The former Christchurch councillor tells Toby Manhire why he thinks the time is right to take on the party founded by Gareth Morgan, why a land value tax is not doomed, and what happens to the party if they miss out again. Plus, inevitably: cats.
Just less than six years ago, on November 4, 2016, outspoken economist and feline nemesis Gareth Morgan headed to the grounds of parliament, invoked Donald Trump, and announced the formation of The Opportunities Party. “It’s nearly Guy Fawkes Day, I guess, so I’m here to sort of light a fuse under this place,” he said. And fireworks there were: an incendiary tax policy launch outside John Key’s house, Twitter tirades, “lipstick on a pig” salvos, attacks on voters as “mostly idiots”, and – well, altogether a screaming, flaming Catherine Wheel of a campaign.
Campaigning on an overhaul of the tax system, a universal basic income and tackling the increasingly inaccessible property market, Top finished in 2017 just shy of 2.5%, with less than half the support required to break into parliament. “It’s been quite sad and surreal to watch Top’s demise,” wrote its deputy leader, Geoff Simmons, when it was all over. Simmons went on to assume the leadership as Morgan disappeared, with a puff of drama, into the ether.
In the Covid election of 2020, Top struggled for traction, winning just 1.5% of the party vote. Simmons stood down and, after an interim spell by Shai Navot, the party turned to its third leader: Raf Manji.
Manji, who moved to New Zealand in 2002 after working as an investment banker in London, came to prominence across two terms as a councillor in post-quake Christchurch. In 2017, when he launched a campaign to stand for Ilam as an independent, he was approached by Top to join the party, but “I said, look, what I’m doing in Ilam is quite specific … It was all about the earthquake. It was all about the funding gap that needed to be filled,” said Manji, speaking on an episode of the Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime.
When the party came calling again in 2021, the timing felt right. “I just felt that … we were in, let’s say, the long-term economic cycles, political cycles, social cycles that [meant] the next election was going to be a little bit different. And that if a party like the Opportunities Party was ever going to have an impact or make it into parliament, this was the time that it would happen. I thought, OK, let’s do it. Let’s have a go.”
Part of that assessment, he said, was the configuration of the parties, with the National-Act bloc and the Labour-Green alternative in similar polling territory. “MMP is sort of congealed. And we’re offering something new. And I think that helps us.”
What he’s not seeking, however, is any ministerial role – if it makes parliament, the party will not be doing any deal to go inside the tent, he said. “I can rule that out right now … We’re not going to go into government with either, you know, potential bloc. We will sit on the cross benches.” As a party with seats for the first time, they would need to “get our feet under the desk. And we really want to focus on the particular policy areas that we’re interested in. Ministerial positions are just a distraction.”
The goal instead would be to effect change through policy concessions in exchange for the provision of confidence and supply, while otherwise voting bill by bill. “I think that would be quite a powerful position,” he said.
The big policy ambition was laid out last month, in the form of a “tax switch” which would see the first $15,000 in earnings tax free, with that revenue hole filled by a land value tax, leaving it fiscally neutral. That tax – an LVT – would apply a 0.75% tax on the value of residential land, irrespective of the value of any buildings.
Given the conniptions prompted by the prospect of a comprehensive capital gains tax – a response that led Jacinda Ardern to exile the idea for the duration of her political lifetime – surely an annual tax on land value would be as, if not more, powerful political kryptonite? “I don’t think so,” said Manji. There was growing acceptance of the need for a ”intergenerational conversation” on access to housing, he said. The LVT was ultimately about tacking the “big social issue” of “entrenched poverty in certain parts of our society”.
Top’s likeliest path to parliament – likelier than hitting the 5% party vote threshold – is through winning a seat, Manji said. That seat is Ilam, where he finished second to Gerry Brownlee and ahead of the Labour candidate in 2017. “We’ve thought a lot about Ilam over the last six months, we’ve looked at the numbers. We think we can win it,” he said. That calculation was in large part based on the fact that Brownlee, who lost the seat to Labour’s Sarah Pallett in 2020, is now list-only.
What if it doesn’t work out – is 2023 the last-chance saloon for Top? “I would probably say yes,” said Manji. “Although,” he added, pointing to the review of electoral law currently under way, “if the threshold gets lowered …”
And finally to the elephant in the room: cats. Did he share the founding Top leader’s famous enthusiasm for wrenching moggies off the streets? “I love cats,” he said. “I’d say I’m more of a cat guy than a dog guy.” The only impediment: “I do, unfortunately, suffer from an allergic reaction.”