Gareth Morgan on Donald Trump, saving the trees and The Opportunity Party

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Part-time Mount Maunganui resident, philanthropist and economist Gareth Morgan will next month unveil policies of The Opportunities Party, or TOP. Dawn Picken examines whether another political party can change the status quo and asks what this could mean for people in the Bay of Plenty.
Gareth Morgan with fellow Good will ambassador  Joanne Morgan at the Saadnayel Informal Tented Settlement (ITS in East Lebanon on October 5).
Gareth Morgan with fellow Good will ambassador Joanne Morgan at the Saadnayel Informal Tented Settlement (ITS in East Lebanon on October 5).

For anyone still shaken if not by our recent earthquakes, then the US political election, comparisons between US president-elect Donald Trump and would-be politician Gareth Morgan are inevitable.

Both are wealthy, outspoken and want to steer the course of their respective countries.

Mr Trump will get the chance to lead America when he takes office next January.

Mr Morgan hopes to influence New Zealand policy and plans to decide whether to seek a spot in Parliament early next year.

I asked him how he would contrast himself with Trump.

He replied the president-elect has three audiences: "Those who have been left behind by globalisation, the technology revolution and the concentration of power amongst elites; those well-to-do American Republicans who have little to no belief that government should play any role in looking after the weak and vulnerable in society; and the bigots and intolerant in America who resent anyone who is not a facsimile of themselves, those 'deplorables' absolutely intolerant of minorities.

"It is a weird collective of support."

Mr Morgan says the only group of the three he would identify with is the first.

He's an ambassador for the United Nation's He for She gender equality campaign and has co-authored books about climate change, public policy, finance and travel.

Mr Morgan has spent about six months outside New Zealand this year. As a Unicef ambassador, he has visited Timor-Leste, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon the last few months.

He also surveys projects funded by the philanthropic organisation he and his wife, Joanne, founded called the Morgan Foundation.

The charitable trust is "primarily for the purpose of reducing the wealth disparities between people".

Waikato University Political Science senior lecturer Dr Patrick Barrett says Gareth Morgan's TOP party may "shake up the political marketplace."/Photo: supplied
Waikato University Political Science senior lecturer Dr Patrick Barrett says Gareth Morgan's TOP party may "shake up the political marketplace."/Photo: supplied

When I reached him Monday via email, Mr Morgan was at sea, en route to Borneo, the world's third-largest island and home to one of its oldest rainforests.

He said he hoped to arrest deforestation.

"The plywood industry is ripping into the forest..." just as it was in Madagascar, another island he had recently visited.

"For me, the cats initiative is over. We have achieved what we set out to do"
Gareth Morgan

Back in Aotearoa, Mr Morgan announced earlier this month he resigned his position as Morgan Foundation trustee to launch his TOP political party.

On the day before Guy Fawkes Night, he pledged to "light a fuse under this", saying he'd nudge, push and shove the establishment parties to make a difference for New Zealanders.

"I feel that a fair society is one that will gain far more prosperity overall."

He told 48 Hours Bay of Plenty residents would benefit from TOP policies that re-establish fairness in our tax and welfare system, and stimulate investment by firms that create employment.

"The Opportunity Party is about ensuring our children and their children are not disadvantaged by my generation leaving behind us housing that is unaffordable, rents that eat up most of their income, a public schooling system that fails to equip kids adequately for a world with different types of work, and a natural environment that is significantly degraded compared to the one we inherited."

Mr Morgan said his party would be list-only and would not run candidates in electorates.

He plans to finish research involving the country's socio-economic health in February before determining whether he has enough public support to gain at least five per cent of the vote.

"I have no intention of entering Parliament simply to make up the numbers, I am not seeking employment. But I am seeking to ensure that NZ is left a better place for my grandchildren..."

Mr Morgan said initially, he seeks to inform.

"But then it's up to you. If you say, 'Thanks, but no thanks', then we will not register. If you say - 'Go for it, Sunshine', then we will contest the list vote.

"We are there to influence whichever establishment party forms the next government, we are not there to be government."

He has rejected joining a coalition and said instead, he'd work with either Labour or National.

Gareth Morgan with fellow Good will ambassador  Joanne Morgan at the Saadnayel Informal Tented Settlement (ITS in East Lebanon on October 5).
Gareth Morgan with fellow Good will ambassador Joanne Morgan at the Saadnayel Informal Tented Settlement (ITS in East Lebanon on October 5).

Green Party co-leader James Shaw told Radio New Zealand starting a political party could be tough.

"Kim Dotcom and Colin Craig have demonstrated that merely having money isn't a sufficient condition to being able to get into parliament."

Dr Patrick Barrett, political science lecturer at Waikato University, said The Opportunities Party was unlikely to change our political system where two parties, National and Labour, dominate a multi-party system.

"TOP may well shake up the political marketplace in New Zealand and be an alternative National and Labour voters could support."

Dr Barrett said the country has not had the extremes of political rhetoric which developed during the US presidential election campaign, "... and we have not lost the civility that is so necessary for a functioning democracy in the way that seems to have happened in the US.

"Having said that, I think many in New Zealand do not feel that the established political parties are representing their interests."

Dr Barrett said, unlike Mr Trump, TOP is not courting alienated, uneducated voters.

"If we look at the issues he has focused on through the Morgan Foundation (such as climate change, the Treaty of Waitangi, and a universal basic income), and his approach to dealing with these issues, we can see a more thoughtful, evidence-based approach than that which has been adopted by Trump."

Mr Morgan has put his money and voice behind environmental issues at home and abroad.

He is unequivocal about Aotearoa's water quality, refuting central government's plan for regional councils to decide whether lakes and rivers should be swimmable or merely wadeable.

"Swimmable, swimmable, swimmable. This is a huge issue for me, I do not subscribe to the view that anyone has the right to leave our environment worse off than they inherited it.

"Natural capital is - apart from our human capital - our greatest asset. We need to preserve and enhance it and make money from it."

It's hard not to ask Gareth Morgan about his notorious crusade: a quest launched in 2013 to eradicate domestic cats.

It was part of a plan to make New Zealand predator-free. At the time, he called felines sadists and serial killers.

"For me, the cats initiative is over. We have achieved what we set out to do - to wake New Zealanders up about the issues around companion cats and our native wildlife.

"It is immensely pleasing for me to now see responsible councils imposing compulsory microchipping which of course will lead to cat owners having to be responsible, and keep their moggies from wandering the neighbourhood slaughtering wildlife at will."

From cats to the campaign trail - in keeping with his newfound mission, Morgan ends nearly all his email messages with, "Have a TOP day."

Gareth Morgan will release the first TOP policy on December 8

However, Morgan is already on-record on many points, including:

- In 2011, he called for every Kiwi to receive an annual payment of $11,000 (known as universal basic income) to replace the current welfare system.

- He has also called for a flat tax of 30 per cent and a capital gains tax on property.

- The Morgan Foundation has been highly critical of the Government's approach to climate change, accusing it of cheating to fulfil its international obligations by purchasing "fraudulent" foreign carbon credits.

The party website is here

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