TOP leader Gareth Morgan outside Parliament.

‘They’ll back us, or we’ll go down in flames’ – an interview with Gareth Morgan, cat man turned TOP dog

Millionaire investor and political agitator Gareth Morgan’s launch of The Opportunities Party has been welcomed with Donald Trump comparisons and terrible cat puns. Toby Manhire asks him what he’s up to.

Iconoclastic economist, motorcyclist, political agitator and cat predator Gareth Morgan this morning announced a new political party, promising “the opportunity to get a fair go … to improve the well-being of New Zealand families”.

Shortly after his press conference at parliament grounds in Wellington, where he said, “It’s nearly Guy Fawkes Day, I guess, so I’m here to sort of light a fuse under this place,” Morgan spoke to the Spinoff.

The Spinoff: My first thought when I saw the announcement this morning was: is this a parody? My second thought was: is this like Bob Jones in 1984 with the New Zealand Party. Is it like Bob Jones in 1984?

Gareth Morgan: Somebody else mentioned that to me today, and I thought, what was he trying to do there? He was trying to get New Zealand to undertake some fundamental policy change. And you have to say, whether you agree with it or not, that he achieved that objective by getting Roger Douglas and co in there. Which was all fine. The only thing about that episode which left a bit of a sour taste is that the Douglas agenda wasn’t declared, so in a way the New Zealand people had a feel for the change they wanted but they didn’t have any perception of the detail. And of course the devil was all in the detail, and it was a massive change.

So to a degree I think it was under the blanket stuff. Whereas what we’re doing here, what you’ll find as we release these policies, they are fundamental changes, they are significant changes, but I’m not trying to do it in a surreptitious manner. I’m putting policy out there – they’ll be completely out there by the end of February, or beginning of March, for discussion and interchange with New Zealanders. And if they like them, they’ll back us in sufficient numbers, and if they don’t, we’ll go down in flames. That’s their prerogative. That’s the difference, I think, is the transparency.

Gareth Morgan storms parliament.

Gareth Morgan storms parliament.

What then is the Morgan agenda, the Opportunities Party agenda, the vision?

I subscribe to the philosophy, I guess, that a fairer society actually ends up being more prosperous. And there’s been quite a lot of empirical work done on that now. The OECD is very much in this camp. And I don’t think you can have one without the other. And New Zealand, in terms of just economic numbers, has been doing pretty well under John Key and co. But when you look at who’s getting it, that aspect of it, I don’t think we’ve seen any improvement since 1990 at all. In fact if you bring housing into it, the divisions have got even greater. So I don’t think that side of is anything to be particularly proud of it. So I want to optimise both. If we can get New Zealand fair again, then I think we can spread the prosperity love.

Mischievously or not, you raised the Trump name today. Are you trying to catch an anti-establishment wave, in terms of people’s frustration and political elites and machinery?

Right through my career, which is 40 years now, people have said to me, Why don’t you go into politics? I’ve always said, oh, God, that means joining Labour or National and working your way up the ranks, doing your time, doing whatever pleases the boss. No, thanks very much. I’ve got no interest in that at all. So I’ve been pretty anti-establishment, I think my track record shows that. Not because I’m anti any of the people involved, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that the process of being inside the establishment does, I think, instil an inertia. A natural inertial to change. I’m trying to overcome that. So I think a lot of the politics at the moment, the people are the victims of establishment parties.

Where are the votes going to come from?

To be honest, I have no idea. I think they’re going to come from across the board. The way I would describe it is they’re going to come from people who care, beyond just their immediate vicinity, either themselves – which basically covers ACT, doesn’t it? – or a bit beyond. This is going to appeal, I think, to people who care about the whole of New Zealand society and even more importantly, their children and their grandchildren. The sort of stuff we will talk about has long-term impacts for New Zealand, rather than what the focus of establishment parties is, which is not just fire-fighting but day-to-day management of the political system.

What about the term blue-green to characterise you. Is that about right?

I wouldn’t object to that label. I guess if anything on economics I’d be bluer than I would be red, but I do get very angry with the far right of the economic spectrum in New Zealand, those people who think that tax is theft and I’m-OK-Jack-pull-up-the-ladder. That kind of libertarian thing – I have no time for it, I’m very antagonistic towards that. But I’m very much a fan of free markets as economists describe them, which is free entry and exit, which means no concentrated power, very against oligopolies for example. So for me, that is what free market economics is. That’s sort of my heritage. But I’m pretty strong on social justice issues and very strong on the environment, because I think that’s our biggest asset. I want to make money out of it, through enhancing it. I think we can, I think New Zealanders can make a lot of money.

Are there any parties you wouldn’t feel comfortable working with? Would you be happy working with NZ First?

I think it all comes down to their policy offerings. There may well be common ground. I’m trying to stay away from the whole personality thing. I’m only interested in what someone’s saying, what’s the policy in this area. I’d be open to be anybody. But if I didn’t agree with the policy then clearly it wouldn’t matter who said it – I would say so.

In terms of your own personalities, I’m assuming you’ll be No 1 on your list, but do you have people lined up for the next six, seven, eight places?

We have certainly had expressions of interest. I’ve had people right through my career come up to me and say, ‘I want to do this’ – including incumbent politicians, by the way. But it hasn’t been on my radar, I’ve only decided to do this in the last month. I would expect that process to evolve over the period up until March, which is when we will either register or not.

Depending on the number of memberships and so on?

Well, the memberships are going to be fine. You need 500, and I think there’s 300 already and we’ve only been going a few hours. It’s more about how do I feel at the time, when it gets to March and we’ve put those policies out there, had the reaction and discussion with New Zealand, do I feel like there’s enough a mandate to go for this or don’t I? So I’m just going to let that evolve for three or four months.

How much money are you going to put in?

I’d like to not put anything into it. Not because I’m a tightarse, but it does upset me a bit that you have to spend money on this sort of thing. I would rather say I’ll match whatever party spending whatever, but I’ll give it all to charity so that it’s actually used for a proper purpose instead of this nonsense. But let’s be realistic, we’re going to have to fund it. Now obviously the members will fund some of it, because it’s 20 bucks to be a member of this thing, but I’m fully expecting to have to spend whatever it takes to be effective. I’ll try and minimise it.

So we’re talking two, three million? More?

That’s what they spend, isn’t it, so it’s probably that kind of magnitude I’ll be starting down the barrel at. But hopefully I can be a bit smarter than that.

What about cats? Are you sick of people being dicks and making jokes about the cat thing?

No, not really. I might have a thick skin or something. I did get a bit sick of it when I first brought it up and I was the only one prepared to stand up. I’d get people like Forest & Bird, DOC, all those guys, say, ‘Oh, Gareth it’s wonderful what you’re doing.’ And I’d say, ‘For Christ’s sake, somebody come out then and give me some support,’ and they’d go, ‘Ooh, no, no, so many of our supporters have got cats.’

But those days are well gone now, and it’s as you know in Wellington now part of the council bylaws here, and that will happen, that will rolled out over the next couple of years around all the regional councils as well, so I consider that job done, and if the council have picked it up, that’s been a success.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.