Morgan getting mic-ed up (image: Duncan Greive)
Morgan getting mic-ed up (image: Duncan Greive)

PoliticsSeptember 16, 2017

Screaming into the void with Gareth Morgan and TOP

Morgan getting mic-ed up (image: Duncan Greive)
Morgan getting mic-ed up (image: Duncan Greive)

Duncan Greive spends an extraordinary two days with Gareth Morgan – and his comms sidekick Sean Plunket – as he tries to will TOP back into relevance amid the chaos of the 2017 election.

Gareth Morgan is not happy. He’s in a converted garage deep within the bowels of the Mediaworks organism, sandwiched between two members of the Williams family. To his left is Gary Williams, national president of Table Tennis New Zealand. His son, comedian Guy Williams, is seated at a trestle table to Morgan’s right.

He’s here for ‘The Guy Williams Show’, a segment of Jono and Ben. The set features mis-spelled titles strung out on A4 paper, towels-as-curtains, and Morgan has to fold himself into an ancient primary school desk/chair combo. Gary plays a toy keyboard which turns on and off when his belly touches keys. Guy wears clothes several sizes too small and the whole scene is staged as an unpleasant chat show. “Peter Dunne said he quite enjoyed it,” Guy says to Morgan, which is not the strongest sell.

The Williams men function as antagonist and champion, from two demographics critical to The Opportunity Party’s hopes. Gary, a boomer, seems a genuine fan: “He’s been all around the world,” says Gary of Gareth. “He’s fought off Chinese vigilantes. Gareth had the answers then, and he’s still got them now.”

Guy, an outspoken Greens supporter, is less convinced. “This is going to be appalling,” he says by way of introduction. “This is going to be the worst interview of your life.” For the next hour, that’s essentially what it is. An hour of insults and heckling which is vaguely excruciating to watch being made, but will make a strong three minutes of television the following night.

Later, Morgan describes it as “horrible”. He told his communications manager early on in the campaign, “I don’t want to lose my soul,” which unfortunately might have happened on that stage. But thanks to his exclusion from the TVNZ multi-party debate, it might also be the highest profile appearance of TOP’s late campaign. With the drag race sucking all media toward Ardern and English, opportunities need to be grasped, in whatever form they come.

For all the prime-time slot’s value in these desperate days, though, one thing it definitely wasn’t about was policy.

Gary Williams, Gareth Morgan, Guy Williams and a stuffed cat. Photo: Duncan Greive

Policy! That’s been the cry from the start of TOP’s campaign, launched late last year at a sparsely attended event outside John Key’s house in Parnell. I was one of four journalists there, perhaps because the press release was poorly distributed, but more likely because there was something a bit unseemly about the location at the best of times – let alone days after Key had announced his resignation.

We were gathered to hear Morgan’s thoughts on tax. Specifically, who does and doesn’t pay enough of it. Both the policy and the way it was announced contained everything interesting and maddening about TOP. It was daring, unconventional, incredibly complicated and bluntly conveyed. Morgan was at once passionate about his subject and furiously dismissive of those who didn’t immediately leap to their feet and start applauding. I know because I was one of those people, with him dismissing me angrily and accurately as a “lightweight” on Twitter that day.

This sense of chaos has never left the campaign, one which specifically referenced Trump that day, and has aped his outsider style in some ways. TOP’s contradictions are partly the accident of a party set up by political outsiders from scratch, partly the design of knowing that good policy is hard to sell on merit alone. Trying to figure out which is which has been one of the pleasures of watching TOP blunder around in public.

Gareth Morgan in Grey Lynn. Photo: Duncan Greive

The party was set up by Morgan as a kind of political bucket list item, coming deep into a very full life. Born in Putāruru to Welsh parents, Morgan had a cleft palate and lip, about which he spoke affectingly in a recent TOP video, gifting him that distinctive rasp.

He graduated in economics with honours from Massey, before gaining his PhD from Victoria in the early 80s. After a brief, inevitable, stint at the Reserve Bank he founded Infometrics, an economic forecasting business which was prototypical for him in various ways. The selling of its products put him in small towns in front of people; it was very successful; it was later sold. He did this over and over: with Bettor Informed, a punsomely-titled, economically-informed racing magazine, sold to INL; with Gareth Morgan Investments, a huge independent Kiwisaver, sold to Kiwibank; and with an investment in his son Sam’s TradeMe, sold to Fairfax.

