Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: In defence of Gareth Morgan's new party

Gareth Morgan has launched his new project, The Opportunities Party (TOP), to widespread cynicism and mockery. But we should be welcoming his addition to the party system.
Gareth Morgan. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Gareth Morgan. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Who would turn their noses up at giving the public more electoral choices in New Zealand politics? Most politicos would, judging by a lot of social media responses to the launch of Gareth Morgan's new party. To see how much they hate Morgan and the idea of his new project, see my blog post of Top tweets about Gareth Morgan's new political party.

Sure, many of these are cat-related jokes. But there is a surprising amount of scorn directed at the new party and its leader. One notable dissident (once again) is Matthew Hooton ‏(@MatthewHootonNZ), who tweets "I suspect this'll be terribly embarrassing for ol @garethmorgannz but an alternative to corrupt incumbents is needed".

Anti-Establishment politics


And it's that anti-Establishment vibe that Morgan seems to be consciously fashioning about his party. In this regard, see Sam Sachdeva's Philanthropist Gareth Morgan launches political party, compares himself to Donald Trump.

In this article - and others - Morgan is quoted blaming "establishment parties and career politicians" for the plight that New Zealand is in.

And that anti-Establishment positioning is why Morgan has launched his party today in front of Parliament on the eve of Guy Fawkes. He said: "Its nearly Guy Fawkes' so I'm here to really light a fuse under this."

Morgan's revolt is expressed also in Nicholas Jones' Gareth Morgan has launched a political party to 'bring back fairness to New Zealand'. He is reported saying that his party would "break from the lethargy that establishment parties and career politicians have us locked in", and that it's "a rebellion against the politics of mediocrity, against the inertia of the established parties." And there's a fair bit of radical rhetoric being expressed that might normally be associated with leftwing activists. For example, he says the his goal is to "restore the Kiwi tradition of being the most equitable or fair society on the planet", and to rid the country of the policies that "protect the privileges of a few".

But is Morgan really all that Trump-like? Bernard Hickey says that he's actually better than that - see: Why Gareth Morgan's no Donald Trump.

And RNZ's Chris Bramwell suggests that "Gareth Morgan is possibly more of a Bernie Sanders than a Donald Trump. He aims to be more of an agitator and a disrupter, forcing the established parties into more vigorous policy debate" - see: Who's left when Morgan's on TOP?

The need for new political parties


Perhaps the biggest reason to welcome Morgan's new party is simply out of a democratic principle of encouraging more ideological diversity in the party system (regardless of whether you are willing to vote for the Opportunities party). In this way, Andrew Geddis has blogged to say: "I think Gareth Morgan should be given more praise than scorn for wanting to inject some thinking into New Zealand's political scene" - see: They said I'd better take anything they'd got.

Geddis' point is worth quoting at length: "I have no idea how successful this will be -I'll simply note that aside from Bob Jones' "New Zealand Party" (which was formed and operated in a very different political climate) such outsider parties do not have a strong track record in New Zealand. And I also have no idea whether Gareth Morgan as an individual will be any good at the practice of politics, or will instead turn out to be a less creepy version of Colin Craig. However, what I do know is that Morgan has spent a lot of his money in recent years producing research and seeking to spark public debate on everything from the environment to the Treaty of Waitangi to rethinking tax and welfare policies. People may disagree with the conclusions reached, or have criticisms of the methodologies used, but the underlying motivation seems extremely laudable to me ... to move past gut-level ideological reflexes and status quo biases and instead look at what evidence tells us about alternatives. So given that there's been a fair bit of angsting of late about the growth of "post truth politics" and the "death of expertise" of late, anyone who is standing up and asserting that there is a place in our political discourse for informed policy and fact-based alternatives - especially someone who has put a lot of skin into that game before throwing his hat in the ring - ought to be applauded rather than ridiculed for his efforts. Whether that then means he deserves our votes remains, of course, to be determined."

Someone who knows how hard it is to establish and lead a new party is former Internet Party leader Laila Harre. She is hardly likely to support Morgan's new party, but with her previous experience in mind has issued a call (via Facebook) to her ideological friends to be open-minded and tolerant towards the new project: "OK all you lefties and greenies. Take a deep breath before you crucify people associated with this. Remember the political space is an open space. Anything new like this is a criticism of what is there. And I'm sad that again a lot of good, smart people have reached the conclusion that an alternative is needed. Like last time but at least without the easy Xenophobic shots to fire. This time, let's celebrate and collaborate among alternatives."

