In defence of Gareth Morgan’s TOP – a response to Chris Trotter


I am a huge fan of Chris Trotter’s writing- and it’s not just the fluidity and beauty of his proses that attract me- Chris’s writings always include something new: an unknown piece of history or some gems from the Greek mythology.

But, at times, Chris can come across as a man with a hammer who sees everything and everyone as a nail.

Take, for instance, his recent blog on Gareth Morgan: “Once Was Enough, Gareth.” – Why I won’t be voting for TOP.

In this blog, Chris basically argues that Gareth’s policies are neo-liberalism cloaked in a language of compassion. He then offers a 22-year-old quote from an Australian essayist to prove it.

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Well, I was not convinced.

Just as I was not convinced that Gareth’s advocacy for a more “deliberative democracy” meant he wanted to be in charge of designing a new system that removed the ability of ordinary people “to give practical expression to their socio-economic interests”.

Where is the evidence for that?

It seems to me that Chris took his well-crafted words and planted them firmly in Gareth’s mouth.

Then came his predictions about the outcome of Gareth’s policies. Here is what he wrote:

“TOP’s tax policies would strip homeowners of their capital gains; his superannuation policies would lead to the steady impoverishment of retirees; his so-called “Universal Basic Income” would reduce 90 percent of the population to powerless “gig workers”; and his constitutional reforms would gut New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy of its power to implement the popular will.”

I have read all of TOP’s policies and I am not sure how Chris could arrive at any of the above conclusions.

What we know is TOP’s policies are the result of years of research conducted by the Morgan Foundation.

We can look at TOP’s evidence and research methodology and decide whether we agree with them or not- but we must also ask where Chris’ evidence for his predictions of doom and gloom come from?    

I do agree that TOP’s proposal to operate within the existing economic structure means that their policies could never be as reformist as Gareth claims them to be.

If Gareth wants to “light a fuse under Parliament”, he needs to come up with stable macroeconomic models that don’t rely on constant economic growth.

In fact, this is the sort of research that, not only the Morgan Foundation but also every economics department at our universities should be engaged in.

But until then, we need to deal with what’s in front us.

I’ve not made up my mind about who I will vote for in the upcoming election but my question for Chris is this: If not TOP, who else?  

Many people’s rejection of TOP reminds me of a Tony Fomison’s painting titled No! It’s a great image that is basically about outright rejection and refusal to listen. It says: talk to the hand cause I ain’t interested.  

Right from the beginning, Gareth said he was aware there were many New Zealanders who would not be prepared to listen to him and whom he could never convert regardless of how much evidence he put in front of them.

I think TOP is worth paying attention to and here are my main reasons:

Putting evidence at the heart of policy

We hear so much these days about the importance of connecting with the voters through their heart.

Thomas Friedman in his column for The New York Times writes: “Most voters do not listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs. If a leader can connect with them on a gut level, their response is: Don’t bother me with the details. I trust your instincts.”

But the triumph of Trump in the US, success of Brexit in the UK, and longevity of John Key here in New Zealand, highlights the importance of discouraging voters from this sort of gut-feeling politics.

TOP’s plea to voters to use their heads, I believe, appeals to many New Zealanders who understand that the major parties are driven mainly by their hunger for votes, not by the long-term benefits to New Zealand.  

Influencing policy direction of the main parties

I have to admit that I was puzzled by the formation of the Women Equality Party (WE) in the UK even though I consider myself a feminist.

My first thought about WE was that they would help the Tories by taking votes away from the Labour.

But then I noticed how the popularity of WE has forced other political parties to push the women equality issues up the political agenda, in the same way (be it negatively this time) that the popularity of the right-wing UKip gave prominence to the immigration issue.

Support for TOP will force other parties to show more courage and offer more radical policies to address pressing issues such as housing affordability, poverty and environmental degradation.  

Let a thousand tall poppies blossom

If only I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say they didn’t support TOP because they didn’t like Gareth Morgan.

And why don’t they like him?

For some, it is Gareth’s past association with neo-liberalism, even though, he has gone to great pains to make it clear that he sees himself as a liberalist and not a neo-liberalist.

But for many others, it is the fact that Gareth is seen as a tall poppy and many New Zealanders, as we know, dislike tall poppies.

I am a firm believer in letting poppies grow tall and cross-pollinate.

Without the courage to hold our heads up when everyone else has theirs down, we would not have made much progress in improving human lives.  

I hope to see a great deal of cross-pollination in action if TOP makes it to the Parliament. After all, isn’t that the very essence of our representative democracy?



  1. Yeah, I tend to agree with your reaction to Trotter.

    I’m staying shtum and keeping my eyes and ears open on Gareth and his messages.

    He still hasn’t said anything that closes down his ideas to me.

    There is still time…

  2. ….demand side solutions, whether real (like the ETS) or imagined, (like ‘Clean Coal’) have one thing in common, the continued use and expansion of fossil fuel production (sic). ie. BAU

    And BAU unfortunately seems to be the main theme of the TOP party, The problem being that, that part of the political spectrum is pretty crowded already.

    I can’t see TOP doing well.

  3. Yeah used to be a former Neo liberalist now a ” liberalist “, is that good enough.

    I don’t mind Gareth and was prepared to have a look at some of his ideas to find out what all this is about and educate myself then i learnt that Sam Morgan had supported Thiels NZ citizenship which i think was a foolish thing to do considering what Thiel is involved with.

    That spoke volumes to me.

    I know its Sam not Gareth but who can you really trust anymore.

    It was a brief affair and now its over.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I too thought Trotter’s piece a step too far. I thought about commenting, but wondered if it was really worth it.

    I too have been impressed by TOP’s affiliation to using evidence in government. It’s what we desperately need, and it’s clear from Gareth’s time being involved with things like the obesity report that he’s had some insight and seen this process in action, and is now firmly on board evidence-based government. Things can only go better if we look at how well policies line up to what actually happens in the world around us *cough* climate change anyone? *cough*

    The taxation policies remedy a stark problem with NZ’s tax structure, which encourages capital to flow to non-productive activities like property trading rather than doing real work and creating something which would bring in foreign income without handing over land, and create jobs.

    The way they’ve sought member input for each of their policies is also a great strategy to get people back into the process of creating legislation, not corporate backers, and encourage a greater involvement in the democratic process.

    Greens already have my vote, but TOP would be an easy second choice. I hope they do well.

    • Entirely agree with everything you said. I think many of us underestimate the vital role of investment in the circular flow of economy. We must encourage capital away from speculative and non-productive investments and use it, not so much to expand markets and grow the economy, but to reduce our carbon footprint.

  5. Kia ora Donna

    I agree that we should not just dismiss new ideas but I would challenge you on the points of years of research.

    My major criticism of neo classical economics would be methodological. Basing your understanding of real world problems on assumptions about human behaviour shown to be false empirically, applying over simplified maths to the over simplified models generated out of those assumptions and then always responding to any empirical evidence with a claim that policy didn’t go far enough or that most of us aren’t clever enough to understand the maths, is not an evidence based approach to policy, but is a good description of neoclassical economics and the neoliberalism it is used to support.

    To understand the Morgan Foundation’s continued commitment to neo classical economics one only has to listen to it’s “white board Fridays”. I am assuming that the Morgan Foundation and TOP are joined at the hip, I would be happy to be shown wrong.

    I agree with some of the policies of TOP and would not want to throw all their ideas out without consideration but I suspect that Chris is right about the neoliberalism

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