Despite the phenomenal wealth he accumulated, Morgan developed in quite untypical ways for a man of means. He used the $50m he made from the sale of TradeMe to fund his think tank and philanthropic institute The Morgan Foundation. He wrote book after intensely researched book on tax, on healthcare, on climate change. He bought the Phoenix football club, perhaps his least successful enterprise, at least until we know what the election holds for TOP.

He also went motorcycling essentially everywhere with his wife Joanne, a former bus driver from whom he’s inseparable. Over three days this week I never saw them apart, and she acted as the closest thing imaginable to a brake on his wildest impulses: making sure he napped, chiding him for his swearing, generally making sure that this campaign didn’t break her 64-year-old husband. She has a lifetime’s experience of watching him run at things, and views TOP – on which he’s spent $3m so far – as an itch he was always going to need to scratch at some stage.

The debrief with Nick Tansley, Jo Morgan and Gareth Morgan. Photo: Duncan Greive

I’ve been watching TOP, fascinated, from the start. I thought they had a good shot at parliament, despite the abysmal record of the rich men’s parties of Kim Dotcom and Colin Craig in recent elections. Then Metiria Turei blew up the election, and the prospects of minor parties grew dimmer by the day. I essentially forgot about them – until Sean Plunket called.

“How are you Duncan, you fucking cunt,” he greeted me this week, a fairly shocking way to start an ordinary conversation, but in fact a pretty funny reference to the way he’d ended one with me a couple of week’s prior. Then he was calling to try and substitute TOP’s deputy Geoff Simmons for Morgan in The Spinoff’s debate. I refused, and the call ended in that memorably abrupt style.

In recent days we have moved past that exchange – Gareth Morgan turned up and did Gareth Morgan things – and I told Plunket, with whom I was now getting along just fine, that I wanted to spend a day with Morgan, watching the waning days of this valiant, seemingly doomed campaign.

A half hour after that call, on Wednesday afternoon, he picks me up outside our downtown office in a tiny Peugeot sports car belonging to his brother. We head up to Mediaworks, where Morgan is recording that Jono and Ben bit, and talked on the way.

I ask broadcast veteran Plunket how he was finding the campaign. “It used to be if you got in the papers in the morning and on the TV news at night, you’d had a good day,” he says. Now it’s non-stop. As well as his date with Guy Williams, Morgan had both The AM Show and Breakfast booked for the following day. After a period of chaos following Morgan’s referring to Ardern’s elevation to the Labour leadership as “lipstick on a pig’, things had settled down. “He hasn’t dropped any clangers,” Plunket tells me.

TOP’s relationship with clangers is fraught. Morgan genuinely wants to talk policy, and is very adept at it – but it’s really hard to get on TV talking about policy alone. One place people will debate policy is Twitter, and Morgan is supremely accessible, willing to tell anyone on the platform just how wrong they are. Only he’s so ruthless there that he ends up insulting people to their core. Hence “lipstick on a pig” – which ends up being his best cut-through.

That goes double for Plunket. A couple of months ago news seeped out that he had been hired as TOP’s media guy. He took to the job with a unique energy, one which made him a kind of Scaramucci to Morgan’s calculatedly liberal version of Trump – only much longer lasting.

Plunket would lash journalists on social media, make legal threats which never materialised (to me) and developed a quite freaky and mostly one-way correspondence with singer and Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly.

Yet Morgan has stood by him, describing him admiringly as “a mongrel, like me”. And despite Plunket’s seemingly doctrinaire right wing views during his recent stints on RadioLive, he and the radical Morgan seem to have forged a close relationship, capable of withstanding these periodic explosions.

As we drive up Anzac Ave, Plunket speaks admiringly of Morgan’s empathy, citing an interview his leader had conducted with Ben, a homeless man. Ben talks affectingly about going from “earning $1000 a week to spending a year on the streets” in a video which has had over 100,000 views.

“I hate to say it, but it wasn’t crying over a bunch of shoes,” says Plunket, in reference to Ardern’s tears at a suicide awareness rally in Wellington earlier in the week.

Then he tells me that TOP’s research suggests their voters are “the film festival set”, and I cannot help but wonder how on earth he thinks his callousness will play among the urban aesthetes he says his party needs to collect.

Sean Plunket watches. Photo: Duncan Greive

This is the combative and boorish side of TOP. On Twitter, where the media and politics junkies live, it’s their dominant face, and one which seems unelectable and freighted with doom. Yet its great successes have been on media which are essentially ignored by the mainstream.

The most telling is Facebook video – a format that barely existed at the last election, and one at which few parties have proven particularly adept.

Yet TOP’s Shannon Smith and his team are producing multiple videos a day, policy explainers and vision statements and even blooper reels. They’re rough but they clearly work. The biggest have had over 700,000 views, and they’ve had more cumulative views than any other party in this election.

