TOP leader Geoff Simmons at a tax talk in Wellington in 2019 (Photo: RNZ / Max Towle)
TOP leader Geoff Simmons at a tax talk in Wellington in 2019 (Photo: RNZ / Max Towle)

PoliticsAugust 12, 2019

TOP powers up on an oily rag after the post-Gareth civil war

TOP leader Geoff Simmons at a tax talk in Wellington in 2019 (Photo: RNZ / Max Towle)
TOP leader Geoff Simmons at a tax talk in Wellington in 2019 (Photo: RNZ / Max Towle)

The Opportunities Party’s new leaders have firmed up control of the party after a weekend of sweeping organisational reforms. But are the chances of this TOP any better than the last one? Alex Braae heads to the party conference to find out.

When the reborn Opportunities Party gathered for a conference on Saturday at the RSC, there was one phrase heard many times over: “When we took over.” It became almost a mantra for the new leadership: the before and the after.

It’s been a tumultuous time in the party in recent months. Since founder Gareth Morgan decided to chuck it in, there have been disputes over the new leadership and the management of finances. Leader Geoff Simmons and his coterie have been told repeatedly, publicly and in no uncertain terms that they’re on a hiding to nothing. And they’ve been told that by Morgan himself.

The outspoken mogul had a significant number of supporters in the party, and they have been agitating over the course of the year to get him back involved. But the past tense is important there, because they have now effectively been pushed out. Simmons and his supporters want to rebuild after the pantomimes of the 2017 election, which saw Morgan and his spin doctor Sean Plunket become renowned as much for their volatile attack lines as for the “evidence based” approach they espoused, and finish on 2.44%, well short of the 5% they needed to make parliament.

Gareth Morgan’s shadow will always loom over the party. But his physical presence is gone. 

Geoff vs Donna

The major conflict has stemmed from increasingly bitter disagreements between Simmons and membership representative Donna Pokere-Phillips. Lying behind that, however, is basically the question of whether Simmons should be leader, whether he was running the party appropriately, and whether the membership was being misled. Over many months of this year, Simmons and Pokere-Phillips have been the only two board members, so at an impasse.  

Pokere-Phillips repeatedly raised concerns about how the leadership communicated with members, and the financial state of the party. She wrote a report ahead of the AGM, rehashing many of the concerns she had previously raised around board protocols and party operations, payments being made to Simmons, and the breakdown in negotiations for Morgan to start giving money again. But she wasn’t at the AGM, so it wasn’t read, though many members had received it via direct email. 

In a text to The Spinoff before the weekend, Pokere-Phillips said she had “been subjected to a barrage of seemingly coordinated bullying, and did not want to be subjected to this in person at the AGM.” In an interview after the AGM, Simmons flatly rejected any suggestion that he, or anyone else, had coordinated or condoned anything abusive, and said he had repeatedly invited her to the AGM to present the report in person. “I take huge exception to the idea that they [people attacking Pokere-Phillips] are ‘my staff’ – they’re members of the party with skin in the game. They have every right to talk to the members’ representative, who is supposed to represent them, about her threats.” 

Watching the crowd who turned out in Grey Lynn, it was clear these were Simmons supporters through and through. In fact, it was even made explicit after three new board members were announced. One of them, creative director and former journalist Matt Zwartz, stood at the front of the room and said to Simmons “regardless of any disputes in our past, you have our unequivocal support”.

As of this weekend, the new board consists of lawyer Shai Navot, Zwartz and Antony Dixon. A decision on Pokere-Phillips was going to be made at a Sunday morning board meeting, but that was delayed into the afternoon. An announcement of whether she will be allowed to remain in her roles is expected this morning. 

Simmons admitted that some in the party had backed Pokere-Phillips’ concerns. “Obviously Donna had some supporters, she wanted them on the board. So I can’t say she has no support.” He added that there was a faction in the party who “were really there because of Gareth”, and that most of them had left along with him. 

