Bryce Edwards: Is Gareth Morgan saving or sinking TOP? 

Bryce Edwards: Is Gareth Morgan saving or sinking TOP? 

Gareth Morgan is determined not to give up on his political ambitions for the Opportunities Party. Despite the party’s many setbacks, Morgan thinks he can salvage it. To do this, he’s making some serious changes – most notably stepping down as leader – see the Herald report, The Opportunities Party to fight next election, minus Gareth Morgan.

Morgan clearly states that his decision to step down is based on his self-awareness that he doesn’t have the necessary leadership skills, or the personal ambition: “Charm has a big role to play in politics. We saw that with Jacinda, when 20 per cent of the population moved in 24 hours, so that obviously requires a slightly different skill-set. Combine that with the fact that I don’t want to go to Parliament anyway, and it’s a no-brainer.”

Morgan is both TOP’s greatest asset and biggest liability. His contributions to the party are very clear. After all, TOP is nearly entirely his creation – Morgan put all the money, ideas, and personality into launching it. The benefits of Morgan’s contribution have been considerable, and in New Zealand politics it’s very difficult to find success with a new party if you haven’t got those resources.

However, Morgan has also been the author of much of the party’s misfortune. His many controversies are well covered in the stories and interviews Morgan has done today. See, for example, Newshub’s Gareth Morgan ends the ‘farce’ of trying to get into Parliament. In this, he explains his rather combative and undiplomatic approach: “I’m not very compromising. To me there’s right and wrong, and if you compromise between right and wrong, you end up with incoherent soup… When people just give you ‘idiot wind’, as I call it, I just give it back – with interest.”

Morgan also explains his plans, which seem to involve him “stepping aside” rather than “stepping down”: “The plan is I go back into the back office and work my butt off on policy, and we have people who are natural politicians in the front helping with the selling of it.”

But it’s not clear that these remedies are radical enough to stop the party sinking into oblivion. I’ve written an opinion column today at Newsroom, arguing that TOP needs to take more radical action in order to salvage the party – see: Will TOP’s leadership change just be lipstick on a pig?

Here’s the key part of my argument: “TOP’s problems require more than just a new lick of paint. At the heart of its failure in 2017 was the ideological ambiguity it presented to voters. There still isn’t any strong clarity about what the party represents. Characterising itself as ‘evidence-based’ is hardly a compelling narrative. More than this, the party has exuded two very different – in fact mutually exclusive – messages about its political character. For some, the party is a vehicle for Wellington cosmopolitan policy wonks. It’s part of that urban elite who like to read books about public policy, and have a strong allegiance to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. For others, it’s a more provincial, down-to-earth, straight talking party of outsiders for those sick of the establishment parties.”

I question whether Gareth Morgan in stepping aside, will actually allow the new party leader to have true autonomy, and speculate that this is likely to be a factor in departing co-Deputy Leader Geoff Simmons not being quick to throw his hat into the ring to replace Morgan. I argue that Simmons has the talent and personality to make TOP a success, but he’s probably highly cognisant that he would never be his ‘own man’ if he takes over.

It seems that Simmons is taking some time out from the party to travel and reflect on whether he really wants to take over from Morgan. You can read his leadership resignation letter on Facebook – see: Today I’ve resigned as co-Deputy Leader of The Opportunities Party. In this, Simmons says “I currently don’t feel I have the necessary energy to devote to my role in TOP. When the time comes to select TOP’s new leader, if I feel I have regained the energy needed to take on that role I will put my hat into the ring.”

Issues of internal party democracy and control are further in evidence today in the departure of other TOP candidates. Waitaki candidate Kevin Neill left, describing the party as a “dictatorship” and is quoted as saying it was “untenable to have an open, transparent discussion on not only how to create policies, but whether to change them” – see Laura Walters’ TOP loses leader Gareth Morgan and three other candidates in matter of hours. According to this article, Neill “believed nothing would change after Morgan stepped down as leader – he would still take a lead in making decisions”.

Jessica Hammond-Doube, who came third in the Ohariu contest, announced her resignation on Facebook, saying that the departure of Simmons “signals my last hope that the party would move in a direction that I was more comfortable with”. Further, she said that “Various things happened during and after the campaign that have not aligned with my values”, and that she would be unable to achieve her goals “by continuing to be a part of TOP”.

Another former candidate, and previous co-Deputy Leader, Jenny Condie,‏ also went on Twitter to comment: “It’s a sad day for those of us who believe in TOP’s stated principles. Geoff and Jessica are smart, kind and funny – they were my last hope to rehabilitate TOP.”

Of course, Condie left last month, after being asked to resign by Morgan, in a now infamous email telling her that she was a “pain in the arse”. This occurred after Condie raised questions inside the party about the state of democracy and culture in the party. This was well covered last month by Don Rowe in his article, ‘Another day where it feels embarrassing to be associated with TOP’: the email which enraged Morgan.

This article reproduces the email that got Condie in trouble. Here’s one part: “It is not merely Gareth’s comments themselves – these are a reflection of the culture that exists within the party. There is a mismatch between our policies and our culture: between what we say we want to accomplish and how we actually behave. This mismatch makes us untrustworthy in the eyes of the public and makes me feel out of integrity”.

Such departures have been a long time coming. I was quoted a month ago in an article by Rob Mitchell, saying “I think in a few months we’ll find that Gareth Morgan hasn’t got a party, in the sense that many of the people around him will have left . . . or a lot of them will still be there in the party and Gareth Morgan won’t be leader… I can’t see the status quo prevailing. There’s too much unhappiness in the party at the moment” – see: Never mind Donald Trump – Gareth Morgan is NZ’s own ‘grumpy grandpa’.

In the same article, I also suggest that Morgan will have trouble letting go of his own party: “He’s a control freak and has too much invested in it personally to allow him to do that. He’s too close to it to see the need to make changes.”

Morgan very clearly has strong ambitions for the party. He recently closed down the research activities of his Morgan Foundation – see Duncan Greive’s Gareth Morgan is shutting down the Morgan Foundation to double down on TOP.

It seems that the money he was spending on his foundation will now be directed into a new TOP public policy research unit that will start laying the groundwork for the 2020 election campaign – see Newshub: The Opportunities Party to remain a ‘rowdy disruptor’.

But it’s not yet clear from today’s announcement that Morgan has reflected very much on any errors made during this year’s election campaign. Certainly, straight after the election, he was unrelenting, criticising the public for voting out of self-interest – see Nicholas Jones’ ‘Voters cannot be this thick’: Gareth Morgan on ‘Jacinda effect’. On the plus side, Morgan claims “We’ve got 800 volunteers, 40,000 people on the email. They are big numbers. We have 4000 paid subs or something like that.”

See also, Lucy Swinnen’s Party ‘for a fairer New Zealand’ falls flat, as Gareth Morgan’s TOP falls far short of 5 per cent. According to this article, “Morgan would not admit any mistake in style or substance in his campaign”, but Geoff Simmons said that Morgan’s “lipstick on a pig” comment was one of the “turning points in the campaign where the party lost momentum”.

Finally, for the best satire on the TOP leader’s problems with cats and social media, see Andrew Gunn’s Moggy mugger Gareth Morgan ponders TOP’s election failure.