Former and current leaders of The Opportunities Party, Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons. Images: Getty

TOP down? How in-fighting is risking The Opportunities Party’s survival

Former leader Gareth Morgan says The Opportunities Party’s remaining members are ‘grovelling, compromising political aspirants’ and that’s the least of new leader Geoff Simmons’ problems. Max Towle for RNZ In Depth asks: can Simmons rescue the party from itself – and does the party really hold any appeal to voters now its colourful founder is gone? 

Gareth Morgan is in the Mongolian mountains on a three-month motorcycle tour of east Asia, and the emails he fires off certainly capture a man in the midst of an adrenaline rush.

“A group of grovelling, compromising political aspirants,” he types when asked what he thinks of his former colleagues in The Opportunities Party. They lack “talent in the ranks” he spits, before he straps on his helmet and hits the next apex.

Add caustic insults from 12,000km away to the list of problems The Opportunities Party, or TOP, is facing. Founded by wealthy businessman and economist Morgan in the run-up to the 2017 election, the party is still scrambling to escape his ominous shadow, while new leader Geoff Simmons is in a bitter dispute with a board member loyal to the old regime, who says an independent arbitrator is needed.

Without his former boss’ millions and headline-making mouth, Simmons is trying to restore TOP’s relevancy before next year’s election. That is, if the party survives until then.

Divided we stand

Simmons says he doesn’t mind being told he’s talking “a whole load of shit”. Sitting in a Wellington pub drinking a raspberry brown ale, the former economist says he would feel comfortable at any other pub, drinking any other beer, talking to anyone about politics and policy, despite resembling an “urban liberal”.

He sighs and doesn’t look surprised when told of Morgan’s latest diatribe, but he won’t fire back. He says he inherited a party dominated by one personality, along with a certain type of culture, and when a party is personally bankrolled for more than $2 million, “you can’t just choose bits of him”.

Morgan, though, has no hesitation denouncing the man he handpicked to be one of his co-deputies two years ago, or those who remain with him at TOP. He completely cut ties with, and funding from, the party a couple of months ago, choosing instead to spend his money purchasing a golf course in north Porirua and creating his own motorcycle diaries. He describes Simmons as “uninspiring” and says “TOP2” will be a “servile shadow” of its former self.

TOP Party co-deputy Teresa Moore with Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons in happier times. Photo: RNZ

It’s clear Morgan wishes the party ceased to exist when he put away his chequebook. He readily admits there are two factions – one that supported his “strong management,” and another that “undermined it from quite early on and has now gone on to try and remould TOP into the obsequious type of political effort you’re now seeing.”

He goes on: “The degenerate faction is winning that internal struggle as members [of the former faction] resign and leave the party. The reprobates aren’t loyal to the principles the party was founded on and IMO shouldn’t even get to the 2020 election.”

The one positive, he graciously concedes, is that the policies created under his watch still largely stand. Still, he says, TOP2 is unlikely to “get the respect of voters”.

Morgan’s latest rant is small fry compared to the bigger headache Simmons faces closer to home. A recent email sent by TOP board member Donna Pokere-Phillips to the party’s 4000-plus membership challenged and questioned his leadership. She accused Simmons of making excess payments to himself, misleading the party about its current financial position and its insolvency, and questioned whether he should bestow himself with a $60,000 annual salary.

They are now locked in a grim back-and-forth that’s playing out in public. Simmons says TOP has never been insolvent, and that the extra payments were to reimburse him for things like advertisements and IT costs. In response to Pokere-Phillips’ accusation he has a conflict of interest by holding both governance and operational roles, he says he’s yet to rewrite TOP’s constitution to better distribute power.

Further squabbling centres around Pokere-Phillips, saying she’s been “blocked from acting in the best interests of the party”, and it’s likely an independent arbitrator will be required.

“Geoff removed my capability to communicate directly with TOP members by removing my access to the membership database. Instead, he is sending correspondence without my approval and thereby controlling the narrative that our members receive.”

Simmons says communicating with members is now overseen by a comms manager. “There will always be some people who have their own political agenda, but using private member details to further personal political aspirations and spread false information is clearly inappropriate.”

Pokere-Phillips echoes Morgan: “We have lost very good board members because of the management of the party.” And then, as a clash of personalities threatens to torpedo the party, she says: “TOP is about our policies … not about popularity or personalities – we will leave that to other parties.”

TOP leader Gareth Morgan and Donna Pokere-Phillips at the party’s campaign launch in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

She says she’s sought “professional accountancy advice” to get a clearer picture of TOP’s finances. “If something is not done to steer the party back on track with its founding principles, then I am very concerned about the future of this party.”

Despite everything, Simmons insists TOP is in healthy shape. “TOP 1.0 had a certain culture, and TOP2 has a different culture.” Told this isn’t evident, he says, “We’re working on it.”

