Gareth and Geoff

What I learned from Gareth Morgan and the TOP adventure

As its first candidate and deputy leader, Geoff Simmons was the policy power behind Gareth Morgan’s fledgling, ill-fated party. In the week that Morgan announced its demise, Simmons reflects on the experience

It’s been quite sad and surreal to watch TOP’s demise. Even more surreal is being bombarded with requests for my views on what went wrong, or whether I’m going to start a new political party, or whether we should give up all hope of real progress and descend into a life of drug-fuelled hedonism (if you are going to do this please be evidence-based and use drugs with lower harm).

The short answer is: I don’t know.

However, I do have some thoughts from the whole saga, and if they are right (at the moment they are only thoughts) they present some interesting opportunities and challenges to the future of New Zealand politics.

  1. It’s possible

TOP showed that this sort of political revolution is possible. With 12 months’ work and very little mainstream media coverage TOP got over 60,000 votes. We pushed forward the debate on issues like housing & tax, cannabis and NZ Super reform. I’m eternally grateful to those people that took the punt to vote for something new, and I’m gutted that their trust in TOP wasn’t rewarded. I’m also grateful to Gareth Morgan for starting the whole thing.

A new party was never going to immediately upset the cosy grip of the Labour/National cartel over our parliament like Gareth wanted to. It is pretty clear that was an unrealistic goal, given that two thirds of NZers vote pretty much automatically for the same party every time. This is frustrating because those two parties are actually the closest to one another on policy.

Breaking this cosy cartel is a very long term game and will probably require some kind of crisis to break established patterns. However, we learned that making an impact and coming close to getting into Parliament is doable. Now we just need to build on that.

  1. It’s hard

Getting the 5% of the vote required to get into parliament is hard, and expensive. Even if people really got inspired and got behind the movement – which isn’t easy – people find politics a bit icky so it takes money to get the word out. Serious money.

This barrier to getting new parties into parliament (which is about to get worse with Winston Peters’ bill to stop “waka jumping”) is a pretty serious threat to our democracy at a time when we desperately need new ideas.

  1. Old media makes it harder

There has been a lot of discussion of Gareth Morgan’s style, and whether that was a good thing for TOP. I’m sure readers will have their own opinion on that.

The point that hasn’t been mentioned is that without Gareth’s personality, TOP would have barely rated a mention in mainstream media. Like it or not, Gareth built his career and two successful businesses on the back of his unique media style. This approach was and is successful with the old style mainstream media. Even this “new-media” website only really covered TOP for the personality of its leader and comms director.

So the realpolitik choice for TOP was to use Gareth’s natural style to its full, or face getting no mainstream media coverage. Being reasonable is a death sentence in the mainstream media. Just ask Peter Dunne.

Social media offers a promising new alternative. It allows politicians to talk directly to people, and offers the opportunity to explain yourself IF you are funny and/or inspiring. Being controversial doesn’t work so well on social media unless you are appealing to Winston’s audience. This is where what works on social media clashes with what works on old media. Given that TOP’s audience is mostly young people who never read a newspaper or watch TV, this clash was a real problem.

The way forward for a party that wants to talk about what works might be to shun mainstream media completely and focus on social media. The problem is that (until now) nobody has ever successfully run a campaign entirely on social media. It may allow you to talk directly to your followers but reaching new audiences is tricky and expensive. So for those looking to restart TOP here’s the biggest challenge: to convince funders to fund an unproven campaign strategy targeted at an age group that in the past hasn’t voted.

Is it possible? With a delicate cocktail of money, inspiration and fun I believe so. Regardless, I think it is the only way forward for any future TOP style vehicle.

  1. The issues facing millennials aren’t going away

Even with Labour in power, not much will change. If you are under 40, you are unlikely to own a house. The best we can hope for with inequality and the environment is that they stop getting worse. And our nation will be no closer to the wealth of those Nordic countries we love to compare ourselves to.

Labour and National aren’t really interested in upsetting their cosy cartel. NZ First isn’t interested in progress full stop, and the Greens and ACT remain pretty useless bolted on to the left and right wings of Labour and National respectively. So the policy platform of TOP will remain relevant for the youth and anyone that wants to see affordable housing, reduced inequality and an cleaner environment while improving our economy at the same time.

  1. Change is inevitable

Given the global trends, it looks like some sort of policy revolution is inevitable. The current system isn’t working. The only question is whether it we can make it a revolution for good, or let it descend into a Trump-style kickback that makes things worse.

TOP showed that we do have a choice to do things differently. That with fresh thinking we could improve our economy, society and environment. 60,000 people got on board after a 12-month campaign, so there’s a real demand for radical change.

One area I disagree with Gareth is his perspective that the New Zealand public are “fat content and complacent”. I think people really aspire to having a better country, but they are afraid of change. So when people hear promises that we can make it all better with a few minor changes they latch on, because that’s easier. But meaningful impact requires large change, and large change requires some sacrifice, particularly from those at the top. As a society, that’s what we need to grapple with if we’re going to create the country we want.

But if that all seems too hard, let’s at least get marijuana legalised so millennials can ignore politics and be hedonistic in a lower-harm way than with alcohol and P. And I highly recommend using vapes.


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