Gareth Morgan: Freer markets with a heart?

by Bill Ralston / 18 February, 2017

Photo/Hagen Hopkins

He’s been campaigning for years to effect major change in New Zealand, now Gareth Morgan is presenting his master plan direct to the voters. 

As The Opportunities Party (TOP) leader, Gareth Morgan, was standing on the steps of TVNZ in Auckland calling for the publicly owned network to be sold and the profits reinvested in a New Zealand On Air public journalism fund, his phone vibrated in his pocket. It was me. Calling about his Mt Albert by-election campaign, I managed to interrupt the latest of his policy roll-outs in unusual locations. This one was on democracy. Next up are his thoughts on education and poverty, followed by his climate and health policies.

Morgan talks of 10,000 to 14,000 National Party votes floating in Mt Albert without a National candidate to go to. “I thought, I’ve got to go!” he says about the decision to field a candidate – TOP’s chief of staff, economist Geoff Simmons. With National not in the race, Morgan gets an opportunity not just to win more votes than TOP would otherwise attract but also to showcase his new party.

It is perhaps fitting that the first electoral outing of the globe-trotting Morgan’s political vehicle should be in a by-election caused by the sitting MP quitting for a job in South Sudan. Just after the announcement of TOP’s formation, Morgan himself had gone overseas – to Borneo on holiday. It may seem odd to launch a party and then head for the jungle, but he and wife Joanne have undertaken motorcycle expeditions on every continent, so Borneo should have come as no surprise; certainly, his travels did not seem to hinder the growth of his infant party.

He was soon back in New Zealand staking out the Parnell home of then prime minister John Key to air his tax policy before the media. And he’s certainly visible now. A few weeks back, standing in front of a van emblazoned with his party’s logo, Morgan seemed puzzled by National’s absence from the by-election, telling media at the campaign launch that “the Nats are saying, ‘Nah, can’t be fagged doing anything for the people of Mt Albert between now and election day.’ It looks like they just don’t care … or they’ve been around so long it is not important to them, apparently.”

Prime Minister Bill English is unsure if Morgan and TOP will be important to National after this year’s general election, despite what some senior figures in the ruling party may have said to him informally at Waitangi. “We don’t know yet if we could work with TOP because we don’t know enough about what they stand for,” English told the Listener.

Interviewed after his democracy policy launch at TVNZ, Morgan was adamant: “I want to accelerate the country’s progress.” The general election has him excited. “Have you talked to the Nats?” I ask. “Of course,” he replies. “Who?” There is a long pause. “I’d rather not say. It’s all informal,” he finally says, happily mentioning he had the chance to talk to a lot of politicians at the Waitangi Day commemorations.

Multimillionaire, economist, adventurer, iconoclast, philanthropist and keen conservationist, Morgan is a man who shoots from the lip as a commentator. His joining of the political circus should provide not just plenty of colour but a new ideological dimension to the political mix.

Morgan is a consummate self-publicist, as evidenced by his recent visit to Ratana Pa. He grabbed the lion’s share of the publicity at the annual visit of political leaders by attacking New Zealand First leader Winston Peters as an “Uncle Tom”. It would not have surprised him when Peters laid into him for his lèse-majesté, but Morgan would have figured all that would do is deliver him more publicity and help build his reputation as a straight talker.

Of course, New Zealand First voters are never likely to swap to TOP. But Morgan plans to “drip out” his seven cornerstone policy planks as he travels the country “to have a discussion with New Zealanders” about the policies, all of which he describes as radical. After assessing the public response and the Mt Albert results, he will decide in March whether to proceed to the election.

Uncritical response

Morgan’s appearance on the political stage has been generally greeted with interest and a remarkably uncritical response from both observers and the media. The most negative comment came from right-winger Matthew Hooton, who tweeted that TOP would turn out to be “terribly embarrassing” for Morgan, before adding that “an alternative to corrupt incumbents is needed”.

Liberal financial journalist Bernard Hickey commented on a story in which Morgan ill-advisedly mentioned Donald Trump, thus inviting comparisons with the then presidential contender. Morgan, Hickey wrote, “may well be just as much of a non-politician with a populist touch as Donald Trump, but he is clearly a far better businessman, public policy thinker and philanthropist than the braggart from Manhattan”.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis wrote that Morgan “should be given more praise than scorn for wanting to inject some thinking into New Zealand’s political scene”, although he was unsure whether he would be any good at the practice of politics or, instead, simply turn out to be a “less creepy version of Colin Craig”.

