The 36 Questions Project is a series in which Meg Williams takes a politician on a date and asks them 36 Questions, a series of conversation starters designed to make two people fall in love. In this episode, Williams dates The Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan.
Previously on the 36 Questions Project: Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox, Act Party leader David Seymour, and the 36 Questions in full
Having followed Gareth Morgan’s rejection of Steve Braunias’s advances for a game of table tennis, I expected it would be difficult to arrange for him to come on a date with me. Actually, it was quite easy. I’m not sure if he was properly briefed about the premise of this “interview”, but his media people must have decided that some soft media with a young non-threatening female should cause no harm. Take that, Steve.
I arrived about half an hour early because I’m an idiot and overestimated how long it would take for me to get to the designated cafe in Point Chevalier. As I neared the venue I thought perhaps I could use the extra time to mentally prepare – have a quick scan at his Wiki page et cetera. But when I walked into the café, there was Gareth, also half an hour early, enjoying a cheeky pre-date ice cream.
I had to explain to Gareth how the interview would work, and what kind of write-up it would be. I told him that I was a member of the Green Party and would be attempting to make him fall in love with me for the next hour or so, through asking each other The 36 Questions.
“Oh, you’re a Greenie, are you?” he said. “The Greens drive me nuts because they won’t work with National, which means that half the time, because National’s in government half the time at least, we don’t have strong representation on environment. I just think that’s irresponsible. Totally irresponsible.” Trying to stay true to my goal of not talking about policy and politics on this date, I held my tongue, smiling and nodding.
Gareth bought me a long black, which was nice. Though, being an afternoon date meant not being able to squeeze as much out of him as I could. I had hoped that we could go to some fancy, expensive restaurant and that he would shout me because I’m a Poor Student™. Redistribution of wealth, and all that. But a free coffee is nice, too, I guess.
We settled in and moved past the small talk, and I asked Gareth the first question: given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
“That’d just be my friends and family,” he said. “So it’s totally relaxed.”
I’ve given a similar answer to others I’ve done the questions with, to which they have replied, “Boring.” So I pushed for something a little more interesting. “You must meet influential people all time,” I said. “Who’s the most influential person you’ve met?”
“Oh, shivers,” he said. “I’ve met a few of them. I’ve met the president of South Korea. I’ve met about the third highest guy in North Korea as well. We rode our motorbikes across North Korea, through the DMZ [Demilitarised Zone], and then to South Korea. No one’s ever done that before. Took me six years to negotiate that deal. I wrote a book on it.”
Gareth thought for a second about who has actually had the most influence over him, and believe it or not, it got him talking about the cat thing. I had planned on bringing up the cat thing by saying that his Cats-to-Go campaign always reminded me of my grandfather who, allegedly, used to drown cats that came across his property in Australia, and who justified it by saying that cats kill the native kookaburras.
“The person who’s influenced me the most is my wife,” he said. “I don’t know how much you know about me, but I did a thing on cats a few years ago. That wasn’t even my bloody idea, it was my wife’s idea! We had just got quite seriously into conservation projects, and DOC [the Department of Conservation] had said to me the same thing [about cats].”
Gareth said that he had had conversations with DOC about cats, asking why they wouldn’t just “deal with it.” Of course, DOC understands that so many people in New Zealand own cats that they would be crucified for suggesting what Gareth suggested, which was to phase out cat ownership. They even distanced themselves by publishing a post in 2013 on their website saying that they are “not involved in this campaign … We also firmly believe that we must be respectful of cat owners and their rights, and remain sensitive to the love people have for their pets.”
Moving on to the next question, I asked him if he would like to be famous and in what way.
“I guess you’re already famous, in a way,” I said, avoiding the possibility of bruising his ego with such a question.
“Yeah, well that is an issue,” he said. “For me the issue has always been handling it, because my sort of ‘fame’, if that’s the word, it’s very local to New Zealand, so I can get out of it very easy. I just go overseas, I’m anonymous totally. But I can’t go anywhere in New Zealand. Haven’t been able to for years.”
“Is there any other way in which you’d like to be famous?”
“No … I suppose I’ve always had a relationship with the public. I mean, I think my oldest news clip is of me being on the news on the election night in 1984 when Roger Douglas came in. It was TVNZ in those days, and I did all the economic analysis, so I was saying what the effects of it would be.”
“And what’d you say?” I asked. “Were you right?”
“Well, I can’t really remember what I said to be honest,” said Gareth. “You know, if you say enough stuff you’re bound to get some of it right.” He went on to tell me about the business he started up in the 80s, Infometrics, and how it meant he always had a relationship with the public. “So back then it was economics, now bloody politics. Not too sure about this one, but anyway.”
You only have to do politics for a little while longer, until the election, I said, to which he responded that he reminds himself of that every morning.
I have to say, despite his many PR fuck ups, Gareth is extremely well-meaning. I truly believe this man rests his head on a pillow at night thinking that he’s a good person. We probably all do that, to be fair. But a rich person acknowledging how privileged they are seems to be somewhat of a rarity.
Sure, the way Gareth talks suggests he is the cleverest person New Zealand has ever seen (one of the questions asks for what in your life do you feel most grateful. Gareth answered, “My health and my brain. Definitely.”). But when you talk to some rich people, they often talk in a way that suggests they’ve worked harder than poor people, they’ve earned every cent of the large number in their bank account. But Gareth really doesn’t talk like this. Perhaps it’s because his wife grew up in poverty. Gareth told me that Joanne’s father died when she was one, and her so her mother had to bring up eight children on the widow’s benefit.
“That’s real poverty,” he said. “And that’s stayed with her the whole time, and it manifests itself in two ways. One is she keeps her family together all the time, so our family is very close. And also, we aren’t allowed to waste money. She actually gets physically sick if she sees the kids wasting money. She cries.” He chuckled, and said, “Which is, you know, it’s quite difficult.”
We weren’t able to get through all of the questions. It was a quick, one hour affair. Neither of us fell in love, and I can’t say the 36 Questions fostered much closeness between us. But I walked away having had a few laughs, some interesting conversations, and a free coffee.