This has helped propel TOP’s Facebook page to just shy of 30,000 likes. By comparison the Labour Party, a century old and after a month of Jacindamania, has 88,000. The millennial-focussed Greens 109,000. TOP has made a bigger bet on the biggest social platform’s most emphasised format than anyone else.

The second plank of their strategy has been its technological opposite: the venerable town hall. Over the past months Morgan has traversed the country three times, clocking up 21,000km in a panel van, giving a short speech then opening the floor to questions. According to Dan Fearn, TOP’s live production head (who is, admittedly, potentially biased), “95% have been sold out” and the audience is now mostly millennials – “youngies” as Morgan’s crew call them – a change from the “silver foxes” who knew Gareth from motorcycle tours and Infometrics, and made up TOP’s early audiences.

The show I attended, the 77th of 80, fell into the 5%. The Raye Freedman Arts Centre at Epsom Girls Grammar was about half-full of its 258 capacity. It’s right at the heart of David Seymour country and, presumably, an unhappy hunting ground for TOP votes, what with Morgan’s vow to tax the hell out of the top 20% of asset holders.

When I arrive the crowd milling around outside is clear mix of Gary Williamses and Guy Williamses, which is to say those who have done very well out of our economic settings (and might be feeling guilty) and those who are not doing well (and might be feeling angry).

I see a classic stereotypical TOP voter – 30-ish, big beard, grey marl sweater, named Cam. When asked his surname, he says “just Cam bro”, indicating that he is a millennial who understands how search engines work.

Cam is about to vote in his fourth election, and reveals a chronological voting sequence running ACT, National, National prior to this one. “I actually own a couple of rentals, so I guess I’m pretty stupid,” he says in reference to the tax implications of his move to TOP. He converted at a previous run on the town hall tour (this is the party’s third time in Auckland), and this time brought a friend named “just John”.

This is a significant constituency, in specificity, even if its actual number is to be determined. Dan Taipua, a Spinoff contributor, regularly shares TOP videos and himself became converted at a town hall.

“It’s strange seeing Morgan painted as a ‘neoliberal’ millionaire, a caricature Mr. Burns,” he told me in an email explaining his support. “TOP has declared policies for a war on prisons, the liberalisation of cannabis, economic support for youth, recognition of Māori ownership over water rights, an 800% increase in new mental health funds, regulation of the house rental market: These policies basically make Morgan the Pākehā Hone Harawira.”

We move inside, to watch white Hone perform. The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” plays, then Morgan takes the stage, wearing a Steve Jobs-style microphone headset, without the Steve Jobs-style black turtleneck he wore for a time. The second question he asks, barely an hour after the latest Colmar-Brunton showed TOP steady on 2%, is “who here hasn’t got access to a landline?” Over half the audience raise their arms, including Cam and John.

On one level it’s desperate wish fulfilment, the last resting place of hope for any youth-facing party in the aftermath of a bad poll. On the other? Well, polling has been rough these past couple of years. And if any crowd could be missed by slow-moving methodologies, it’s one recruited by a freshly popular video platform which has largely replaced television for many under thirties.

That’s what TOP keep telling themselves, anyway.

From there Morgan gives his clipped, utilitarian version of a stump speech. He talks about New Zealand being a wealthy country, 22nd in the OECD, but one that is growing in two directions. He sees it developing a class system, and one which doesn’t end well. He describes conditions he’s found on his motorcycle rides. In Paraguay, where suburbs are vacated at noon, when the drug dealers awake. In Lebanon, where orphans who’ve watched their parents murdered just want someone to hold them. In South Africa, where children play alongside rats in raw sewage.

It does not sound good.

Bad as things are at our extremes, it also does not sound like New Zealand. But Morgan says that’s where we’re headed, and the crowd look persuaded.

The following day, driving to the airport, he talks about these countries having decided that some humans are “pests” and talks about how, if TOP fails, he’ll have to put barbed wire around his home. At times like this it’s easy to imagine most voters dismissing him as a hyperbolic crank, ridden with success-related guilt. In his favour is the curdling global climate which has thus far produced Trump and Brexit, and the deadweight knowledge that a lot more people live in countries like Brazil than in countries like New Zealand.

Then he throws to the audience to ask questions. They are mostly bad – mangling retellings of old Guardian columns, stories about in-laws with land on the city fringe who’re being held back by the unitary plan – but Morgan is the happiest I see him on these three days. He’s bashing Phil Twyford for wanting to build affordable houses without affordable land and reminiscing about the mother of all budgets. The rancour you see on Twitter is replaced by a raconteur’s joy in drawing on all those experiences, weaving them into narratives, bringing this crowd into his cult.

