By Duncan Greive
This interview was first published on The Spinoff's website on July 10. Duncan Greive is The Spinoff's managing editor.
In an election campaign replete with fascinating and colourful moments, The Opportunities Party and its leader, Gareth Morgan, were at the very least the outstanding subplot last September. Yesterday, out of the blue, it was announced that the TOP board had decided not to contest the 2020 election and would be deregistering with the Electoral Commission. But why? Morgan, currently travelling in Armenia, agreed to take some questions over email.
The Spinoff: What has prompted the board to shut the party down now?
Gareth Morgan: Our market research analysis indicates that policy is of minor interest to all but a small subset of the voting public, that in essence there is a massive Establishment party inertia, which in part explains why the policy differences between Labour and National are so minor, even trivial. The way I’d express all that is that the electorate is too fat, content and complacent to respond to radical policy change, albeit policy that without question is of superior quality, evidence-informed, and theoretically sound.
That implies that to change the voting public’s political priorities requires a massive investment of time – time that individuals who have other options might more productively apply on other projects. While of course there is a body of politically active enthusiasts for TOP’s approach who would like to keep plugging away, the project needs money if it’s to realistically ever be more than a bit player like the Greens or NZ First and actually challenge the status quo of the two Establishment parties. The Board of TOP’s perspective was never about wanting to be a political party just for the sake of being a political party & facilitating life-long political careers. It was always only about offering the public a manifestly better set of policies – in essence on a take-it or leave-it basis. Those policies are well documented as is the research base that underpins them. There is nothing stopping any budding career politician or group of politicians from picking them up and participating in the process. We wish them luck but our observation would be that political success has very little to do with quality of policy.
Was there much debate about the decision, if so, what was the nature of it?
No debate really, it was about a post-election process of finding two things that would make a second election campaign worth the sacrifices: (a) a leadership group that would effectively participate in the day-to-day circus that is politics and most importantly champion the policy set, not compromise it for their political careers (b) funding of a magnitude that would challenge the election cycle spend of Labour and National (so $5-$15m per three-year cycle). We agreed that TOP would never succeed in the substantial voter education programme that’s required to break the cycle of underwhelming, mediocre, caretaker governments in NZ, by relying on a shoestring-funding line such as the Greens & NZ First have. That level of funding would condemn TOP to a perennial bit player. It would be the last place champions of best practice policy would want to be.
To be blunt we could not secure (b) without an effective solution to (a). And over the eight months since the election we did not identify any leadership talent that was in our view, capable of popularity plus policy integrity, consistency and excellence. Hence the final decision was easy in the end.
Do you have any regrets about decisions made through the campaign? If so, what and why.
Absolutely not. If I personally had wanted to ingratiate myself to the voting public as a career politician I would have entered the field years ago when I knew nothing, but just wanted to be a politician. I approached it the other way – I made sure I knew a hell of a lot about policy and presented it to the public on its merits, but on a take it or leave it basis. They said “thanks but no thanks, we get our jollies from popularity contests not policy excellence”. That’s the reality – hence Labour did so well with an abysmal policy offering but a charm offensive, while the Nats had lost their charisma factor. That is the level the electorate-at-large operates on. It’s an enormous task to inject any sort of intelligence into such a morass.
Looking back on the campaign is there anything which still rankles? Media coverage, the TVNZ debate?
Nah not really, the electorate and the media are what they are. I always knew we were challenged with lifting the level if we wanting an election fought on policy excellence. Some would say we made a great start, that 2.4% is pretty bloody good for 12 months effort. That may well be, I don’t really know. What I do know is that devoting time to politics denies me of a heap of other cool things I could be doing. So I was always going to present TOP on a take it or leave it basis – there was never any intention of being a plodding, also-ran like the Greens or NZ First. Life is too short to waste it like that – unless of course that is the limit of your aspirations.
What’s your opinion of the New Zealand voter based on your experiences in 2017?
Fat, content and complacent. Of course the aggregate electorate is the sum of its parts – from the enlightened, intelligent, policy-aware, objective voter through to the tribal sycophant and on out to the other side – the disinterested who still think their uninformed vote is worth the same as an informed one. But that’s our form of democracy which delivers unimpressive policy decade after decade. The result – as any decent policy analysts will know – stagnant productivity, piss-poor quality of business investment, rising inequality and a significant intergenerational disparity of opportunities between generations.
Do you see much hope for New Zealand’s democracy, based on your experience of it?
It is what it is and delivers what it does. Mediocre policy at best and poor economic and social performance – we’re falling down the OECD rankings for very good reason. But, hey, we’re all pretty happy with this so I see it all continuing for the foreseeable future.