He says there are “always going to be some people within the organisation who prefer the old way of doing things”, and if they don’t like the new way, “good luck”.

Divorce and survival

Gareth Morgan first dreamed up The Opportunities Party in 2016 while doing aid work in Syria. He was evacuated after an attack on another convoy, and, questioning his mortality, resolved to enter politics.

His ambition was bold. No new party since ACT in 1996 (the first MMP election) has made it into Parliament without having a sitting MP the previous term. When TOP launched in late-2016, promoting itself as a benchmark for evidence-based policy, its prominence was immediate thanks to Morgan’s high profile.

TOP’s policies on tax, climate change and immigration were detailed and ambitious, but it was Morgan who made headlines, most notably after declaring Labour’s change of leadership – from Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern – was just putting “lipstick on a pig”. He was never shy of speaking his mind, either in public in his go-to outfit of a suit jacket and tee, or on Twitter, where he frequently turned out blunt phrases that rarely failed to offend.

TOP candidate Jennie Condie threw in the towel before the election after being called a “pain in the arse” by Morgan. She remembers a “dysfunctional” party led by a stubborn boss with poor communication skills who was unable to take criticism. “It was Gareth’s way or the highway … and that led to factions developing.” Soon after the election, Condie co-founded a political action group Civic. She is sceptical her former party’s culture will change any time soon. “Gareth stepping away is the first step, but it’s not enough.” She says the dispute between Simmons and Pokere-Phillips, and the fact they’ve been unable to resolve their differences behind closed doors, is a big red flag.

Last year, political commentator and PR consultant Brigitte Morten wrote about the struggles“vanity parties” often face. “People generally join political parties because they want to be heard, want to have a say on policy and want to have a sense of ownership of making it better. A party built around a dominant central figure – like Gareth Morgan – fail to provide people in the long term with that ability,” she said.

TOP’s 2.44 percent showing in the 2017 election was admirable for a new party, but Morgan was still disappointed by his failure to earn a seat, and a voice, in the debating chamber. On election night he solemnly drank craft beer and ranted about how “old guys are threatened by our existence”. He said he wouldn’t lead a “political crusade” again, but still had faith in what he’d started.

Gareth Morgan speaks to the TOP faithful on Election Night. Photo: RNZ / Max Towle

TOP briefly limped along. A month after the election Morgan sunk $430,000 into the party, and soon afterwards put his charitable trust and think tank, The Morgan Foundation, on hiatus.

In July 2018, The Opportunities Party announced it wouldn’t contest the 2020 election, then a month later, it announced it would. Simmons was elected leader, despite Morgan publicly backing another candidate. Morgan resigned his final positions at TOP in March this year, and said he wouldn’t give the party any more money.

Asked whether he still doubts Simmons is the right person for the job, Morgan doesn’t mince his words. He says he’s contemptuous of parties that “hang around like bad smells,” as they end up compromising their principles.

“This is where I differ very starkly from the Kumbaya crowd that Geoff Simmons has assembled. They’re little more than a cargo cult clinging on to the goodwill that TOP: 2017 created with voters.”

The real power

Simmons is attempting something that has previously spelled the death of other minor parties, including the Alliance, the Internet Party and the Conservatives. He is trying to resurrect a minor party after the exit of a noted leader and iron bank.

He may want TOP to become a group project rather than a dictatorship, but voters still respond to personalities. Does he think he’s likeable? “I think so. I’m honest. I’m straight up. I grew up in a working class household with an agricultural background.”

He spent the first 10 years of his life in Okaihau, and the next 10 in west Auckland. He was “the only white guy” in Avondale College’s first XV, and claims “a good amount of rural and bogan blood”.

He flipped back-and-forth between degrees at university before settling on economics. He worked at Treasury for four years between OEs – one after university and one with money – and ended up as the general manager of the Morgan Foundation.

Simmons says he had dabbled with the idea of becoming a candidate for an established party, but he didn’t have a specific one in mind. When Morgan called him from Western Asia with dreams of the Beehive in late-2016, less than a year before the election, he put Simmons on the spot, “Are you in or out?” There was no time to dwell. He agreed, and the party launched less than a month later.

As more minor parties appear ready to crowd next year’s election, Simmons insists there’s still a space for The Opportunities Party. He won’t rule out working with any politician or party, nor does he believe TOP can be easily categorised as left or right wing. He says its key policies, such as a capital-based tax system, an unconditional basic income of $200 per week for families and people over 65, and a market-based approach to the environment, that will speak to people disillusioned with Labour and National. “If they are still stuck under the illusion that red and blue are actually that different, then vote red or blue, I don’t care.”

