TOP prospect: Can Gareth Morgan crack 5 per cent?

Gareth Morgan presents TOP party policies in Wellington on Monday.

Gareth Morgan presents TOP party policies in Wellington on Monday.

ANALYSIS: Gareth Morgan is not a politician.

He has a speech impediment. He wears black sweaters instead of suits. He answers simple questions about voter apathy with 13-minute rants that switch from superannuation reform to drug legalisation and everything in between.

But he's not that kind of non-politician – the kind lighting up the Western world, the populists, the nationalists. He's an elitist, pure and simple; a technocratic policy snob who brooks no disagreement with ideas that he sees as self-evident.

Morgan presented to a packed 350-seat room.

Morgan presented to a packed 350-seat room.

So can a non-populist non-politician actually get the five per cent of votes for his fledgling The Opportunities Party (TOP) – what he would need to win seats and so make any difference in Parliament? Or will he just do what some in the Greens and Labour are privately worried about: take one or two percentage points of the Left vote and completely waste it.

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TOP hit 0.8 per cent of the vote in a recent Newshub poll, above the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture, all  of whom are ...

TOP hit 0.8 per cent of the vote in a recent Newshub poll, above the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture, all of whom are in Parliament.

At a packed 350-seat roadshow in Wellington on Monday night, that 5 per cent certainly seemed possible.

There were former National voters, former Labour voters, former Green voters, former Mana voters, former Maori Party voters, and even a former Conservative voter all interested in switching their party votes to TOP.

The demographics were broadly representative of Wellington – lots of beards, mostly left-leaning – but young and old turned up, and while many of them trickled out during Morgan's extensive and complicated answers to simple questions, most stayed the whole 90 minutes.

Morgan stood with his party's 13 policies behind him, but focused his speech on just one of them: his radical tax plan.

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Technocratic policies usually skew to the political centre. Morgan's tax policy is far left – further left than any of the policy minds in the Green Party would even dare to dream of. It's essentially an attack on the property-owning class.

If you aren't familiar: the policy would tax you just for living in a home you own. In fact, the more of the home you own the more you would pay – so the more of your mortgage you paid off the more would end up with the IRD. But it wouldn't collect a single dollar more in tax, instead drastically cutting income tax to match any tax gains.

Why do that?

The idea is that everyone who has to pay rent in the end pays tax on that through the landlord's income tax. But people who live in homes they own get that benefit tax-free. Morgan sees that as unfair, particularly for people who own a lot of assets – like him.

"My effective tax rate is 10 per cent," he told the room on Monday. "Eighty per cent of people would be better off, and 20 per cent – well, when I was an economist I would say they would be losers. But now I'm in politics I'll say 'will be investing in the futures of their children!' "

This joke lands, as do most of his that night – particularly one about how his stance on cats showed the clear popularity of evidence-based policy, and another about how TOP's research showed it would definitely appeal to the "film festival crowd", a sure demographic in Wellington if ever there was one.

More rarely, there's full-throated applause, most forcefully when Morgan says he wants to halve the prison population and doesn't care what the "Senseless Sentencing Trust" thinks of that.

After we got through the tax policy – gliding over one of its most controversial ideas, where retirees without enough income to pay the tax remortgage their homes with the IRD – we go to questions.

Morgan takes his time with each question – 13 minutes on one – and occasionally forgets where he started. 

His answer on a Treaty of Waitangi question starts with a line that makes the room wince: "If we hadn't [signed the Treaty] we would have been eaten – which is quite the incentive."

But by the end of the forcefully pro-Treaty and pro-Maori answer, he has the audience applauding again.

Kerri Taingahue, 55, told me she was planning on switching her vote to TOP from the Maori Party.

"I always give my party vote to Maori because I think we should have a voice – even if it's a bad one," she said.

But she has become disillusioned with the party, and even bought a TOP badge to take home.

"It only takes one man to stand up against evil for a change to happen. I like Gareth, I think he's the number 8-wire Kiwi bloke. He doesn't wear $7000 suits. I just think he's a little more grounded and in touch."

This affinity for Morgan himself surprised me – in media circles many have assumed that "cat-hating" label would be too strong to overcome – but Taingahue was far from the only one singing his praises.

"I like the fact that Gareth Morgan isn't really a politician; he kind of calls it like he sees it and it seems to be a lot more fact-based than message-based," Ben Rowan, 34, told me.

Rowan voted for the Mana Party in the last election, and other left-leaning parties before that, but is strongly considering TOP this time.

His father, Michael, 61, voted for the Greens last time and is considering switching too.

"It's good to hear a politician actually talking about taking action and actually making changes. Because I don't think any of the current policies have any kind of long-term future," he said.

Some do acknowledge that it might be the message they like more than the messenger.

"For me it's the policies that I like – he's the cat hater, I'm not here for him," said Alex McKie, 29. 

A pair of middle-aged women who didn't wish to be named said the night was fantastic and empowering.

"The research is a no-brainer," one said. "He's thinking long term, he's thinking financially, he's thinking compassionately, he's thinking about the whole of New Zealand and not a particular group, not just the rich or the poor." Both had voted for the Greens in the past.

It wasn't all lefties in the audience.

Keith Morris, 42, voted for the Conservative Party in 2014.

"I'm very interested in the policies [TOP's] got. They sound well-researched, well thought out, and I think that's a bonus," Morris said.

"I've always been interested in making societies fairer. Despite being quite socially conservative, even things like the drug reform seem sensible."

Graeme Haxton, 56, who usually votes for National, said he signed up for TOP to challenge his own thinking and values.

"The more I've dug into it the more I've found his thinking parallels my own thoughts, particularly within my social conscience."

Both men were strongly considering switching their votes.

On my way out of the roadshow, I caught up with Geoff Simmons, deputy leader and candidate for Wellington Central.

He admitted that Wellington was probably the party's strongest city, but said crowds all over the South Island and in provincial cities had been bigger than expected.

Big enough? TOP hit 0.8 per cent of the vote in a recent Newshub poll, above the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture, all  of whom are in Parliament.

But all of those parties have serious chances of winning an electorate seat, something TOP doesn't have. And picking up the remaining 4.2 per cent – more than 100,000 voters – in just three months would be no mean feat.

And if it doesn't? Nothing. That's the worry of the other left-of-centre parties, particularly the Green Party, which is the most likely to lose votes to TOP. Party votes for the Greens will definitely result in more seats in Parliament. Party votes for TOP might easily not.

Of course, winning isn't everything, as Morgan readily admits. He just wants his policies to be picked up by the major parties, and making a serious attempt to get into Parliament seems to be the best way to do that.

"All we are is a mouthpiece," Morgan tells the audience. "Whether the government is Labour or National, I'm indifferent to that."

But whether he likes it or not, politics has a way of getting its teeth into people who just see it as a means to an end.

Fact-checking technocracy didn't win Hillary Clinton the US election, but it did help her win 48.2 per cent of the vote. Let's see if Morgan can use it to get to five.

 - Stuff


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