After the election there seemed some division within TOP about where to take the party, and your style of leadership. Do you think that was warranted? And did some of that debate contribute in any way to the decision to shut the party down.
Nah. We had a few flakes aboard – which you can expect given such a short gestation period. They should never have left the Greens really. TOP was never an exercise in kumbaya, we were on a mission, to improve policy. It was never about having a democratic political party structure where the latest recruit had the same say as those that had spent 10 years building to this – that’s just the naivety of political groupies.
You and Sean Plunket got into your fair share of Twitter scraps during the campaign – do you think staying closer to the more successful Facebook campaigning and away from controversy might have helped people focus more on your policy?
Yes I’ve heard this argument. “Please don’t offend me, I won’t vote for you if you expose my arguments as vacuous”. What that tells me straight away is that the aggrieved are incapable of developing and continuously improving their policy arguments, having them tested and really striving for the highest quality policy outcome. These are political groupies in search of an idol to cling to – sycophants. Well I never had any interest in those voters, I wanted TOP only ever to attract the enlightened, the objective and the caring – not flakes and groupies. So I enjoyed pissing them off and sending them scarpering.
You could argue I could have taken an approach more akin to pastoral care – spent time being conciliatory no matter how bloody offensive and stupid the correspondent was – and remember a fair number on social media are just trolls from the tribes of other parties. You could say that greasing for votes was not my strong suit. I don’t think one other party engaged with the public as the team at TOP did , there was no other platform where the politicians of the day would actually take people on in an honest, no favours way. That in itself tells me just how shallow our political process is.
Did you watch David Seymour on Dancing with the Stars? Do you think pandering to more of the celebrity side of politics would have helped you out?
At 0.1% I can understand his desperation – go and get a real job David. I wasn’t doing the political thing for a job or tenure. I was in a pretty privileged position where I had collated a suite of best practice policies – thanks to the fine efforts of a number of excellent economists and policy experts including Geoff Simmons. Susan Guthrie and Jess Berentson-Shaw and many others, but I wanted that work promoted in the form of policy improvement nothing else, and would never compromise that for more votes. It just wouldn’t enter my head to sacrifice policy excellence for popularity or celebrity points.
How have you rated Jacinda Ardern’s performance in office?
Same as John Key’s. Generally adored, policies of her government are all that matter from my perspective – and on that Labour’s pathetic. Just look at who KiwiBuild is really benefitting; or that dumbass oil exploration ban that will just boost imports of fossil fuels; or this crackpot Tax Group that is told to fix the tax system but to ignore its biggest fault (the tax break for owner occupiers). I still hope for the Zero Carbon Act and I like the noises from Chris Hipkins in education. But hey it’s actions that matter. So overall on the policy front so far they look like another underwhelming caretaker But don’t forget – that’s precisely what the electorate wants, policy excellence is of little to no interest. So the electorate I’m sure is very happy with that – it suits the fat, content and complacent
The new winter warmer payment for Superannuitants – good use of public funds?
Disgusting and I will claim every penny of it. Just bought a new motorcycle with my first year’s NZ Super too – lots more of them to come – thanks for funding it.
What do you make of the current government? Do you see it as an improvement on its predecessor?
No change – you’re talking about such incremental differences that really there is nothing worth talking about here.
Are there any current politicians who inspire hope in you?
No. They are all products of the Establishment Party system which is about not making changes of any materiality. So the contest them reduces to one of whose charm the public falls for most. Pathetic but that is the outcome from an uncaring, self-centred electorate that always wants someone else to blame for their own inadequacies. The politicians are simply a product of that voter apathy. That’s reality – all power to the hand of anyone who tries to break that cycle but I’d not hold my breath for them making one iota of difference.
Finally, where are you right now, and what are you up to?
I’m in Armenia right now and heading back to Georgia tomorrow – part way along a motorcycle ride from Morocco to Japan. Of course I’m doing other stuff as well and in essence have returned to doing what I’m bloody good at: making money and shitloads of it, so that I have so many more choices and freedoms to enjoy my life. That of course is what I was hoping we could contribute to many more New Zealanders – but our take it or leave it policy offering was of far less interest than Paddles or the new baby. There you go.
Stop press: One added question – what does your former comms director Sean Plunket mean when he says, “Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of the party. No individual can declare a political organisation defunct”?
Sean was hired by TOP and then by me to provide strategy advice. As we all discovered he has this predilection to get himself embroiled in controversies along the way. They have nothing nothing to do with me or TOP.
You will have to ask him what he’s saying.