The Opportunities Party’s top echelons are at war, with the board’s membership representative accusing leader Geoff Simmons of misleading the party, having a conflict of interest over roles, and warning of a dire financial situation. Alex Braae reports.
It’s tough at the top for Opportunities Party leader Geoff Simmons.
Just a few days ago, he was reassuring members that while there were challenges ahead, the party was in good shape under his leadership. But an alternative view came in an email to members yesterday evening, with one of the party’s top figures making a series of accusations against him.
Membership representative, 2017 Hamilton West candidate and board member Donna Pokere-Phillips has accused Simmons of misleading members about the state of the party’s finances, and taking a wildly disproportionate share in payments for his work as leader. “I am constantly concerned we will struggle to pay our monthly outgoings, the greater part of which was going to pay the General Manager/ leadership role,” she wrote in a leaked 1700 word email. “Even though we have a small buffer in residual funds, there are months where we have technically been operating insolvent where our liabilities were greater than our income.”
She also alleged that Simmons had indicated that he didn’t think the party would be financially sustainable beyond March 2019, and that there was confusion at board level over whether Simmons should continue to be paid. Simmons has consistently stated that the party is financially sustainable and viable.
Geoff Simmons firmly denied both of the accusations. He said “when I was elected leader in late December we had enough money in the bank to survive until March. That is why the Board at the time wrote a contract for the Leader out till end of March. Then we we mounted a fundraising campaign, and we are still going.” He added that the party was now in a much better financial position, and that there was no truth to allegations to party had operated while insolvent. “Our Party Secretary is an accountant and he assured her [Pokere-Philips] that wasn’t the case. But apparently she didn’t listen.”
The email came in response to a blog post on TOP’s website, in which Simmons said that the board had agreed to pay the leader a salary of roughly $60,000 per annum. “Without that income I would need to stand down and find a job, and the vast majority of people I have spoken to within the Party don’t want that to happen.”
Pokere-Phillips strenuously challenged that, alleging that the figure given wasn’t credible. “This statement is contrary to the facts, because of privacy matters I can not be specific but I am aware payments are substantially higher than he has stated.”
Geoff Simmons said that was false, and provided context for why he had made invoices for additional money. “For some months the IT costs of the Party have been going through on my credit card. These total around 2k per month and I have been getting reimbursed for them in addition to the actual income.”
Pokere-Philips said the issues have been compounded by Simmons holding multiple roles within the wider party hierarchy. On that point, Simmons said he wasn’t happy with holding multiple roles, and when funding allowed, he wanted to hand over day to day operations to a paid general manager.
The issues mentioned in Pokere-Phillips’ email have sparked serious disquiet among TOP supporters on a public facebook group. In one post, a member asked “does TOP need an independent investigation into culture, leadership and finances?” Other commenters had mixed views on that suggestion.
When asked for what the email meant for the state of the party, Geoff Simmons said it was more a reflection on Pokere-Philips, than anything about the party as a whole. “It is pretty disappointing that Donna has chosen to go public with no evidence. Not a great look for someone representing an evidence based party.” He added that “to address member concerns today I will be seeking to certify our financial report with a view to publication by mid June.”
However, this morning Pokere-Philips said the email needed to go out to the party. “People were digging deep into their pockets, and I knew there was a risk of the media picking it up, but if we’re going to to hold other political parties to account, we need to do it with ourselves.” She added that since sending the email, she has received messages of support from current and former members, including former board members.
She said she hoped good would come of the intervention, because “the policies are world class.” She said for the working relationship between her and Geoff Simmons to recover, there would have to be major changes, including him relinquishing some of his roles.
TOP is currently in a stage of transition, after losing all involvement from founder and key funder Gareth Morgan earlier in the year. At the time Simmons denied that would leave the party into dire financial straits, as the party was shifting to a model based on mass membership and a wider collection of donors. At the time, Simmons said the membership numbered “about 4200.”
However, Pokere-Phillips disagrees with that assessment of where Morgan’s departure left the party. “It is a real shame that we lost funding and potential future funding due to ego and personal agendas instead of doing what was in the best interest of TOP,” she said.
Pokere-Phillips was also a candidate in the leadership election, but won just 11 votes out of more than 1000 cast. Gareth Morgan’s preferred leadership candidate – Auckland based lawyer Amy Stevens – came 2nd with 20% of the vote.
There also appears to be another board replacement coming up, with Matt Isbister stepping away almost immediately after getting a position. According to Simmons’ blog, that was because his candidacy was tied up with the potential involvement of a new funder. “One of the conditions of that negotiation taking place was that the funder appointed someone they knew on the Board. This was an unusual request but some of the Board felt it was a good chance for the Party to obtain funding.” However, when negotiations with the potential funder collapsed, Isbister stood down.
Simmons wrote that the strategy for TOP from here is to get polling back up to around 2-3% by early next year. From there, the party would have a reasonable chance of reaching the 5% MMP threshold, which at this stage is the only viable route to parliament. TOP scored 2.4% of the vote in 2017 – more party votes than ACT, the Māori Party, the Conservative Party and the Mana Movement put together – but failed to win representation.
This article has been updated since being published to include follow-up comment from both Geoff Simmons and Donna Pokere-Phillips.