TOP leader Gareth Morgan and Donna Pokere-Phillips at the party’s campaign launch in Wellington. Many in the photo are no longer involved. Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

Others on the outer went public with their support for Pokere-Phillips. Jeremy Russell, a dissenting ex-member, leaked her report to The Spinoff. He said that when Pokere-Phillips hammered out her mass email in May, she received some “pretty nasty shit” from members in response. Her database access has subsequently been revoked, and Russell said he leaked her AGM report because “Geoff has removed Donna’s ability to communicate with the membership directly via email, and she hasn’t been accepted into the members lounge FB group.” 

Russell said that he too tried to raise concerns, but was “blasted by members” who lined up behind Geoff Simmons. As to why he received such a response, he said that TOP members are deeply passionate, and want the party in parliament, but don’t always pay much attention to internal party matters. “So if they see an internal dispute, they think, woah, this is threatening, so we need to shut this down.” 

Russell says he’s made two attempts to get on the board, but was blocked both times. He said he has no interest in being a politician himself, rather he’s a “champion of the policy”, and believes the party is heading in the wrong direction to accomplish any policy wins under Simmons. He insisted that he wasn’t trying to damage TOP by speaking out, though accepted that some damage might happen. 

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

That is a theme that has been both a blessing and an undoing for TOP. The people involved are, for want of a better term, deeply nerdy about policy. But everyone involved throughout the party’s history has struggled immensely with the question of how to build an organisation to carry anything out. It has meant they’ve squandered huge chunks of time after a reasonable election result by looking inward, and fighting internal battles. 

In a party that preaches policy above all, Simmons’ victory has come about because he’s better at organisational politics than his rivals. He had the numbers among the members, so he could credibly threaten to resign if Pokere-Phillips succeeded in halting his salary as leader. And ironically, the previously iron grip held by Gareth Morgan meant that the position of leader is one of immense power within the party, so Simmons was able to take advantage of that to set a new direction, without having to bring Pokere-Phillips along. If anything, he’s trying to remove powers attached to the leadership role right now, but the people picking them up are firm allies. 

Farewell to Morgan’s money 

The attendees at the party conference wouldn’t be described as well-heeled, but they certainly looked comfortable. As a party set up by a high-minded multi-millionaire, there has long been a perception that TOP are a party of craft beer and dinner parties in Wadestown. 

They’re being tapped heavily for the money that will keep the party alive. Currently, it is raising about $7000 a month, and Simmons made it clear that needs to double if the party has any hope of mounting an election campaign. 

The numbers are eye-watering. Ray McKeown, the party secretary, outlined a 97% decline in income from 2017 to 2018, entirely because of Gareth Morgan’s departure. He assured the room that the party was solvent, and an accountant contracted by the party backed him up on that, in contrast to claims made by Pokere-Phillips. 

Another major hurdle for the party is looming. They currently have just over 4000 people donating money, and just over 2000 financial members who are willing to be verified by the Electoral Commission, to meet the 500 member threshold required to stand for election. There has been a net gain over 2019 of about 500 people. 

But a huge proportion of the membership signed up for three years, back when the party was formed in late 2016, and may well have done so out of admiration for Morgan, rather than believing in the party itself. When those renewals come up, it could yet reveal that much of TOP’s membership only exists on paper. There were about 70 people in the room at the AGM, so not a bad turnout, but hardly an army. 

“I think there will be a drop, but like I said there has been a net gain over the past year,” said Simmons. “I’m not in any way concerned about the future of the party as a result.” He’s pinning his hopes on a big increase in the number of microdonations, to reflect the new party strategy of building a broad membership base. But he didn’t miss the opportunity to remind the members that if they knew of anyone who might make a more substantial donation, he’d be interested. 

Reporters grill Morgan at the Opportunities Party policy launch event outside John Key’s home.

Vote different

The key figure in TOP’s new branding and communications strategy is newly appointed board member Matt Zwartz. He presented himself as a hard nosed, ruthless professional, and told the AGM that he can’t always promise to play fair, “because I intend to win.”

