Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Gareth Morgan needs to get his claws out

Modern version of Don Quixote. Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Modern version of Don Quixote. Illustration / Peter Bromhead

It's so off the wall it almost deserves to succeed.

Anti-cat campaigner Gareth Morgan is offering himself as Prince Charming to the moribund body politic. With one sloppy kiss, he's offering to awake the New Zealand electorate from the decade-long deep sleep of the Key era.

Morgan is coy on his The Opportunities Party (TOP) policy, but in the past he has campaigned on everything from curfews on domestic cats to a capital income tax to whack the rich, and an end to "cheating" our way around greenhouse gas emission reductions.

"TOP is a rebellion against the politics of mediocrity, against the inertia of the Established parties," says Morgan.

I suspect his biggest challenge will not be the inertia of Labour and National, but the inertia of the voters. He will also have an uphill struggle trying to engage voters in deep and meaningful discussion on such matters as the perils of climate change, and the finer points of taxation theory, in an era of tabloid journalism, and social media chit chat.

As a political veteran said to me after Morgan spun his TOP for the first time, "starting up your own political party is a lot harder than it looks."

The last time a rich man successfully threw his money and time at the political establishment and caused a revolution was back in 1983 when millionaire Wellington property tycoon Bob Jones fell out with his old mate, National Prime Minister Rob Muldoon and unleashed his New Zealand Party on a fed-up electorate.

Comparing Muldoon's heavy-handed interventionist policies to those he'd recently observed in the Soviet Union, the Jones Party quickly hit the polls on just under 20 per cent. His libertarian policies appealed mainly to the Right, but the way Jones deliberately riled Muldoon, appealed across the spectrum.

However, despite spending more on the campaign than any other party, and winning 12.2 per cent of the popular vote, NZ Party won no seats. The old First Past the Post electoral system saw to that. But by splitting the National vote, Jones ensured a Labour landslide and the birth of Rogernomics.

It's hard to see the Morgan Party pulling off a similar coup. New Zealand 2016 is a very different place. Despite the Opposition parties best efforts in recent years, the polls show little appetite for change - let alone revolution on the 1984 scale.

Even if there were such rumblings, Morgan's professorial manner, his preference to sit about and worry each issue to death, is hardly the stuff of electoral rough and tumble.

On his website he confesses that "I respect both [Labour and National], and I'm happy to work with either. I sit pretty comfortably with either. My priority is to break the inertia that naturally encumbers Establishment parties and get through some overdue reforms to ensure fairness regains its rightful place in our society."

These aren't the words of a leader about to go into battle to wrestle votes and power from said establishment.

Partly as a result of the patent unfairness of the NZ Party failing to get a voice in parliament, the subsequent royal commission on the electoral system recommended a proportional system of representation to give a voice to minority groups. In the end we ended up with the current MMP system with a 5 per cent threshold.

This hurdle was put in place to ease the fear that myriad of miniscule parties, each with a single representative or two, would upset the orderly business of government.

The 5 per cent threshhold has proven to be a tough hurdle, particularly for rich men and their vanity parties.

At the last general election, the Kim Dotcom-financed ($3 million-plus) Internet-Mana Party crashed. At the 2011 general election, Colin Craig's Conservative Party spent $1.88m (mostly from Craig), standing 52 candidates. It gained just 2.65 per cent of the party vote. In 2014, despite some big name candidates, the Conservatives polled just 3.98 per cent and subsequently self-destructed as a party.

Now it's Gareth Morgan's turn. First he has to make peace with the cat lovers. Then he's faced with the problem of explaining why people should vote for him when he already confesses to being "pretty comfortable" with both Labour and National.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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