Still, like most political rallies, it quickly becomes tiresome. I sneak out after an hour, into a reception area and a table groaning with unclaimed TOP merch: policy flyers, oversize badges, car window flags. Waiting there are David Fitzgerald and Julie Gunn, Auckland campaign manager and volunteer respectively.

Fitzgerald, who was then running a small online education business, spent most weekends in 2016 being outbid for shoebox apartments. Then Morgan started his party. “When the housing policy came along, it really got my attention,” he says. He’s a classic potential TOP voter – politicised, but not tribal, resentful of the idea that the orthodox left have a mortgage on empathy and solutions to societal problems. His first two votes were National and Greens. Then no one in 2014: “I didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Gunn is slightly different. Her partner is Vernon Tava, a ZB commentator and outsider candidate for the Greens leadership position won by James Shaw. Tava later resigned, citing his party’s move to what he called socialism. Gunn volunteered for the Greens the past two elections, yet moved to TOP in frustration at their apparent change in emphasis. “They’ve been in opposition for 20 years,” says Gunn. “The climate doesn’t have time.”

The merch. Photo: Duncan Greive

Despite TOP’s polling – consistently around 2% – it looks a lot like a movement. It probably sits in the middle as far as recent rich man’s parties go. TOP appears neither as successful as Colin Craig’s Conservatives, who went within a sexual harassment-induced resignation of parliament, nor anything like as catastrophic as Kim Dotcom’s vainglorious (and somehow still breathing) Internet Party. As much as it’s easy to see them as similar – wealthy men drunk on their own intellect – Morgan’s feels somehow more substantial. I asked Auckland Mayor Phil Goff what he thought of Morgan by comparison to Craig and Dotcom.

“Those two were dodgy, but I quite like Gareth,” says Goff. “He’s not a politician.”

I put that to Gareth on Friday morning. We are outside Occam café in Grey Lynn, around the corner from the sweetly dated Surrey Hotel, where TOP’s leadership stay while in Auckland. He tells me that he’d been seen consorting with an old enemy which had presented itself at the door. “You can see the dilemma – I can’t kill the motel owner’s cat,” he says.

The sun is shining, Carol Hirschfeld is buying coffee and Morgan takes Goff’s “not a politician” as a compliment.

“I’m not! I’m not looking for a job.”

He views the career politician with barely disguised contempt, of which he reserves a significant amount for the Greens’ Shaw, particularly his willingness to wear a suit. The feeling is mutual, if not from Shaw, then from his supporters, who see TOP as stealing young, idealistic votes which would otherwise fall to them. Paddy Gower, who we bump into on our way into Mediaworks, captures the mood. “Gareth holds Guy’s girlfriend’s job in his hands,” he says, in reference to Golriz Ghahraman, the partner of Guy Williams and, at eight on the Greens’ list, exactly the kind of candidate who a transferred TOP vote could thrust into parliament. Yet while it seems so ridiculous that these parties, which have some of the most policy overlap in the election, appear to hate each other so much, there’s a good reason for it.

“I am an attack on their integrity,” Morgan says. “To be environmental and sign up to the Greens you’ve got to have that bundled with your far left class warrior bloody struggle. Which is Metiria and co.

“That’s not a proper Green party. You can’t be environmental part time, so when the Nats are in power, you’re not there. They’re false advertising – they’re passing off.”

That decision – the refusal to work with National – irks him greatly, and he expresses admiration and solidarity for the Māori Party in their TOP-like willingness to advocate for their policy platform with any party which will listen.

The Greens’ comfort in opposition – the apparent sacrifice of power for sustainability – has long been debated, without particularly troubling its core supporters. Yet Morgan has his own strategic riddle: the decision to pound the highways rather than chase an electorate.

It would not have been easy. But his profile would have given him a shot. Somewhere like Ohariu, now vacant and divided, he might have made a race. But electorates bring with them responsibilities to constituents. When they have trouble – with the council, with ACC, with WINZ – you have to hear them out. It’s impossible to imagine Morgan, his head always in the macro, concerning himself with that stuff.

The arcana of how laws are made seems equally tedious to him. “That’s the way the world operates,” says Gary Williams at Jono and Ben, “the man with the gold sets the rules.” This has been Morgan’s life for 30 years. But politics isn’t business. Williams Jr had written a month earlier that “Morgan wants to avoid the hard work of becoming part of a party and fighting for a movement or a cause. He just wants to skip right to the bit where you get to say your opinions and how much better things would be if you were in charge.”