The communications strategy under now talkback host Sean Plunket emphasised the need to be talked about over all other considerations. They hammered away at controversial lines like describing Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to the Labour leadership as “lipstick on a pig”. As a result, many potential TOP voters came to see the party as total wankers.   

TOP’s new communications strategy is built on the idea that they need to be “more cheek, less arse”, according to Simmons. In even blunter anatomical terms, he said “we won’t be dicks” about how policy is communicated.  

There was much derision about the old red, white and blue branding, which admittedly looked pretty stale even in 2017. The new branding, which The Spinoff was allowed to see and describe on the condition that no pictures were taken, is much more crisp. The main colours used are black and white for the letters T and P, with a rotating set of bright colours for the O in the middle. 

It has been designed to create points of difference from the previous version of the party, and in doing so allow the voting public to make a clean break with the former, unlikeable version. “We have built this brand as a weapon,” said Zwartz, after quoting ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu. 

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

It received a storming ovation from the members who were there, and the board duly approved it at their post-AGM meeting. They were particularly impressed by how the new branding scheme could be applied across a whole lot of different platforms and properties. It is expected the new branding will be rolled out by October. 

One treatment at the end brought the house down, and underlined how much the party wanted to leave Gareth Morgan behind. Zwartz had been showing a slideshow of the new slogan – “Vote different” – stamped over various pictures. The last one in the series had it alongside a stern and majestic looking house cat. 

King of the ashes? 

The reaction from many politics watchers to the events within TOP will be indifference. The party has veered close to irrelevance since getting halfway to the electoral threshold in 2017. In Colmar Brunton polls over the year, they’ve hovered around half a percent, and have largely been out of the conversation. 

For those inside the party, they’ll consider it a win to get elected. The real goal is to hold the balance of power after the election, to extract as much as they can from either Labour or National. With an environmental focus behind many policies, they’re pitching themselves as being able to do something that the Greens won’t or can’t do. Opinions will differ on whether it is realistic. The core support of the Greens has shown itself to be highly loyal, and previous attempts at explicitly centrist environmental parties have been rubbished by voters. 

Geoff Simmons speaking at the TOP AGM on Saturday (Image: Alex Braae)

Another electoral strategy being floated that stretches credibility is the idea that TOP will enter into discussions with both Labour and National about a potential electoral seat deal, which would allow them to circumvent the 5% threshold, but only do so on the condition that it doesn’t then tie them to post-election support deal. So the question has to be, why the hell would a major party agree to that? Simmons points out that former United Future leader Peter Dunne might have managed it at times, but given Dunne’s long ministerial career, the two situations aren’t really comparable. 

A scenario was put to Simmons, who stood in Wellington Central last year. He could go to Labour’s incumbent Grant Robertson, and ask him to stand aside. But why would Labour take that deal, when they could offer the exact same deal to Green co-leader James Shaw and have a guaranteed ally? What can TOP possibly offer either major party that is better? 

Simmons took a while to answer. He started by saying that it was only likely to be possible in a seat with a departing incumbent. And he said that if TOP are on 2-3%, that could be crucial to who forms a government. “And I think what both major parties understand, is that most of them want to do the sorts of things that we’re talking about, but they’re afraid of the electoral kickback. So actually I think there’s value in having TOP in parliament, to be able to blame stuff on.” He also suggested that given the election will be close, “people will want reasonable partners.” 

It isn’t a total fantasy, and TOP still have something of an organisation in place, giving slightly more of a chance of pulling it off. But the next few months will be crucial for them, because if nothing improves by next year it’ll probably be too late. 

Geoff Simmons and the people around his leadership took over the party on the promise that they could improve on what Gareth Morgan achieved. Full power over the organisation has now been secured by that group. Morgan was fond of hitting out at other parties, the media and voters to explain why his party had failed to get elected. If the new leadership can’t make it happen from here, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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