You either love him or you hate him, and now Gareth Morgan wants you to vote for him, writes Greg Bruce.

Cats! Cats! So many cats! All over this article, all over the news, all over this country, leaving their bloody paw prints all over every mention of Gareth Morgan from here until next year's election.

This is the nightmare from which The Opportunities Party's communications strategist would be waking every night, if the party had a communications strategist.

Morgan made a fortune from the sale of his business, Gareth Morgan Investments, the amount of which is undisclosed but that he says was more than he made from the sale of his son's business, Trade Me, which was estimated to be $47 million. He has a foundation named after him, which he set up to give away millions of the dollars he has made, he has spent years researching and writing seven books in the hopes of helping to fix some of our country's greatest ills, he has travelled the world doing good in godforsaken war zones and elsewhere, and he is a Unicef goodwill ambassador. But when you tell a taxi driver at Wellington Airport that you are going to Morgan's office, she will want to talk about only one thing.

"What'd she say?" Morgan asked. "Cats?" He chuckled. "Cats was awesome, eh? So bloody good. I did have my doubts with cats. I mean, I've taken on climate deniers, I've taken on Big Food, I've taken on some pretty big enemies, honestly, vested interests, but f***in' old ladies with cats - they are manic. There is something - and I need to do a book on it, perhaps, do some research - is toxoplasmosis really more potent than we think on the human brain? Because they are nutso.


"The good news is they are a very small - loud, but very small - portion of cat owners. Half of the people in New Zealand own cats, right? Ninety-nine per cent of that half are rational people, so I don't really need to worry about the 1 per cent, right?"

Right? It was 16 seconds into the first 6pm television news report about the launch of the Opportunities Party, on TV3, before they had their first, gratuitous, shot of a cat.

"I think they'll wear themselves out," Morgan told me. "They'll beat themselves to death because they say to me, 'What about cats?' And I say 'I've finished on cats because all the councils are doing it. What do you want me to say? It's over."

I said to him, "I worry about the media, I'm part of it, I can see my editor putting a picture of a cat..."

"Yeah, and that pisses me off," he said. "I talk to a lot of guys like you, right, and we have a rational conversation, da de da, you submit your piece, and the f***ing sub-editor, who's got two-and-a-half seconds to highlight the story: 'Gareth Morgan, ah f***, we'll just put cats in there'."

But then he said: "It was an outrageous success. In terms of my brand, it was phenomenal. I could not have dreamed of something, a segue into all my other work I do. As I said to somebody, I've spent 40 years on economics, right; two f***ing weeks on cats. What am I known as? I'm the cat guy."

I've spent 40 years on economics right, two f***ing weeks on cats. What am I known as? I'm the cat guy.

Success, that fickle mistress, might be measured in many ways.

As WE walked into Morgan's hillside home in Oriental Bay, the most striking thing was his wife Joanne, sitting on the floor in the entranceway, a half-unpacked backpack in front of her. She had just returned from three weeks' climbing in the Southern Alps, as part of a goal she set herself at age 58 to climb every one of New Zealand's peaks over 3000m.


Her husband and I had just come from his office, where the first thing he had done on meeting me was to open a 3D online map of the part of the Southern Alps where Joanne had been climbing. It was covered in pins, each of which was time-stamped, showing her alpine progress. The pins had been placed on the map each time she pushed a button on her phone. It was a way of giving her husband solace, or of letting him know to send help, or just to provide him with a source of panic.

"I've got massive massive admiration for her because she's such a huge achiever," he said. "Makes me feel bloody inadequate trying to compete with her."

Joanne said she had been in the mountains when her husband made the decision to form his political party and she was still in the mountains when he held the press conference to announce it.

Gareth Morgan with his wife Joanne. Photo / Getty Images
Gareth Morgan with his wife Joanne. Photo / Getty Images

"I knew he'd been thinking about it, so I went to the mountains to let him clear his head," she said, "because you don't want somebody else's opinion on it. It's good to just be able to think clearly."

Before she had her first shower in three weeks, she shared a long hug with Morgan in the kitchen. Later, while he lay on the couch, eating an apple and ranting about an argument he'd had with some food scientists in which he'd called them "Frankenstein monsters", she walked into the room, put her hand on his shoulder and said, gently, "Do you need to stop?"

"Well he's asking the question, so I'm giving him the answer," he replied.

"He just goes on and on," she told me. "He's got so many projects."

They met at 21, were married at 22, and their first child, Sam, was born when they were 23.

"It was fast," Morgan said. In the early 80s they lived in a bus for three years, until Sam's class at school was asked to draw pictures of their homes and his drawing of the bus led to a visit from the Department of Social Welfare.

Morgan studied economics at Massey University and got "a top job for a young fella" at the Reserve Bank, but while they were still living in the bus, he jacked it in to start his own company, Infometrics, which hawked economic advice, and would go on to make both his name and his first serious money.

"I knew I couldn't work in the corporate scene and be answerable to anybody because it's just not in my make-up. I'm pretty unemployable and I knew that about the limits of my own character. I thought, 'I can't do that, so I'm going to have to make the Parthenon myself.'"

Gareth Morgan understands his real challenge is not in answering difficult questions but in giving answers that people will hear. Photo / Nicola Edmonds
Gareth Morgan understands his real challenge is not in answering difficult questions but in giving answers that people will hear. Photo / Nicola Edmonds

In those early days, he would wake up on the bus, put on a suit, then go to sell his expertise to businesses like Fay Richwhite, Ford Motor Company and South Pacific Finance.