Geoff Simmons, Jacinda Ardern and Julie-Ann Genter in RNZ’s Auckland studio for a live debate ahead of 2017’s Mount Albert by-election. Photo: RNZ

Simmons, like Morgan before him, wants to be a king or queenmaker. He says Winston Peters has shown what’s possible, while the Green Party has only leveraged “what was already in Labour’s manifesto and a few other scraps from the table”.

He rates the Labour coalition government a four out of 10. There is no comparing Ardern to a farmyard animal, instead he says she’s been a “great leader,” but adds Labour has “failed to deliver transformational change and is only tinkering around the edges”.

Among the wreckage

Simmons bounces between optimism and realism while weighing The Opportunities Party’s future. While he won’t say it outright, he implies there is a chance it won’t exist by the end of the year. Right now, the party has about half the funds it needs to survive until 2020, mainly thanks to small donations from its 4000+ members. Simmons says he’ll soon put the call out to some “bigger fish”, but if more money doesn’t start coming in, “There’s no point [continuing].” The same goes if the party isn’t polling at about 2-3 percent by next year.

Nevertheless, he’s on a recruitment drive targeting new candidates, new board members, and as many volunteers as possible. On whether there will be a wealth of new policies by next year, he concedes, “Obviously, we don’t have Gareth involved anymore, but we have skilled volunteers who are willing to chip in on policy.” The one significant addition to the list came last month, when Simmons announced the party backs gene editing, where no new genetic material is added, which he describes as selective breeding, “only faster”.

Party member and former candidate Jessica Hammond agrees losing Morgan’s millions poses the biggest challenge. But the plus side is losing Morgan’s millions: “The way we communicate is going to be far less likely to put people off – we’ll no longer have his abrasive style.”

Political commentator Ben Thomas is sceptical about the party’s future. He says it’s unlikely to build on its most vocal support, which he describes as “university-educated, slightly smarter-than-thou people who looked at these policies and declared them the winner on the day, rather than how practical it would be to implement them in government”.

He says TOP lacks a consistent and coherent brand. “You don’t really get a clear sense of what they stand for, other than a bunch of research papers.” And those research papers are “getting older by the minute,” he says, while the party struggles to communicate to people what issues it’s trying to solve.

Simmons acknowledges this: “Some people love our policy stuff, but others don’t have the time or inclination to read everything on our website. We have to be able to present our ideas in a more accessible way for them.” TOP earned a bulk of its support via social media, and Simmons cites his “policy in a minute” videos, where he stares down a camera lens and furiously sells the virtues of TOP’s policies.

Thomas says TOP seems to be trying to create a new world from scratch, and while voters weigh policies, they also weigh the chances of those policies being implemented. “The current government couldn’t get the capital gains tax over the line, so how is a party worth 5 percent going to implement revolutionary, big picture changes?” He says it’s far easier for minor coalition parties to stop things from happening.

Thomas describes Simmons as a “nice, capable guy, but not a nationally-known figure who can draw a significant following”. The party’s genesis, he says, was as a vanity project for a rich man, much like the Internet and Conservative parties. “They’re now stuck in a death spiral – these parties start with a strong leader and funding, then a lot of people leave and those who remain don’t seem to realise they’re standing among the wreckage.

“Meanwhile, small turf wars break out between people who are fighting over something that doesn’t really exist anymore.”

‘I can’t get my head around it’

Simmons is in an Irish bar in central Wellington. This time he’s drinking a pint of lager. He has booked the upstairs lounge to give an hour-long public lecture and Q&A on tax. About 20 or so people have turned up, a quarter of whom are women. Simmons repeatedly scolds himself for scheduling the event during the Game of Thrones finale. He has hosted similar events around the country in the past few months, to similar crowds.

TOP leader Geoff Simmons at a tax talk in Wellington last month. Photo: RNZ / Max Towle

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Economy reform is clearly the policy Simmons feels most comfortable debating. He confidently flicks through PowerPoint slides to demonstrate how his party would tackle growing inequality. He concedes reform would take time – 10 to 15 years – otherwise the housing market would crash. He answers questions confidently in a long-winded, roundabout manner. He is a politician.

A rival minor party emerged last month in Destiny Church’s Coalition NZ. The day after media swarmed to speak to its leader, Hannah Tamaki, Simmons sounds frustrated: “I just struggle to believe that when we’ve got a housing crisis, polluted rivers and an ailing economy, that abortion and morality and whether someone smokes a bit of weed are the biggest issues we face. I can’t get my head around it.”

Right now, he says his party just needs momentum. Once that comes, money will follow. He denies he’s standing among the wreckage, even if lack of funding, or the party eating itself from the inside out might mean he soon makes a defeated, lucrative return to being an economist.

This article originally appeared on RNZ.


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