’re incentivising them to do, which is land bank… if land prices are going up, why would you build? It’s better to just sit on the land,” Simmons says.
“We actually need to stop that rise, and that would encourage more houses to be built.”
Equity tax to potentially hit foreign investors the hardest
Simmons also says the equity tax would be another way of taxing foreign investors.
“The only reason that they’re investing here is because they want the same tax breaks that we invest in housing for. So absolutely, the tax would hit them potentially hardest, particularly if they’re absentee.”
Simmons recognises the policy may concern retirees who don’t have a lot of cash flow, so says TOP would allow them to defer their payments to the Inland Revenue until when they sell their houses.
“The elderly have seen the biggest capital appreciation. They’ve got plenty of money stored in that asset. I don’t have too much concern for them in that respect.”
Equity tax about closing the loopholes, not stopping property sales
He says TOP has steered clear of advocating for an easier to digest capital gains tax, as it doesn’t work.
“If you make exemptions on any tax, it increases complexity, rich people can afford accountants to be able to use the loopholes to their advantage, it’s a disaster right…
“A capital gains tax taxes transactions. We don’t want to discourage people to buy and sell houses. That’s the market working. We just want to close the loopholes around the effective income that comes from that.”
The Green Party supports a capital gains tax, while Labour wants the current bright line test to be extended from two to five years.
The Mt Albert by-election will be held on February 25.
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