On TOP

Last night, I sat at the back of the One Tree Hill College hall and listened to Gareth Morgan sell his The Opportunities Party (TOP) policies to a group of approx. 100 people, who I would I describe as: “interested ordinary members of the public, slightly skewed to white middle class, ranging in age from late 30s to retirement age”.

The format was straight-forward: Gareth spoke for the better part of an hour, then Nick Tansley hosted about 30mins of Q&A.

It was the first political event I’ve attended since I ‘won’ the opportunity to be an MP for two days in the first ever Youth Parliament back in 1997.

In the several elections I’ve voted in since that time, I confess to ticking boxes on both sides of the left-right spectrum. I don’t recall ever thinking that one party had all the answers and deserved to govern alone, and I still don’t.

I’ve been aware of Gareth Morgan for some years now – I read the Big Kahuna not long after it came out, and also Health Cheque. I’m yet to read his book on the Treaty of Waitangi. I also recall seeing him in numerous TV interviews – mostly around the time he shared his thoughts on controlling New Zealand’s feral and domestic cats.

Overall, I confess to accepting and agreeing with a high percentage of what Gareth has written – and yes, that includes his thoughts on cats!

After reading the Big Kahuna – in which Gareth outlines three ideas (“the Big Three”) that are now central to TOP policy: (1) Unconditional Basic Income (UBI), (2) Flat Income Tax, and (3) Comprehensive Capital Income Tax (CCIT) – I remember a strong feeling of “wow – that all makes so much sense” … followed immediately by an equally strong feeling that such ideas would never see the light of day given New Zealand’s current political system and climate.

So, when TOP launched, I was quietly delighted that – if nothing else – those three ideas would get a lot more airtime. I have been following TOP’s progress with interest, and the meeting last night sounded like a great way to hear directly from both Gareth and the public alike, without any filtering from the media.

Without further ado, and while they’re fresh in my mind, here are my reflections on the meeting:

  • Gareth is a smart guy; and it’s no co-incidence that TOP’s policies have an economic basis or focus given he’s an economist.
  • Gareth knows his policies inside out – including all of the research and modelling behind them.
  • Together, the Big Three ideas, plus the other TOP’s policies that follow on from these, do take a bit to get your head around; they are a radical alternative to the status quo.
  • All of the above points, combined with Gareth’s sense of humour and interpersonal approach, create a challenging environment for discussion and debate – for both Gareth, and the punters alike. In the Q&A it felt like several people essentially said: “I don’t really understand everything you’re proposing… but here’s my problem with it”. And Gareth was clearly frustrated with comments/questions like these – which led to a couple of awkward moments.
  • Therein lies the biggest problem – as a society, we Kiwis are notoriously superficial when it comes to politics. The average person doesn’t invest a lot of time and energy thinking deeply about all of the major topics like the economy, education, employment, immigration, health, welfare etc. and how they intertwine together. Instead, we rely on headlines and soundbites and causes close to our hearts and … gasp … how someone looks and sounds and acts. We’re much more comfortable with a slight re-arranging of the deck chairs every three years, than we are about questioning the status quo, thinking forward, and being open to making more fundamental, systemic changes that will affect us – for better or worse – long after the current term.
  • Overcoming this superficiality, then, is TOP’s / Gareth’s biggest challenge. He’s “the eccentric millionaire who wants to kill cats” with some “crazy policy about taxing the house that I’ve worked so hard for”.
  • I ended up chatting to Gareth 1-1 for about 15 minutes afterwards, and it’s clear that he knows what he’s up against and what he has to do to get TOP on the board this election.
  • Really simplifying the message/s, and targeting specific constituents with specific policies are obvious strategies. I imagine it’s going to be tough – for someone who has so clearly been thinking about such a comprehensive ‘package’ of policies – to have to dumb down the message and focus on only one or two things. Tougher still if it ends up having to be something de rigueur like ‘immigration’ – sigh.

The next four months are going to be interesting indeed. I haven’t decided how I’ll cast my vote yet. But I would definitely prefer – and think we’d benefit more as a country – from a coalition that included TOP, rather than one of the other three-lettered or one-eyed parties currently in the running.