By Jenée Tibshraeny
Would you rather a “regressive” Winston Peters or “progressive” Gareth Morgan holding the balance of power after the September 23 election?
This is the question Morgan, The Opportunities Party’s (TOP) founder, is asking New Zealanders to consider.
Calling for a crackdown on property speculators through the introduction of an equity tax, as well as a universal basic income and means tested superannuation, Morgan wants the next government to adopt at least a few of his “radical” policies.
Yet the fact TOP hasn’t registered in political polls such as Roy Morgan's, suggests he is miles off securing any position of influence in parliament, let alone bumping the NZ First leader off his kingmaker seat.
Furthermore, Morgan wants influence without actually being in the “zoo” that is parliament. “Day-to-day political management is not my thing,” he says.
The 64-year-old economist and philanthropist has got the ball rolling - putting fresh policy ideas on the table - but isn’t prepared to “die in the ditch” for the cause.
So why does he deserve New Zealanders’ support?
Interest.co.nz put this question to him in a Double Shot Interview.
All about influence
“I’ll do it alright. If they give me the mandate, that’s the undertaking. I think people need to make their decision on the basis of the policies,” he responds.
Yet what does he consider “the mandate”?
While Morgan in March told Fairfax he personally wouldn’t consider entering parliament unless TOP got at least 10% of the vote, he now says: “It does depend how the cards fall with other parties. To be realistic, to have influence you essentially have to have that balance of power.”
Morgan says a 2% vote could for instance give TOP the balance of power. Support for NZ First in the latest Roy Morgan poll was up 3% to 10.5%.
Furthermore, he says it depends on how many of TOP’s policies, seven of which have already been released, will be adopted by the government.
If the odds aren’t looking good: “There’s no point in me sitting there for three years. I’ve got better things to do.”
Yet if three or four of TOP’s policies could be adopted, Morgan says: “I’d be in there, sleeves rolled up, doing it. But I wouldn’t be focused on day to day political issues. I’d be solely focussed on getting those policies through and legislated…
“If the legacy of this is that those policies do get traction, either with The Opportunities Party, or with other parties, then I’m pretty happy…
“I’m not going in there because I want a job… In fact, going in to that zoo doesn’t appeal to me at all to be honest.”
Morgan ‘horrified’ 15 former NZ First and Green Party MPs interested in running for TOP
“There are a lot of people around me who really do want to build the party. But I could do a hell of a lot more for the party outside of parliament,” Morgan says.
While TOP is due to release its “first batch” of candidates in a couple of weeks’ time, Morgan confirms economist and unsuccessful Mt Albert by-election candidate, Geoff Simmons, will be standing.
“He’s the sort of guy who would be very involved in the building scenario over two or three election terms. Whereas for me, at my age, I’d go in and do it… but I’m not going to sit there treading water, waiting for things to happen. I don’t have that many years left.”
Morgan is tight-lipped on who else will be standing, but was “horrified to receive 10 applicants from former NZ First MPs and five from former Green MPs, shortly after TOP was launched in November.
“They went straight down the laundry chute because they are the antithesis of what I actually want. [They’re] people who are just looking for jobs.”
‘I’m not going to be a one-man-band. I’m not a Winston Peters’
Without a confirmed list of candidates, interest.co.nz asked the self-proclaimed “reluctant” leader what needs to be done for TOP to be propelled before the election.
“All I can do personally is just do what I’m doing right now, which is going to talk in town halls.”
Morgan has worked his way up the country from Invercargill, and is this week speaking at a number of events around Auckland.
Yet with an average of about 200 people attending - many of whom Morgan believes come sceptical and leave convinced - he says this reach isn’t adequate.
“I do need amplification. And I do need the people who are backing us to give it the viral kick… I can feel it snowballing.”
Asked what would happen to TOP after the election if it didn’t make it to parliament, Morgan says: “It depends on the other guys - whether they want to keep pushing it…
“And then I’m quite happy to support them… But I’m not going to be a one-man-band. I’m not a Winston Peters.”
He’s satisfied with all the intellectual work he’s done for the party, but concedes: “If New Zealand says, ‘well we don’t give a toss. It’s all about self-interest for us,’ then that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
A sale not a good enough reason to evict a tenant
Turning to policy, Morgan’s confident TOP’s proposal to tax people on the equity of their assets, including their houses, will “take the sting out of housing speculation immediately, because people would be investing for yields, not for capital gains”.
He also accepts the fact a number of New Zealanders are going to be tenants for all their lives, so wants the Tenancy Protection Act to be reformed in line with the German model, to make it harder for landlords to evict their tenants.
“Selling the house because I want to flick it on, because that’s my game; you can’t do that.”
Asked how his approach compares with that of Labour and the Greens, which are also pledging to better protect renters, Morgan says: “Labour Greens tend to be into social housing, state housing. The German model’s 90% private.
“I’m not talking about building houses for Africa… It’s accepting that housing - a roof over your head - is actually a social good as much as a private good.”
Four million NZ’s ideal population
As for immigration, Morgan says annual population growth of 2% was “quite a good filler” in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, but our housing and infrastructure can’t deal with this sort of growth now.
“You’ve got to peel it all back to first principles with immigration; why are you letting anyone in at all? And the answer I would have thought (apart from the compassionate refugee thing) should be because by them coming here, they’re going to lift the living standard… of you and I. And if they’re not, why would we have them here?”
Ultimately, Morgan believes four million is New Zealand’s population sweet spot.
“New Zealand is unbelievably attractive. The demand is infinite. So we should be screwing the highest price out of it... that’s how you make your money. You don’t need more people to do it.”
He says the problem is that unlike in the US, New Zealand citizens like Peter Thiel aren’t taxable in New Zealand on their income derived from around the world.
“If we had that sort of policy, you would be able to get the best of both worlds… The people who really want to come here… would also contribute to your tax base.”
Private debt more concerning than government debt
While National, Labour and the Greens have all pledged to reduce net government spending as a percentage of GDP from 25% to 20%, Morgan says all his policies are “fiscally neutral” - ie they won’t cost the government any more or less.
“As long as the economy keeps growing and we’re not running massive deficits, that government debt ratio will fall. It’s the private one [debt] that’s matched by the value of the housing that really worries me.”
Tilting the field in favour of R&D investment
TOP is yet to release its economic policy, which Morgan confirms fits into its strategy to rejig the tax system less in favour of property.
“The guts to it really is that we have to get New Zealand firms investing more, and investing particularly in R&D [research and development]…
“We’ve got to start generating our own growth and not being beholden to foreign capital all the time, whether it’s debt or equity…
“We can tilt the field in terms of where the investment’s done, particularly with respect to R&D. New Zealand’s very low on R&D - 1.5% of GDP - and two thirds of that is government.
“Basically this whole neoliberal thing has hollowed out New Zealand business. We’re not investing in R&D, and unless you do that, you don’t have a competitive engine here… and you just have to sell extracted commodities.”
TOP will also release a drugs and a health policy, which will centre on prevention rather than the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. He says the onus will be on individuals to look after themselves.