The Opportunities Party has scored a decent 1.5 per cent in the latest opinion poll. But it needs to quickly escalate that support if it's to have any chance of being taken seriously as contender for entering Parliament in 100 days' time. And to do this, it needs to be clear what it stands for.
Is Gareth Morgan's TOP really an anti-Establishment party of outsiders? Or is it a party of Wellington insiders and technocratic policy wonks? It's not really clear and that's possibly inhibiting the party's growth. In the end, TOP probably can't be both, and needs to communicate more clearly what it stands for, other than Morgan's personality and policy focus.
Morgan's money gives TOP a chance
Although the playing field is heavily tilted against new parties trying to break into the monopolised market that is parliamentary politics, TOP has one mitigating factor - Gareth Morgan's millions. New parties have little chance of taking on the established parties without some decent resources, and today Nicholas Jones reports that "Gareth Morgan expects to spend up to $5 million of his own fortune on his political party - saying he is 'donkey deep now and has to keep going'." - see Money in politics: Morgan prepares to spend $5m.
On Sunday he announced he had allocated $1m to advertising the party, but was prepared to give it all to charity instead, if the public helped him out- see his TVNZ Q+A interview, Gareth Morgan and TOP's election campaign.
As Claire Trevett puts it, Morgan "has started his own wee "Money or the Bag" game by leaving it to voters to decide how much was spent on advertising or given to charities" - see Gareth Morgan's $1 million 'Money or a Charity' party promotion.
Part of this is a protest against the unlevel playing field resulting from taxpayer advertising money being allocated so unevenly. Trevett explains it's "a gimmick which is part protest over taxpayer-funded advertising for political parties and a way to harvest contact details of potential voters. The Opportunities Party (TOP) was allocated $41,500 in publicly-funded broadcasting allocation for political parties - well below National and Labour which got $1.3 million and $1 million apiece and other small parties such as Act and United Future with $100,000 each."
Of course, there's a catch. Each member of the public only gets to allocate $3 each by voting on TOP's website, and they also have to watch a video about the party first and provide their contact details, which can then be used to send campaign information.
Naturally, TOP's opponents have complained. Jo Moir reports: "Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei says Gareth Morgan is trying to 'buy' votes with his 'cynical' strategy around broadcasting allocations" - see Gareth Morgan donates $1 million to charity to protest political ad allowances.
Turei says it's a "gratuitous and cynical way to buy votes", and "It's not altruistic; it's about the election and him winning more votes. It will remind people of his botched attempt to buy the Abel Tasman beach and his complete miscalculation about the point of that campaign".
The same article reports that Morgan is unrepentant over what he sees as simply an attempt to even up the odds stacked against him: "The Nats will spend over $5m on their campaign, Labour and the Greens will spend over $3m... This money goes some way to soften the blow, but the reality is the bulk of it by far goes to the establishment parties - so it is stacked against the newcomers".
Is Gareth Morgan's TOP really anti-Establishment?
The above example is a nice illustration of how Morgan is positioning his party as outsiders, trying to fight against entrenched privilege. But is the party really anti-Establishment? This is where TOP appears to have an identity crisis. It's not immediately clear what the party stands for.
Originally, Morgan launched his party suggesting he would be a kind of "non-racist, non-sexist Trump", and then began comparing himself to the more leftwing anti-Establishment politician Bernie Sanders. Almost all of his interviews and press statements seem to include a reference to being opposed to the other "Establishment" parties.
Morgan explains his anti-Establishment orientation in a recent Salient magazine: "The main thing with establishment parties is that they are filled with career politicians. So the priority for those people is keeping their job. So that drives them to (it's how trustees act actually) do as little as possible because we don't want to disturb the voters" - see Interview with Gareth Morgan.
He also clarifies his own policy preferences in terms of other parties: "If I had to pick a party I was closest to in terms of social justice and the environment, absolutely - it's the Greens. But if I had to pick a party I was closest to in matters of economics, it would be the Nats."
