Tired of bleating from outside the political tent about what’s going wrong in New Zealand, Gareth Morgan has worked out that he might achieve a whole lot more by by getting inside the Body Politic.
In setting up his own party, he is putting his large pots of money where his mouth has long been.
And every one knows just how voluble that mouth can be when asked about pertinent matters of the day.You will never die wondering what Morgan thinks about something.
When it comes to mouths, most people would not recognise Morgan as an economist and a philanthropist. They only know him as an apparent cat-hater.
‘He may be the first politician in history who finds he is obliged to kiss cats as well as babies.
His penchant for straight talking when it comes to dissecting New Zealand’s ongoing economic and social maladies is the biggest asset his rather oddly-named Opportunities Party will have going for it.
His suggested solutions to those problems may get a lot less applause from the listening public, however.
But you can only lecture people for so long before you sound like a cracked record. And Morgan had reached that point some time ago.
Setting up his own party was thus not just a matter of choice. It was a necessity.
It would be a supreme irony were his party to secure seats in Parliament by virtue of the current proportional voting system — the very thing he implicitly blames for the established parties becoming “champions of inertia and only ever reluctant proponents of incremental change”.
The prime reason for such inertia is that under MMP small shifts in votes from one party to another can have major repercussions as to who ends up governing the country.
Morgan is absolutely right in inferring that politicians — especially those in the current ruling party — will not touch matters which are highly sensitive.
The country is already paying a big price for that.
The National Party deserves every criticism it gets for a failure of leadership in not introducing a capital gains tax or some equivalent. The absence of such an impost has instead turned the residential property market into a speculator’s paradise.
The same criticism applies to National’s gamble that the country will be able to maintain the current level of state superannuation payments for long into the the future and regardless of the looming huge increase in demand for health services as the baby-boom generation ages.
Morgan says he wants to “light a fuse” under the current moribund parliamentary culture. If nothing else, he will be a wild-card entry in next year’s election. And a highly-quotable one who will get much attention from the media.
Some media reports have drawn parallels between Morgan’s entry into the electoral market-place and Kim Dotcom and his already forgotten Internet Party.
Both men like the sound of their own voices. Both have polarising characters which means people love them or hate them. But there the similarities end.
Morgan’s party will be ultra-serous about policy across a broad range of issues and will focus heavily on that. Dotcom’s outfit was far more narrowly focused on matters flowing from the arrival of the Digital Age.
Morgan should take heed, however, of the lesson from Dotcom’s debacle. New political parties struggle to get their message to penetrate voters’ skulls no matter how good their policies might be.
It becomes even more difficult when the electorate is as apathetic as it now seems to be.about day-to-day political events.
They are averse to change, especially when they see no need for it.
John Key’s great political achievement as Prime Minister has been to avoid too much attention being paid to his Government’s long-term reforms, such as the privatising of social services, by being seen as pragmatic in his handling of short-term problems which briefly get huge attention, but don’t really matter in the overall scale of things.
Key has taken the politics out of politics. And he will continue to so as long as minor parties allow him the luxury of being able to run a single-party minority government which behaves much like a single-party majority one.
That means if Morgan wants to produce real changes he wants, then his party needs to become part of a formal coalition with a major party and thus able to influence policy-making throughout the life-span of a government, rather than being limited to what concessions it can get in a confidence and supply agreement which is negotiated in the setting up of a minority government.
Of crucial importance to Morgan the economist would be to have a real say in the process of putting together the annual Budget.
‘He wouldn’t be allowed to get anywhere near that process if was to instead stick to the preference he has expressed for sitting on Parliament’s cross-benches were his party to secure seats seats in the House.—rather than becoming party to any governing arrangement cobbled together by National or Labour.
This might seem to be virtuous in that a party which holds the balance of power can thus theoretically say “yes” or “no” to pieces of legislation promoted by the governing party.
That is why Winston Peters likes to keep voters thinking he might choose such a worthy-sounding option rather than once again seeking the baubles of office.
Sitting on the cross-benches would be the last thing he would do, however.
Note the word “theoretically” in the paragraph above. Things simply don’t work out like that. For starters, the cross-benches are a fast road to irrelevancy if you don’t have the numbers to hold the balance of power. It is far better to have the ciear demarcation as an Oppostion party.
Even if you do hold the balance of power, you will only get attention when you block a government measure. If you do that too often, you risk being portrayed as being a minority view blocking the will of the majority, as well as having a detrimental to political stability. But if you don’t exercise your veto, you risk being painted as weak and thus irrelevant.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves here.
The current political atmospherics are not sympathetic to a new entrant to an already over-crowded political marketplace.
Sure, Sir Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party overcame the in-built bias against small parties which made the old first-past-the-post electoral system so unfair, and won an impressive 12.3 per cent of the vote at the 1984 election, as did Jim Anderton’s New Labour Party in capturing 5.2 per cent in 1990.
But both parties profited hugely from the chronic unpopularity of the incumbent governing party.
The reverse is currently the case. National is still polling at high levels. Should the economy continue to grow at the current rate through next year, it is not immediately apparent what might emerge to dent the ruling party’s popularity.
There are no obvious signs of the kind of alienation from the political process felt by voters and which has driven Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as well as fuelling Brexit.
That may be because National polls relentlessly to ensure it is listening to voters and hearing what they are saying. Morgan’s argument is that National has taken this kowtowing to voters is not really serving those voters’ longer-term interest.
Should the Opportunities Party become a real political force, National will be hoping it draws votes that National cannot reach rather than cannibalising its core vote. If Morgan’s party were to break through the 5 per cent threshold and be willing to back a National minority government, that might be just sufficient to shut Peters out of post-election government formation talks.
National’s fear will be that Morgan’s party falls just short of the threshhold and ends up wasting centre-right votes and makes National even more dependent on New Zealand First to remain in power.
Regardless, for all his money and public profile, Morgan will find that building a successful new party is incredibly difficult.
He wisely kept yesterday’s announcement low-key, rather than having a flash launch. By not making a big deal of things, he has given himself an exit strategy which would limit his embarrassment should his new pet project, so to speak, flop.