National knows it’s short of mates as it looks ahead to 2020, but the real appeal for the biggest party of the Opportunities Party’s revival is that it could hurt the Greens, writes Toby Manhire
It is tempting to remember the Opportunities Party’s contribution to the New Zealand general election of 2017 as a car wreck, a catastrophe, a fur ball in the gullet of democracy. And, look, it really was kind of wild here and there, as Gareth Morgan bounded around the country on the shoulders of Sean Plunket, telling the voting public what a bunch of idiots they were.
But in the final equation the party did pretty well: a fresh and intelligent prospectus was backed by 2.4% of voters. There were almost five times as many TOP voters – 63,260 – as there were voters for ACT. Who knows how many more they might have attracted had they been within a sniff of the 5% threshold in the polls in final weeks?
The Morgan style was combustible from the beginning. No matter how much he might have chided the media for trying to focus on personality, it was he who launched the party on the steps of parliament with a series of hints at his similarities with Donald Trump. So it was no huge surprise when, after it failed to make parliament last September, TOP went up in smoke. Early last month, the handlebarred wonder declared (from Armenia, naturally) that TOP was done.
It had been an easy decision. The board had “agreed that TOP would never succeed in the substantial voter education programme that’s required to break the cycle of underwhelming, mediocre, caretaker governments in NZ”, Morgan told the Spinoff in an email interview.
RIP, TOP. Thanks for the memories. Except – what’s that noise coming from the coffin? Could it be Gareth Morgan, bellowing injustice, railing against those “flakes and groupies”. Was it Sean Plunket, attempting to reclaim the word cunt for political communications practitioners? Inch closer, and, no, it’s someone else: it’s Geoff Simmons, announcing he’s taking over as leader, making cerebral observations about the electoral prospects for a party appealing to a non-property-owning generation.
The same Geoff Simmons, formerly TOP deputy leader, who a month ago was writing in the Spinoff that it was “sad and surreal to watch TOP’s demise”. There he was this morning on the radio (from Italy, naturally) heralding the resurrection. The Opportunities Party would be contesting the 2020 election, after all. This party has almost as many lives as a cat.
The rebirth will be welcomed, of course, by those who cleaved to TOP’s “evidence based” platform last year. But it is also music to the ears of Simon Bridges. Asked about the re-emergence of TOP by Duncan Garner on The AM Show this morning, the National leader noted that one of the questions he gets asked most often is “who’s your partner? What are you going to do?” To which his answer has been “We’ll see some credible options pop up.” TOP was one of those, he said, and he was confident about the possibility of working with this “centrist” party. Bridges even left open the possibility of National standing aside in an electorate in an effort to help TOP win a seat and avoid the sub-5% guillotine.
Simmons himself this morning ruled out accepting any accommodation that would oblige TOP to support any larger party, but in truth the great appeal to National was betrayed by something else Bridges said. “There’s a real potential they could raid the Green Party’s territory,” he told Garner, swallowing a smirk.
For the Greens, who have spent more of their conference weekend than they would have liked on the defensive, arguing that they are getting runs on the board for their part in the Labour-led government, the re-emergence of TOP is at best a great pain in the backside. The Greens had bigger problems than the Morgan machine in the last campaign, but a good chunk of that TOP 2.4% would have come from people who might otherwise have voted Green.
There was a good bit of disquiet, if not alarm, from with the Greens during the campaign of the potential for a well-oiled, focused, evidence-led and environment-conscious party to poach from the Greens’ urban voting base. It was therefore music to the ears of the Greens, especially as they struggled for every morsel of good luck in that campaign, to hear TOP spout slogans like “femmo-fascists” and “lipstick on a pig”. Between them, Sean Plunket and Gareth Morgan did a sterling job of sending liberal urban floating Greens fleeing back to the mothership.
But TOP did at least make headlines. As Simmons himself wrote last month, “without Gareth’s personality, TOP would have barely rated a mention in mainstream media”. If TOP 2.0 is to succeed, it will need to find a way to get attention without huffing, puffing and blowing the house down. The odds, and history, are stacked against Simmons. There will be few opportunities for traction in the next 18 months. One nerve they’ll attempt to push is the waka-jumping bill, the legislative brainchild of Winston Peters being supported by the Greens with heavily pegged noses, despite the fact that they acknowledge it’s bad for democracy. Simmons has already had a go at the Greens on this subject, writing that they and Labour had shown they’re “willing to sign away their souls in their pursuit for power”.
Five per cent remains a very, very daunting ask. For National, it’s not even really the point. While they’d cheer them over the line were that to happen, the real appeal is that raid on Green territory Bridges mentioned. Current polling puts the Greens a point or so over the 5% line. They’ll have ups and downs in the years to come. They’ll be confident that they can show voters enough progress on the environment, on climate change and in social policy to earn their support again in 2020. But they at least thought they’d shaken the TOP mongrel dragging on their ankle. Now it’s back.
The prospect of National and the Greens doing a post-election deal in 2020 exists in the abstract only. Bridges and co will get stuck in whenever they can. (“I don’t think I’m criticising them,” said Simon Bridges on Morning Report this morning, immediately after criticising them.) For a party polling consistently in the mid-40s, yet without any obvious friends in sight, the possibility of the Greens going underwater is salivating: it would bump the Nats’ parliamentary allotment close to a majority. There’s a long way to go, but a plausible TOP is a boon to that cause. It may be the only way a mateless National can win.
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