The Opportunities Party is in the midst of a sweeping transformation, with founder Gareth Morgan stepping away and a new group around Geoff Simmons taking over the leadership.
When The Opportunities Party launched ahead of the 2017 election, it was all but synonymous with Gareth Morgan. After years of high-profile ventures and acerbic interventions into policy debates, his presence propelled the party into immediate relevance. But now The Spinoff can reveal he has cut all ties to the party he founded.
Gareth Morgan will no longer be giving the party any financial support. He has also resigned from the policy board which, after last year’s leadership election, he said he would be part of.
He says his foray into politics was a one-off, and that his biggest pride was in the policy work he did over the preceding decade. He was warm towards his former TOP colleagues, saying he fully respected those who saw established parties as caretakers, and that the party was in good hands.
Despite a creditable 2.4% of the vote in 2017, The Opportunities Party didn’t make it into parliament. “The voters said thanks very much but no thanks – so that’s it, sayonara,” said Morgan in an interview with The Spinoff. He expected the people taking over would face significant challenges, and that there would be tensions now that the “sugar daddy” of the party was gone, in his words.
“I think those picking up the cudgels – while I take my hat off to them for tenacity – have realised pretty quickly just how hard it is to do all the stuff needed to foot it with those parties that have been hanging about for decades. Others in TOP are just dreamers – think money grows on trees, and have no idea of the work needed,” said Morgan.
Many of the tribulations have been well covered. Two leading candidates, Dr Jenny Condie and Jessica Hammond Doube, split off to form the group Civic, amid heavy acrimony with Gareth Morgan (though some Civic members have now returned). Last year the party’s board decided to de-register, but that was later reversed. Geoff Simmons, the former deputy, won a leadership election at the end of last year, despite Gareth Morgan publicly backing his rival Amy Stevens. In the first two polls of this year, the party hasn’t even been the highest-rating party outside parliament.
As part of the transition to new leadership, Gareth Morgan set up a board to run the party, consisting of Simmons, 2017 Rangitata candidate Olly Wilson, and 2017 Rongotai candidate Paddy Plunket. But both Wilson and Plunket have now resigned from that board, though have remained involved with the party. Two new people are now on the board, membership representative Donna Pokere-Phillips and Matt Isbister – six and 21 on the 2017 list respectively.
“When we took over from Gareth, it’s fair to say it was a bit of a hospital pass. We’ve had to set up an entire organisation from scratch, and it’s been a fair amount of work for both of them,” said Simmons, speaking about the departed board members. He indicated that both Plunket and Wilson are considering standing again as candidates.
Olly Wilson said his reasons for resignation were largely because of work commitments, but he also expressed disillusionment with how voters made their minds up in 2017. In his view TOP’s agenda – which was often characterised as radical during the campaign – would get cut-through with the public only if the country was facing a crisis. “The voters aren’t prepared to sacrifice to set up a better nation for our children, they’re focused on what they’re going to get given now.”
This was similar to views expressed by Gareth Morgan, who during the campaign sometimes berated people for not agreeing with his policy programme. Earlier in the week he maintained that his main interest remained policy, rather than politics. “Frankly I couldn’t care less whether those responsible for achieving that are National, Labour, the Greens or TOP. As far as I’m concerned TOP2017 presented best-practice policy across a range of areas and whether New Zealand takes all or some of them up is up to voters and whichever politicians spins their wheels.”
One mischaracterisation about TOP is that they were purely a vehicle for Gareth Morgan, though he did wield immense power over the party. During the 2017 election campaign, TOP was highly visible – and not just the visibility that can be bought. Members were active at public events and on social media. It’s the same mischaracterisation that was made about the Conservative Party, back when Colin Craig was there – last year the party morphed into New Conservative after an electoral drubbing, and this year, it cracked 1% in a Newshub Reid Research poll.
Compare that to United Future after Peter Dunne left, where the party was a shell of an organisation that Damian Light tried and failed to keep alive. Or consider the Sustainable NZ party led by Vernon Tava. Despite a flare of publicity in recent months, they are yet to have their registration confirmed by the Electoral Commission, which requires 500 financial members. When contacted, Vernon Tava said the party did not disclose membership numbers.
Recently elected leader Geoff Simmons says the membership for TOP remains healthy, saying it is “about 4200, at the last count”. Of those members, only slightly more than 1000 voted in the recent leadership election – 678 of whom voted for Simmons – but he says that had more to do with the logistics of communicating details about the election to members than lack of interest. “We actually had a pretty big challenge just to inform our members about that stuff. There may have been some that didn’t bother because they thought it was a foregone conclusion, but who knows.”
Simmons has spent much of this month travelling around the country, on a roadshow to speak to the membership. He says around a dozen people turned out to events in each of Ashburton and Waimate recently, and significantly bigger crowds have been turning up in the cities. “We’re only just starting to realise the power of the old telephone and have been getting in touch with our members and volunteers that way. That’s part of the switch from the approach that Gareth was taking as leader, and what we’re trying to do now.”
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A major part of the transition is a new, membership-based model of organising and funding. Previously Gareth Morgan, a multi-millionaire, had bankrolled the party’s operations, and the loss of that funding is a blow. Simmons said the party was in no danger of going broke.
However, there are signs that the operations, having previously been relatively slick, are under strain. The announcement of Gareth Morgan’s departure is taking place on Sunday via an email to members. However, the news has been known to some within the party for at least a week. As well as that, the “join” page on the TOP website was returning a 404 error message, until the party was alerted to it by The Spinoff. It has now been fixed.
Simmons was diplomatic when asked if he wanted Gareth Morgan to depart from the party. “Obviously he has a massive intellect and makes a fantastic contribution on the policy side, and on the other side, he often makes the communication strategy difficult, so it’s swings and roundabouts.”
As for Morgan, he had some final words about what he plans to do after politics. “Now I’m off back to living my life. Yippee.”
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