Morgan also explained this orientation to journalist Tim Murphy: "My whole objection to establishment politicians is they are there to serve the average between two things, one of which is wrong and one of which is right... They are not acting in your interests because they do not want to lose their jobs. I don't give a s... about the jobs" - see A night out with Gareth Morgan.
But the same article, which covers one of Morgan's "national political roadshow" meetings, gives a strong impression of the party being all about technocratic policy tweaks and restructures rather than rallying against the status quo and authority: "There are no frills with the political packaging either. TOP's policies are prosaically, economistly labelled. Morgan starts with 'Policy 1' and selects 'Policy 7' as his encore. There are 7 now but by campaign time there will be 10. Morgan is the former economist who, with his son Sam, made a fortune from the sale of the TradeMe business. Through his Morgan Foundation he has taken on complicated policy and social issues in a series of books and campaigns. The TOP party is in some ways a synthesis of those books and projects - Morgan says the health policy, for example, will reflect 'some of what we said in the book'."
Murphy reports the mood and nature of the meeting: "Some, policy wonkers old and young, sit forward, lapping up what is to come. On tax, TOP will cut rates by 30 per cent, making 80 per cent of people better off, the 20 per cent affected negatively being the richest. It will introduce a system to tax all productive assets, including up to 1.5 per cent eventually on homes."
Hence, Morgan and his party can tend to come across as the antithesis of anti-Establishment rabble-rousing activists. This is further confirmed in another report - from Morgan's roadshow in Christchurch (where about 250 attended) - also indicating a rather dry style of leadership: "His approach is: here's what I think, take it or leave it. No passion, no fire, no galvanizing, no sleek speeches, no appeal to organizing, no sense of urgency, no...nothing" - see Donna Miles' Gareth Morgan's three-word response to why people should support his policies.
Of course, Morgan might yet win voters over with this apparent authenticity, which may help mark him out as very different from established politicians. As Mills says about Morgan's unfashionable style: "Part of me thinks that is okay because people are tired of showmanship and spectacle and Morgan's unrefined and laid-back style is actually quite endearing".
But the question remains whether the party can really ignite any sort of anti-politician mood. Certainly, in the Mt Albert by-election earlier this year, the TOP candidate, Geoff Simmons looked at home with his main rivals. The convivial Simmons was unable to differentiate himself and rally against "the political class" in the way we might expect from self-declared "outsider" politicians.
What does TOP really stand for?
TOP's policy and ideological direction is dealt with very well in two interviews by Jenée Tibshraeny. She talks with deputy leader Geoff Simmons, who describes the party as being radically centrist - see Mt Albert by-election to test how palatable The Opportunities Party's 'radical centrism' will be in the general election.
Simmons says: "Left and right are disappearing. Politics all around the world is changing. It's time for something fresh." He elaborates: "We're absolutely centralist in terms of what we're trying to achieve. We think that very much appeals to middle New Zealand... But what we're talking about is much more radical... So instead of the same sort of business as a usual establishment party... we're proposing some bold changes."
In another very good interview, with Morgan this time, a different way of thinking of TOP is put forward: "Would you rather a 'regressive' Winston Peters or 'progressive' Gareth Morgan holding the balance of power after the September 23 election?" - see Gareth Morgan on why we should vote for The Opportunities Party when he wants to get his policies implemented.
And this "centrist" approach is explained more in Dan Satherley's Marijuana in the middle: How Gareth Morgan plans to smoke Winston out. Morgan says: "We've got MMP now, so the guy in the middle actually has a lot of influence. That's where I'm trying to put The Opportunities Party. Not left, not right - doing the right thing."
TOP runs the line that they are an "evidence-based" party, and based on "rational" politics". But it's far from clear such terms will resonate with the public or even communicate what the party is all about. The risk is that TOP's pot-pourri approach - "with a little bit of this, and a little of that" - will mark them out as simply eclectic rather than clear and differentiated from their rivals.
