Every so often, somebody or something comes along which puts a bit of their weight upon our psephological scales, and subtly (or, in this case, probably not-so-subtly) shifts our entire political conversation and course along with it.
Often, when we seek to analyse these figures and these moments, our eyes are first drawn to the boisterous braggarts who want to play political maestro – and hold the fate of governments if not the nation right there in the palm of their hand on election-night by dint of their inexhaustible wallets.
Now, given Friday’s announcement one might be forgiven for thinking that the above is how I’d characterize errant economist Gareth Morgan. It’s certainly a self-appointed thorn-crown which would seem fittingly adorned for two of the most obvious points of comparison to the author of The Opportunities Party – namely, Colin Craig and Kim DotCom. Or, as they’re now known, NZ’s most famous defamation litigant and extradition-case, respectively.
But Morgan’s different. And in at least two key ways.
If we look at his actual record of political engagement here in New Zealand over the years, it’s quite clear that this is someone who’s poured in an almost superhuman level of effort to publicizing issues that he cares about … and, y’know, trying to create change … for quite an extended period of time without ever once seeking to win public office. His debut on the ballot at the next year’s Election, then, contrasts most markedly with Craig staging a fairly well planned two-year ‘arc of ascent’ from referendum-rally-march-organizer to Mayoral candidate to party leader; or DotCom deciding almost on the spur of the moment to attempt to wreak electoral vengeance upon the backs of the government he first donated to and then was spurned by in his hour of need.
It’s probably important at this juncture to note that I haven’t always agreed with Morgan. But whichever way you slice it, it’s difficult to argue against the notion that this is somebody who has put sustained effort into our politics of a manner and character that is probably unequaled among the ranks of those who aren’t doing so with the pursuit of public office in mind.
The results and the reception have occasionally been mixed: while his advocacy for a Universal Basic Income probably had more tangible impact, earlier, than Labour’s now-lukewarm picking up of the idea earlier this year … his de-caturization proposal, on the other hand, appeared to be opposed by an order of magnitude more people than supported it. But either way, there is no denying that we all sat up and took notice – and that for a few weeks in each occasion he’s swooped in, we’ve all found ourselves collectively talking about whatever it is he wants us to ponder.
In other words, politically speaking, Morgan’s no ‘flash in the pan’. Entering electoral politics directly might be comprehensively new territory for him, but he’s been around for awhile and has something of a demonstrable record in this area. I therefore think I believe him when he states that the setting up of TOP has been something of a move of frustration with the continual ‘roadblock’ of establishment politics from his perspective.
But while there is a perhaps surprisingly strong track-record for wealthy Opinionista-fronted parties in our politics (consider Colin Craig’s Conservatives almost grazing the 5% threshold with 3.98% in 2014 – or, further back, Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party winning a substantial 12.2% of the vote in 1984) and even better prospects for them if we look offshore (never mind Donald Trump … does Clive Palmer ring a bell? He should – his eponymous Palmer United Party won three Senate seats plus a Federal Parliament one in the year after its formation in 2013 over in Australia) … this doesn’t necessarily militate either in favour or against Morgan’s future political prospects.
Instead, what WILL determine whether The Opportunities Party are in a position to seriously influence our Nation’s politics by this time next year, will be the set of steps which Morgan takes as he continues to build his party and campaign machine.
Morgan’s main weakness is not in the traditional areas associated with those dipping their toes into the waters of electoral politics for the first time. He’s got a demonstrably viable head for policy (and policy detail), as well as a well-established media profile arguably larger than that of some Cabinet Ministers. I also presume that, as the direct result of his previous projects with The Morgan Foundation and its associated outreach attempts, that he has both a pre-existing (professional) staff and some currency out there in the community when it comes to networks he can activate.
But what he needs more than anything right now are i) ‘political insiders’ who’ve direct, personal and above all RECENT experience in how ‘the game’ works in order to direct TOP’s immediately ensuing growth; and ii) people able and capable of running political/electoral campaigns and recruiting and directing the manpower to propel same.
I have this vague suspicion that Morgan’s Trump comparison was overly revealing of proposed campaign style – and that he might thus attempt to push TOP to 5% largely off the back of his own media presence, without matching this fearsome asset with corresponding spadework on the ground. This will be questionably viable in electoral terms; and will unquestionably make a waste of the formidable force-multiplier he has in his extant politisphere/media persona if there’s nothing for it to actually ‘multiply’ in the first place.
Fortunately, for a man of Morgan’s means, the required personnel resources ought not be too hard to come by. There’s a not insignificant number of people who worked hard with demonstrable results on 2014 or even 2016 Campaigns who, for whatever reason, are now looking for a new political paymasters. And as we saw from his enlistment for the Morgan Foundation’s Treaty Talks project of Hone Harawira’s former right hand man Jevan Goulter, Morgan already evidently has at least some connections in these areas which he can draw upon.
Once that is done, he can start upon the serious business of attempting to first demarcate and then carve out a ‘core constituency’ for his party. A number of proposed areas have been suggested by other commentators, ranging from “somewhere between ACT and the Greens”, and “Blue-Greens with a twist” (if we insist upon using other, more established parties as easy yard-sticks for potentially vast and ill-defined segments of the electorate).
In any case, however he chooses to proceed with the above, the course of his party is likely to prove worth watching.
Even if he doesn’t succeed in cracking the 5% threshold late next year, there remains every chance that his efforts and his exploits will be strongly positioned to have a pointed influence upon our broader political conversation and thus the other parties.