Political scientist Bryce Edwards recently quoted a Facebook post in which former Alliance and Internet Party politician Laila Harré wrote of Morgan and TOP, “OK all you lefties and greenies. Take a deep breath before you crucify people associated with this. Remember the political space is an open space.” Edwards himself told the National Business Review, “The party system in New Zealand is a bit moribund. It needs a bit of a shake-up and I think it’s always good to have new competitors starting up and at least testing the current party system.”

Key, before he resigned as PM, and Labour leader Andrew Little have both said they believe Morgan would take votes from each other’s party.’s Richard Harman thought TOP’s tax policies would affect Act; others saw his climate-change stance as likely to grab some Green votes.

Morgan says people are already coming up to him offering support. “The vibe is really good but I say to people, ‘See if you still like me after the seven policies’ – that’s the real test.”

A fairer tax system

When we first spoke, Morgan said his flagship tax policy wasn’t exactly like the one outlined in his book The Big Kahuna, but what he announced outside Key’s mansion was a clone of it. It proposes a fairer system by taxing people on the house they live in. It is not a capital gains tax. It assumes a rate of return on assets such as a house and land and pops a tax on them. It comes with the assurance that 80% of people will not be paying more tax, but 20% could face hefty increases. “There will definitely be a few people [paying more tax] – for example, me; I’ll end up paying much more. I am expecting to lose some friends.”

He already has. A National Business Review readers poll showed two-thirds rejected his equity tax. It would certainly hit the wealthy and those sitting on properties rapidly appreciating in value. Morgan argues that people benefit hugely from house-price inflation, but it produces no taxable income.

It’s hard to see the equity tax as a big vote-winner, but at the heart of what he seems to be talking about is wholesale wealth redistribution, with greater assistance for those at the bottom of the heap.

He concedes the National-led Government has been “pretty bloody good over the past three terms in economic terms”, but he claims it has not spread the wealth. “You can’t build prosperity on privilege. Trickle-down isn’t working. For some of [those at the bottom], it’s like being pissed on. You need everyone to have equality of opportunities in life. If you’re starting out with a leg iron on, you haven’t got a chance.”

Morgan has further plans for education, housing and health. He talks of his potential support base as “people who care beyond themselves, their immediate family and their friends” and thinks they will come from “right across the [political] spectrum”.

If TOP does reach the 5 per cent threshold and gain seats in Parliament, Morgan is adamant he will not enter any formal coalition. TOP would support the government of the day, whoever they might be, and try to “extract as much as possible” in policy terms as the price. A minority government could find itself beholden to TOP to stay in office. “I’d really like that,” he says with relish.

In the general election, TOP may stand some electorate candidates. “It could be between zero and 60,” Morgan says, but the party will run a tightly controlled list. Morgan himself, of course, will be No 1, and he says he does not want “any Loosehead Len MPs”, presumably referring to his desire for a controllable caucus without any divas running amok.

Former Act leader Rodney Hide points out that Morgan has declared himself the “initial party leader” and appoints the party’s board, which in turn will determine the list of candidates and can override the wishes of party members. The board, says Hide, is appointed for life but has the power to vote board members off. He claims it is about as democratic as North Korea and he will be “amazed if the Electoral Commission registers the party, given the legal requirement to follow democratic procedures in candidate selection”.

“Loosehead len members”

Yet care and control are needed in selecting candidates and members of a new party. Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party, launched in 1984, definitely had a few “Loosehead Len” members, and NewLabour, set up by Jim Anderton five years later, was initially inundated with Trotskyists. New political entities tend to have problems with members who project their own values onto the party or try to turn it into something other than what its founders envisaged.

Morgan recognises a need for what he terms “quality control”. He says more than 2700 people have already signed up as members through the party’s website. Quite how he plans to exert quality control over that membership is not clear, but he is open about his need to be in charge, even if critics claim it is a one-man party. “When you’ve got a party in formation, someone has to run the shop,” he says; the success of The Opportunities Party hinges on the Gareth Morgan brand.