I've also argued today that the launch of Morgan's new party is good for democracy. The NBR's Nick Grant has quoted me saying: "The party system in New Zealand is a bit moribund, it needs a bit of a shake-up and I think it's always good to have new competitors starting up and at least testing the current party system" - see: Morgan's party a shot in the arm for NZ democracy - Edwards (paywalled). You can also listen to my four-minute interview.

Similarly, I made the case on Newstalk ZB - listen here: Bryce Edwards: Gareth Morgan's political party. In this interview I speculate that Morgan's chances of getting into Parliament are "20 per cent at best".

But it's Morgan's intention to boldly push politics into different policy areas that John Armstrong says is a strength. For example: "Morgan is absolutely right in inferring that politicians - especially those in the current ruling party - will not touch matters which are highly sensitive. And the country is already paying a big price for that.
The National Party deserves every criticism it gets for a failure of leadership in not introducing a capital gains tax or some equivalent. The absence of such an impost has instead turned the residential property market into a speculators' paradise.
The same criticism applies to National's gamble that the country will be able to maintain the current level of state superannuation payments for long into the the future and regardless of the looming huge increase in demand for health services as the baby-boom generation ages" - see: Gareth Morgan's Opportunities knocks.

Morgan's slim chances of success


John Armstrong doesn't rate Morgan's chances of success: "The current political atmospherics are not sympathetic to a new entrant to an already over-crowded political marketplace." He also ponders whether the levels of anti-Establishment exist in New Zealand: "There are no obvious signs of the kind of alienation from the political process felt by voters and which has driven Donald Trump's presidential campaign as well as fuelling Brexit."

Part of the reason for the difficulty of Morgan finding success is briefly explained by the No Right Turn blogger, who says "even cat-haters deserve Parliamentary representation. Its just a shame that our undemocratic 5% threshold is likely to prevent it" - see: About as popular as a dead cat.

The difficulties are elaborated on by Danyl Mclauchlan: "The history of New Zealand political parties funded and lead by independently wealthy individuals is not particularly glorious. It's also just really hard to launch a political party from outside Parliament, because the Parliamentary Parties have such lavish levels of state funding that it costs millions and millions of dollars just to get onto their playing field. They also have a monopoly on the skilled and experienced staff you need to run national election campaigns" - see: Opportunity knocks.

Part of Morgan's problem could be the lack of a clear ideological direction. As Geoffrey Miller (‏@GeoffMillerNZ) has tweeted, "New Gareth Morgan party seems to be blue-green with a twist of Roger Douglas- era Act and some Internet Mana rolled in." Similarly, The Standard's Greg Presland has said: "For a while he has been talking intelligently about issues and his Morgan Foundation has performed some very good work on issues such as analysing the Emissions Trading Scheme and describing how it is a rort. He is difficult to place politically. Environmentally he is rather green but economically he is rather dry in a sort of green party combined with ACT sort of way. National's blue green supporters are going to be tempted to switch" - see: Another millionaire businessman launches political party.

Morgan himself says that his ideological appeal is likely to be broad: "I think I will draw support from across the spectrum" - see RNZ's Gareth Morgan launches political party. But, of course, that attempt to appeal to everyone can often mean that politicians end up appealing to no-one in particular. And ironically, in that same interview, he accuses existing parties of being too broad and amorphous in their electoral appeals: "And it's this averaging issue, you know they all gravitate toward the middle, they call each other names all 'oh we mustn't take any risks with any of the voters, we might lose one to him', you know, it's just garbage."

Morgan also says in that interview that he is willing to work with all parties, but would not join a coalition, saying "We wouldn't go with anybody, I'd want to be on the cross-benches."

For more on his politics, see this interesting interview with Toby Manhire: 'They'll back us, or we'll go down in flames' - an interview with Gareth Morgan, cat man turned TOP dog.

On top of the ideological ambiguity of the new party, there's some doubt that it has any sort of natural social constituency. What sections of society might be more inclined to vote for it than others? Rather than having any organic connection with society, it could be argued it's more top-down.

David Farrar express a similar observation: "It does not seem a very democratic party. The (initial) party leader unilaterally appoints the initial board and they hold office for whatever term the party leader determines. The party leader is also the chair of the board" - see: Gareth for Prime Minister.

Despite all these problems - and there will be more - Morgan's new party should be welcomed simply for the colour that it will bring to what has been a relatively bland year in politics.

Finally, for a lighter view of the new venture, see Toby Manhire's A few early thoughts on Gareth Morgan's new political party.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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