Winning on policy and publicity
The heavy policy focus of TOP might yet still mark the party out as a necessary breath of fresh air in politics if it continues to put out radical policy, such as it did with its proposed overhaul of drug laws, making cannabis legal for anyone over 20. This nicely differentiated Morgan's party from all the other parties - including Labour and the Greens who seem sympathetic but unwilling to advance policy that might produce opposition. As Morgan said about the Greens and Labour: "They're all too scared. That's what establishment politicians are like" - see Dan Satherley's Marijuana in the middle: How Gareth Morgan plans to smoke Winston out.
The policy was certainly well received in the media, and won applause from not only the Drug Foundation, but also the president of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, who promptly joined Morgan's party - see RNZ's Cannabis Party president defects to TOP.
At the moment the party also gets news coverage for the antics and statements of its leader. A good example of this is yesterday's clash between Morgan and Herald journalist Steve Braunias, after the party leader turned down an invitation for a game of table tennis combined with an interview - see the Herald's Gareth Morgan's ping-pong diplomacy.
As part of their communication, Braunias had a go at provoking Morgan: "What I have established from our brief correspondence is that you're a chicken". And, of course, Morgan has now turned the clash into a chance for publicity and voter participation - you can vote on the TOP website about what Gareth Morgan should do about the challenge: Should Gareth play table tennis with this journalist?.
And of course, there's Morgan's previous publicity "wins" over his aggressive run ins with opponents - see Isaac Davison's Gareth Morgan goes on Twitter tirade, rages against tourists and PC culture, Rodney Hide's 140 characters on Twitter so revealing, and Newshub's Tax policy bust-up: Gareth Morgan trades insults with Paul Henry.
Can TOP get to 5%?
Regardless of the problems with how the party is positioning itself, and whether its purpose is clear enough to the public, the more immediate question is does it have any chance of getting to the five per cent MMP threshold in the next 100 days? It's a daunting challenge, and no outside political party has managed to break into Parliament since 1996.
The threshold will be extremely difficult to breach, according to Martyn Bradbury, but he points out that "conventional political wisdom doesn't mean much since Trump, Brexit and Len Pen doubling the Right's vote in France" - see Could The Opportunities Party hit 5%?.
Bradbury also reports that the party is doing well in the provinces: "Beneath the radar The Opportunities Party has been doing remarkably well in its meetings out in the Provinces, so much so that other Political candidates of other Parties have noticed how well they are doing. The deep cynicism that many in the Provinces feel at the lack of investment into the infrastructure of their regions which are producing the exports that are keeping the country economically afloat is attracted to TOP and NZ First. This is going to hurt National's vote, not Labour's."
But, comedian and Green-supporter Guy Williams worries that TOP will negatively impact on the left vote: "Instead of hurting the National/ Act/Maori Party government, it looks like he's going to more seriously affect the Labour/Greens challenge by taking away what will most likely be wasted votes and chewing up crucial airtime and policy space" - see What the heck is Gareth Morgan doing?. Williams wishes Morgan would direct his explosive politics at the right instead of the left: "My main complaint is that he's lighting a fuse under the people who are already trying to light a fuse."
Other pundits also think Gareth Morgan has a chance. Recently former Labour Party President Mike Williams stated "I think he could actually get his 5 per cent and be a kingmaker" - see Newshub's Judith Collins: 'I'd probably take up drugs'. He also compliments the party's programme, saying "Now if you look at the Opportunity Party's policy as I did this morning, it is actually serious and well thought out".
Other pundits have mixed feelings - you can watch a 10-minute discussion from last week's Q+A: Gareth Morgan and The Opportunities Party - Panel.
Finally, for some satire on TOP's love of gimmicks, see Ben Uffindell's Civilian parody news report, Political stunt backfires: Gareth Morgan trapped in glass case for days after no one realises he's missing.