Freer markets with a heart

So if he had the choice of backing minority governments led by National or by Labour and the Greens, which would he choose? There is a long pause before he answers ­carefully that if you look at his pedigree and heritage, it would be National/Act, but if you look at his ideas about wealth redistribution and climate change, it could be just as easily be Labour and the Greens. “Freer markets with a heart” is the slogan he chooses to sum up his attitude to politics. That should please almost no one.

Morgan is hard to categorise in traditional political terms. “You’ve known me long enough to know that’s not possible,” he says, and he’s right. In the 1990s, chairing TV3’s The Ralston Group, I initially had him pegged as a representative of neo-liberal right-wing opinion, but often he flummoxed me by agreeing with a left-wing panellist on social issues. Whatever viewpoint he was espousing, he was always entertaining, generally categorical but often a voice of reason in heated debates.

That combination of virtues equips him well to be a party leader and, if the Electoral Commission does grant TOP party status, it promises a lively election campaign for 2017 – especially if the cat lobby also hits the hustings. Morgan’s call three years ago for the eradication of domestic cats – he called them “serial killers” of native birds – may constitute political baggage. Cat owners and the SPCA reacted in horror at the time, and Twitter and Facebook went into meltdown. But he says the negative reaction to the idea has lessened with time. He calls it “yesterday’s controversy” and points to pest-management plans around the country that are picking up the idea of feline sterilisation and microchipping as evidence that his position is gaining acceptance.

Critics also saw Morgan’s offer of topping up a Givealittle campaign with $1 million or so to save Awaroa Beach for Abel Tasman National Park – as long as he and his family got exclusive use of the property for 15 years – as an attempt to hijack it. The public ­eventually contributed enough, so some of the heat seems to have gone out of that argument, too. But both controversies leave a lingering suspicion about him in some minds.

The passing reference to Trump was a throwaway line about how both of them were anti-Establishment figures. He added that he didn’t like anything about Trump, and says he was taken out of context by reporters.

Like Trump, he is rich – his shareholding in son Sam’s Trade Me business netted him $50 million, although he has since ploughed most of that wealth into his charitable ­foundation. But, unlike Trump, he is promising a series of clear policy programmes rather than just trite slogans, so voters can make up their minds about him once they have a clear idea of what he stands for. Yet late last year, with no announced policies, he had the support of 58% of the 7300 people who responded to a poll.

Steal his thunder

There is a risk in laying out policy platforms well before an election period: other parties might steal his thunder. “Great!” he says, “I’ll head to the beach.” It is strange that a man who plans to put himself at the top of his party’s list says he doesn’t “want a job” and doesn’t want to be a politician. “You’ve got to appreciate I’m not looking for a job in Parliament. It’s essentially the last thing I want to do.”

Rich men, such as Colin Craig and Kim Dotcom, have tried to launch their own parties and failed. Political pundits have rated Morgan’s chances of reaching MMP’s 5% threshold as slim – Edwards puts it as “20% at best” – and most commentators point to TOP’s political ambiguity as a core ­problem. Freer markets with a heavy emphasis on environmentalism and conservation, and capital gains taxes coupled with an as-yet-unquantified Universal Basic Income, make for a mishmash of policy that spans the political spectrum and risks confusing voters.

Yet Morgan may be right to put special emphasis on addressing social inequality, providing fair access to a livelihood, education and resources and ensuring full participation in the political and cultural life of the community. After all, even staunch National supporters are worrying about whether their children will ever be able to afford a home, especially in Auckland.

Others may be part of the category he mentioned earlier – people who are thinking beyond themselves and their families and feeling uneasy about the homeless and low-income earners. Social equity or social equality could become a resonating theme in this year’s election and TOP could reap some benefit from that.

It is, at this stage, all unknown. Certainly, TOP and Morgan largely disappeared from media view after the launch of the equity tax policy. The man whose house he was standing outside was busy resigning as prime minister as he did it. As Labour’s Little could testify, it was hard to get any traction in the media before Christmas, as Key bade farewell, English stepped up to the big job, and the Cabinet was reshuffled.

The Mt Albert by-election gives TOP the opportunity for a public airing well in advance of the general election. However, Morgan may find it just as hard in this election year to get attention, as the big boys already in Parliament jostle for media ­interest. We will find out next month whether he has what he calls “enough gas in the tank” to continue.

This article was first published in the February 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 


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