That explains another, counterintuitive declaration of Morgan’s, at least for anyone wanting to be elected: his not wanting to be in parliament. “I’m an honest guy,” he says. “I see people who stand for councils, then they’re in council. Then they resign their fucking council seat after three months, and stand for the national election. Paul Eagle [Wellington’s deputy mayor and candidate for Rongotai] is doing that. They’re doing it everywhere. They’ve got no honour – they’re cunts in my view.”

Jo shoots him a look, but the word is out and on tape now. The committed policy wonk inside Gareth Morgan has to live alongside his short temper, just as his manifest interest in the greater good of society has to live with his borderline contempt for it.

He’s riven with positions which are considered political poison. Our current form of democracy is one: instead he likes the idea of randomly selected citizen panels operating as something like a jury for policy. He also answered in the cautious affirmative when my colleague Toby Manhire asked him “do you think people are mostly idiots?” at The Spinoff Great Debate.

All these Gareth Morgans can be true at once. And to vote for him you have to be able to decide not only that one is both more appealling than the other candidates, but that it is likely to override those Gareth Morgans you don’t like.

Morgan getting mic-ed up. Photo: Duncan Greive

The interview drags on. Partly it’s Morgan’s love of talking. Partly it’s my love of asking him questions. Partly it’s persistent interruption. He is a true celebrity, with everyone from former All Black Stu Wilson to homeless men drinking at 8.30am to commercial property managers stopping to bail him up or wish him well. The net result of all those things is that he’s dangerously late for the airport. As one of the authors of that lateness I offer to drive him out, which he and Jo accept.

On the way we talk about life after the election. I ask about motorcycling trips, as Jo had mentioned traveling with a map of Senegal to plot and scheme on. Before TOP they’d spent less than half the previous two years in the country they’re now fighting to save, and each readily admits to looking forward to regaining that life.

Plunket has been telling people that Morgan was ready to quit a couple of week’s back, and had to be talked round. While he seems to have his energy back, part of me wonders whether that’s because it looks like he might have a good sense of the race’s outcome already. TOP say they don’t do private polling, and in conversation and on stage talk up landlines as much as the average Greens supporter. Yet the economist in Morgan must know that two remains quite a way off five.

Whatever the reason, they seem happy to be returning home. The election remains a feverish week off, but the tour is a couple of South Island dates away from completion. They’re by no means done: Morgan showed me full page TOP ads running in today’s Herald pointing out that John Key’s house made $1.8m a year tax free while he was in parliament – a not unstaggering fact. But they can sense the end.

It’s a little sad. This should be TOP’s time to shine. Labour has issued a humiliating backdown on tax reform. Guyon Espiner pointed out in an interview with James Shaw on Friday that the Greens signing up to budget responsibility rules commits them to far lower government spending as a percentage of GDP than ever happened under the signature finance minister s of neoliberalism, Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.

This moment should represent a perfect opening to an absolutist like Morgan. But it doesn’t seem to have filled him with the adrenalin you might expect. It’s as if, having got this far as “an honest man”, giving it a serious crack has been enough.

He talks about wanting TOP to go on without him, to become the third 30% party in our parliament and help transform our MMP into something closer to Germany’s.

Like his ideas on tax reform, housing and everything else, it sounds very appealing when you hear it said aloud. But there is this nagging doubt in his equivocation on personally seeing it through.

Because, much as he says it’s about policy, it’s really about him. The public knows and trusts Gareth Morgan, not TOP. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teammates jokingly referred to themselves as ‘the Jordanaires’ – able supporters to an extraordinary talent. As decent and intelligent as Geoff Simmons and co appear to be, it’s hard to escape the feeling that, without Gareth, they’re the Morganaires.

His unwillingness to remain in parliament outside of power (he emailed me a formula under which he would stay or go, which would fill no reader with confidence in their vote) or with the party should it miss out means that all that glorious policy will likely be in the hands of a very empty party. One with all of Morgan’s money but none of his star power.

“Man, I’ll be glad when this is over,” he says, one exhausted afternoon. But what he means by that is TOP’s equivalent of Labour’s tax policy. Should Morgan look at this result and ride off to Senegal on his motorcycle then those supporters he’s gathered over these past nine months will surely find it hard be left on the side of the road. They might be excused for thinking that there isn’t all that much of a difference between him and those other rich guys after all.

This story has been updated  to reflect that Morgan’s question at the town hall in Epsom was “who here hasn’t got access to a landline?”. The Spinoff regrets the error.

Read more Spinoff interviews with the party leaders here

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