The Opportunities Party is going into the election enthusiastic about its prospects of getting a Universal Basic Income on the table. But internal division once again threatens to overshadow the campaign. Alex Braae reports.
Sometimes it’s tough at the TOP. Just as the party was starting to gain momentum on its policy platform built around a Universal Basic Income, the old problem of internal division has struck again. I’d been planning to talk to party leader Geoff Simmons about his enthusiasm for a universal basic income, campaign plans and the visibility of the party. We did get on to the UBI – and more on that later – but just ahead of our conversation Simmons was delivered, not for the first time, a burst of unwelcome visibility.
The party has parted company with former Auckland Central candidate, cafe owner Joshua Love, and an acrimonious warning letter has been leaked online. In it, party secretary Ray McKeown outlines concerns ranging from potential breaches of the Electoral Act to allegations of aggression and belligerent behaviour towards fellow party members.
Simmons said Love “chose to respond to that letter by going public, so we’re taking that as a resignation”. He added that Love was “very good at engaging young people, but not so much at sticking to things like the Electoral Act”, when it comes to candidate advertising.
For his part, Love said that he had offered a verbal resignation to the party, would now be standing in Auckland Central as an independent, and wished his former party well. “We have some extremely talented candidates [in Auckland Central] who will almost definitely get into parliament on their list positions, and I’d like to work constructively with them. As for TOP, best evidence based policy I’ve seen.”
It was a slightly different story in a video posted to Love’s 11,000 followers on Facebook this morning in which he went through the letter point by point, accepting some of the allegations, and rejecting others.
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One accusation made by an unnamed board member was that Love had turned up to a meeting hungover, and behaved in an “entirely unacceptable” manner and being “aggressive and confrontational to the point that you made the board member feel unsafe”.
In his defence, Love said he was “invited to the meeting under false pretences, and the board member refused to accept my position of being unhappy with that, so I politely paid for the meal and left”. He also added that he had never been asked whether he had in fact been aggressive, and said on the point of being confrontational, “this is politics, this isn’t fun and games”.
He apologised to the board member for making them feel unsafe, but rejected that he had actually behaved aggressively. He also suggested that CCTV footage would confirm his version of events, and lamented that he had committed a lot of money and time to the campaign while also running a small business.
Speaking to The Spinoff, Simmons said that there had been “concerns raised around his campaign” leading up to that point, and that it was going to be “difficult to make sure he’s singing from the same song sheet.” However, he wished Love no ill-will in their parting.
It’s not a new problem for TOP, who last year lost its member’s representative on the board, Donna Pokere-Phillips, over allegations that Simmons had misled the party. TOP’s leader strenuously denied that, and Pokere-Phillips is now a candidate for the Māori Party. That in turn followed repeated internal explosions around the place of party founder Gareth Morgan, who has now had no involvement with the party for more than a year.
The timing is frustrating for the party which has been building momentum for the upcoming campaign. Simmons is about to embark on a road trip around the country, with the aim of meeting potential voters and energising members.
The party has also gained traction online with its campaign for a Universal Basic Income. Simmons said engagement on social media posts – already a strength for the party – had “doubled or tripled” on this particular policy.
“Clearly that policy has resonated with Kiwis, particularly during this time,” he said, referring to the wider economic concerns around Covid-19.
It’s a policy that doesn’t currently have any champions within parliament, potentially giving TOP an edge for the enthusiastic niche of voters who back the idea. The Greens recently released a policy around a Guaranteed Minimum Income, which Simmons said had some merit, even if he thought TOP’s version was better.
The UBI policy had resonated most “among people working in the gig economy, and that is more likely to be younger people. All the stats show they’re the people working multiple jobs. So I think people in that position get it.”
Comparing the two policies, he said “the key difference is around incentives to work. The GMI is clearly better for beneficiaries and people who aren’t working, but it will turn the welfare trap into the welfare grand canyon, effectively.” He said a UBI by contrast would allow people to live comfortably, while not penalising them for increasing their work hours.
“The GMI is a better version of the current benefit system. A UBI is a whole new welfare system for the 21st century and the gig economy,” he added.
Simmons also highlighted policies around housing affordability and rent as an area of strength for the party, and said there had been positive feedback from small businesses over their Covid recovery programme, which calls for “removing the unfair and disliked provisional tax system as well as boosting the productivity of small and medium-sized enterprises through the uptake of digital tools and energy-saving initiatives.”
“The reaction we’ve got to our package is that it’s more of a hand-up than a hand-out,” said Simmons.
The party’s targeted paths into parliament involve aiming for 5% of the party vote, and getting a win in the seat of Ōhāriu for returning candidate Jessica Hammond. She ran against Labour MP Greg O’Connor and National MP Brett Hudson in 2017, coming in third place with 7% of the candidate vote and beating the nationwide average in the party vote.
As for Simmons himself, he will be standing in Rongotai, after contesting Wellington Central in 2017. He lives on the border between the two Labour stronghold electorates, and believes he’ll have a better chance this time around. “Paul Eagle’s a bit of a controversial character. He’s certainly more divisive than Grant Robertson is, so I’m looking forward to taking him on.”
However, the polls indicate that it will be a very difficult job for the party to crack 5%. In all of the recent Colmar Brunton surveys conducted for One News, it has been sitting between 0.5% and 1% support. Last year, Simmons indicated that if polling wasn’t better by this point of the campaign, it might not be worth running.
Simmons said there has been “a big discussion about this as a board, and we were really pleased with the response the UBI got online, and were also really pleased with our fundraising campaign, which will allow us to run a decent election campaign. Our supporters have put their hands up and say they see value in what we’re doing.”
Simmons said a major concern now is getting the word out “that there’s no such thing as a wasted vote”, so that potential supporters won’t reject the possibility of voting for them.