TOP leader Gareth Morgan on authenticity, popularity and ‘lipstick on a pig’

by Clare de Lore / 06 September, 2017
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Gareth Morgan. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images/Listener Illustration

The Opportunities Party (TOP) is not even a year old, but its founder is impatient to either get into Parliament or give it away.

Given the history of this country’s politics, Gareth Morgan’s fledgling party should have little chance of getting into Parliament. Unlikely to secure an electorate seat, the Opportunities Party needs to crack the 5% threshold to get a foot – and MPs – in the door. Launched on Guy Fawkes Day last year, the party is up against others that took decades to establish a brand before obtaining a seat, and even then, in the case of long-established United Future and Act, only National Party deals in electorates have ensured their survival. But former economist turned environmental and political activist Morgan isn’t playing political games. He has done the numbers and is sticking to policies he says are best in show.

Born and raised in Wellington, Morgan came to public prominence with the success of Trade Me, founded by his son Sam. An investment in the start-up online trader paid huge dividends, leaving all the Morgans with millions in the bank. Financial success is enabling Gareth and his wife, Jo, to pursue a range of issues and support causes, as well as travelling the world on their motorbikes. A father of three and a keen fisherman, Morgan is determined that policy must take precedence over politics.

Former Prime Minister David Lange used to refer to “poll-driven fruit cakes”, but you’re sticking to your policies, regardless of the polls.

We could be doing so much better if the politicians took best-practice advice. In the past 20 years or so, political pragmatism has degenerated into political expediency, so political decisions being made by the Cabinet are in the interests of the ruling party’s constituency, not all New Zealanders. That reflects decay in our democracy. It is not serving all people right now, and if you let it go too far, you get what has happened in the US and the UK.

In relation to those countries’ elections, the polls got it wrong. Do you have faith in political polls?

I am not poll-driven. I am putting best-practice policy out there to see if it gets any traction. Before I got into the process seriously, we commissioned market research to ask a number of questions, including what drives the average voter’s view on a policy, because since we are so policy-rich, I needed to know that.

What did you learn?

It was incredibly depressing, and if I had half a brain, I’d probably have given up then. The research said 39% of voters are driven by “what’s in this for me?” and 31% by “who’s promoting this?”, so if it’s promoted by the blues and I am red, then I don’t care what they say and vice versa, so that is tribalism. So that is 70% between what’s in it for me and the tribal vote. Twenty-four per cent vote on “who’s paying for this?”, so if it’s somebody I don’t like, like rapacious landlords, then that’s great, but if it’s general taxation, that is me, then go to hell. Sixty-five per cent of voters never change their vote, so they are irrelevant in determining elections. That leaves 6% who ask “is this policy actually good for New Zealanders?” and they’re my target. Clearly, I’m trying to expand that but all in 10 months since our launch.

Gareth Morgan and his future wife, Jo Baird in 1974.

Did you leave your run too late?

I may well have, but there’s no way I would give any more time to this. I have my own life to live. Any marketer will tell you how many times you need to repeat a message before it sinks in. What that research also told us was that the maximum target audience for us was 16% of the electorate – if we can reach them. So far, we are just under half that – about 8% are aware of us and what we stand for. Look at the other parties and how long it has taken them to build – Winston Peters has been there for 40 years, and he is about 10%, so he has achieved .4% a year. We are two-and-a- bit per cent, but I’m hoping it will snowball.

How do you increase your vote?

I am on the road the whole time, talking to voters. I’m not in the beltway between political commentators and media. I am talking to voters, and if we keep building like this and people start saying, “Shit, they might actually get to 5%”, it will bring a few more over the hedge.

Are you more optimistic or weary?

Optimistic. I didn’t think we would score the numbers we have at the gigs. I enjoy the crowds we get, they’re awesome. We have just finished our second national road tour of 25 gigs, so that is about 50 in total. The audience in the second one is 85% first-timers, and you ask them how they heard about it and it is because they were told by someone who went to the first meeting. So that is viral and exactly how we did Trade Me – no advertising. You could look at it more depressingly – the average audience we are getting is 250 people, and there are 2.5 million eligible voters, so that is 10,000 speeches I have to do for full coverage. There’s no way you can get that, but I think we will get 5%.

Do you regret making that “lipstick on a pig” comment?

Not at all. It is a well-used metaphor that anyone who’s literate should know. In political parlance [Wikipedia says] it means “to insinuate that a political opponent is attempting to repackage established policies and present them as new”. And that is how I deployed it.

What was particularly amusing was that a week earlier [PR consultant] Trish Sherson had used exactly the same phrase on RadioLive’s Sunday brunch show. She said, “Here’s a question, though, and I think all voters need to consider this, when they think about the Jacinda effect, can you actually put lipstick on a pig and be successful? Let’s not forget this.”

So I conclude from the furore over me using it – and by far most of the [Twitter] invective came from extremists in the Green Party – that these clots at the extreme end of the feminist spectrum are agitating for separate dictionaries for males and females in New Zealand.

And most importantly – which is why I deployed the expression – the heat is on Labour now in terms of what policy have they got that’s credible or progress on what they dished up three and six years ago. The answer is none. That is absolutely relevant to the political discussion over the next three weeks. Already I see the journos asking that question.

Gareth Morgan. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

When there’s time, what do you read?

I have three or four books on the go. Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, by Martin Ford, about the future of work and artificial intelligence. And Red Notice, by Bill Browder, the guy who brought about the Magnitsky Act, which puts all the oligarchs on notice that their assets could be frozen. [Vladimir] Putin can’t stand him. It’s fascinating, because I read it while watching the Oliver Stone interviews with Putin, which gives you the other perspective. The Road to Ruin: The Global Elites’ Secret Plan for the Next Financial Crisis, by James Rickards, is about the global financial crisis and financial leverage and whether it’s with us again. There’s some evidence of it – saving the banks at any cost is essentially making policymakers more and more ineffective in terms of trying to keep things going.

What about some lighter reading?

I don’t read many novels, which I should, because it gives you a bit of balance. But I recently read A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. It’s about a guy whose wife dies and all he wants to do is commit suicide. Every time he tries, he gets interrupted. Usually it’s a neighbour wanting something. He is a grumpy old bugger but with a heart of gold, so he ends up saving lives, doing all sorts of things that keep delaying his suicide day. A great book, quite funny.

Do you have a favourite author or book?

I don’t have a favourite author, but for beauty of prose and the use of language, it’s John Maynard Keynes, the doyen of economics. I love the way he wrote. So I guess it’s Keynes’s A General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. He wrote a lot of books, but that is the best.

“Authenticity” is the word du jour. Are people telling you how to appeal to New Zealanders?

It is not an issue. I am pretty uncontrollable. That is why media adviser Sean Plunket appealed to me, because he is bit of a mongrel like me. As for trying to groom me to fit some image, I am not interested – I am myself.

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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