"Joanne always said to me, 'Why do you work so hard?' And I said, 'Well, I'm doing it for us', and she said, 'We don't need anything, Gareth. We're rich. Look around us. Look how bloody well off we are. We're living within our means, we can live in the bus our whole bloody life, we don't need anything.' And once she said that, it gave me the confidence to take risks.

"I suddenly became so much more capable. It took my self-imposed stress out of the family. That was amazing. It was like the sun had come out. And from that point on, I just did stuff because I enjoyed doing it."

He said: "With a wife like that, Jesus, that's unreal."

They had three more kids after Sam, and they now have six grandchildren. A corner of the lounge is now devoted to toys.

Morgan, who is 63, said he decided to start the Opportunities Party while on the border of Syria and Lebanon, where he and Joanne had been doing humanitarian work.

"I'm in a tent here with these poor bloody kids that have seen these parents killed before them and they're all sitting in this psychosocial tent, they call it, trying to look after these kids, they're all traumatised. The workers there are looking after these little kiddies, and all they want is to be hugged, they've had such a terrible bloody time."

He thought to himself, "You might not be able to solve the problems of Syrian kids on the border in these informal settlements, but doesn't it make New Zealand's issues a bloody piece of cake compared? Why don't you go back and do something you've actually got a reasonable chance of having an impact on?'

"I emailed the guys [at the Morgan Foundation] and said, 'Okay, we're going into politics. I'll be home in three weeks. This is what I want you to do."

The Morgan Foundation works in part at thinking about big issues, and trying to come up with solutions. Through it, he has published seven books on issues of critical national and/or global importance - the Treaty of Waitangi, global warming, tax and welfare reform - and working through piles of research to find suitable policy solutions to each.

Policy. Yawn. We live in an era in which no one cares about this stuff, in which a senior British politician was able to say during the Brexit debate that people have had enough of experts and he was proven right, and in which fact-checks of Donald Trump's various pre-election claims turned up hundreds of falsehoods, the existence of which turned out to matter not at all.

At the press conference announcing the formation of the Opportunities Party, Morgan compared himself to Trump. What he meant was not that he is like Trump, but that, like Trump, he is targeting the discontented heart of the electorate, the forgotten many, those left behind by the maintenance of a political status quo that has not improved their lives.

"My concern is that if we keep going down this path of inertia, with a John Key who may as well be Keith Holyoake" - he put on a shaky old man voice - "'Steady as you go, folks! My hands are on the wheel', doing f*** all, which is actually the reality. I like John a lot, it's nothing personal, but on that road, then we're not going to fix this alienation, it's going to fester, and if you allow it to run to its logical conclusion, where you end up is [with] extremists seizing the initiative."

But where Trump focused the energy of the alienated around intellectually empty emotive catchphrases that made no analytical demands on voters, Morgan's energy, at the moment at least, is dispersed widely, deeply, and complexly, and generally at book length. He is trying to capture the popular energy of Trump but so far has all the emotional appeal of the experts we've had enough of.

He has not yet worked out how best to solve this problem. He knows he can get media attention, but that there's a difference between getting attention and getting votes. Right now he's just trying not to over-expose himself.

"If I spend all my day responding to media requests, you know what's going to happen? I'm taking a huge risk that I'll bugger my own brand before I've even come out of the starting blocks. Why would I do that?"

I asked why he thought dealing with the media would bugger his brand.

Gareth Morgan on a visit to Indonesia and Timor-Leste in his work as a Unicef ambassador.
Gareth Morgan on a visit to Indonesia and Timor-Leste in his work as a Unicef ambassador.

"Because media are after - not all media, you're doing an in-depth thing, so it's different - but media are wanting something for tonight, something for this bulletin, are trying to get Morgan to be sensational, so they can sell their tabloid faster than the next guy. Whether that's good for me personally, and what I'm doing and the cause and all the rest of it, they don't care.

"All I'm saying is look at it from my point of view - I could say something f***ing stupid and bury myself, you know, and you do that if you're put under too much pressure."

His team have a little media-training game they play where they lob difficult questions at him. They call them "Corin Dann questions", after TVNZ's legendary hard-hitting political editor. Morgan's fine with this, but he understands that his real challenge is not in answering difficult questions but in giving answers that people will hear.

"That's the challenge. I've got really good people, in terms of the research and stuff, but they always fall down on that next leg, which is how do you communicate that to the man who's driving a tractor in Timaru or something. How does he relate to it? And that is the real challenge."

His fourth-floor Wellington office, which is partly home to the Morgan Foundation and partly home to The Opportunities Party, is mostly empty space. On the day I was there, it was occupied by Morgan and six other people, but it could probably accommodate 10 times that many.

On a whiteboard, under the heading "Issues", somebody had started a list: "Hemp, weed, 1080, coal mining ..." Next to the whiteboard was a screen displaying real time stats on the Opportunities Party's website. There were not many visitors.

It was the day after the US election. The world was still getting its head around the looming apocalypse, and the New Zealand media was looking for local angles. TV3 had visited the Morgan office earlier in the day. They were asking the obvious question - who could be New Zealand's Trump? - and they had appeared to settle on Morgan and Winston Peters.

According to Morgan, Peters had told TV3 he would talk to them only if they didn't also talk to him. Morgan seemed proud of this fact. "Tell Winston there's nothing to be afraid of," he claimed to have told TV3 on camera.

He repeated that story, and that quote, many times throughout the day, including to his wife when he got home. But when the story played on TV3's bulletin that night, there was no comment about Morgan from Peters. There was no comment at all from Peters, only a shot of him walking away from the camera while a reporter ran after him, calling, "Mr Peters!"

Morgan's "Tell Winston there's nothing to be afraid of" line didn't make the final edit.

There was not a single shot of a cat.