Putting the lipstick back -- how TOP can revive
By Sean Plunket (author)
(Sean Plunket, the well known former broadcasting journalist, ran TOP's Communications during the election campaign.)
For a political system that promised greater diversity and more parties in parliament MMP delivered an unusual result in 2017.
In fact, most smaller parties found the going tough at the polls last year and many have not or will not survive to meaningfully contest the next election. United Future has sensibly folded its tent after leader Peter Dunne threw in the towel, ACT is little more than a ghost of its former self and the Maori Party is in disarray with leader Te Uroroa Flavell offering his services as a personal trainer while its board evaporates.
Even those that survived, NZFirst and The Greens, face a difficult few years. Both now have the burden of government to contend with. Minor parties thrive on bucking the system and giving more independently minded voters a lightning rod with which to rail against conformity and authority.
Neither of Labour’s support parties can play that card now and will instead be held to account as part of a government that shows little sign of making significant progress on the important issues of housing and the environment within the next two and a half years.
On top of that NZFirst is likely to have some sort of leadership struggle before the next election and planting a billion trees may not sow the seeds for a five percent plus result next time.
All that leaves a rather significant gap in the political landscape. Where is the minor party that can appeal to non-traditional voters and offer a policy platform and stylistic approach that could capture those citizens who have previously looked to ACT, The Greens, NZFirst or United Future?
Well it does exist in the form of The Opportunities Party (TOP). At just under 2.4 percent of the vote last election TOP has a way to go to make the next Parliament but it’s well researched policy platform would seem to offer something for all those who find themselves without a political home in backwash of the jacindamania tsunami.
TOP’s radical but rational economic policies have much in common with the original aims of ACT, its progressive approach to Treaty issues saw it form a very positive relationship with the Maori Party on the 2017 campaign trail, its environmental policies got the thumbs up from eco warriors like Dr Mike Joy and its non-pc rejection of virtue signalling in the interests of well-considered policy make it a comfortable alternative for the acolytes of Winston Peters.
But TOP does have to go through some pain to realise those potential political gains.
Already the party has shed a small group of middle class left leaning liberals who seemed intent on creating a gender balanced utopia for their bourgeois social justice warrior sensibilities.
Party founder, leader and sole funder Dr Gareth Morgan needs to give his highly motivated core supporters more autonomy to grow the movement and broaden its appeal and as he has already signalled he needs to stand aside as leader given he has no desire to actually sit in parliament when TOP breaks the five percent threshold.
Already it is clear TOP can make those changes and Morgan is already in discussion with supporters and backers of the failed and failing minor parties who find themselves looking for a new banner to march under.
One could draw parallels with the formation of the Alliance by the recently departed Jim Anderton. The Alliance was formed as a counter to the generally accepted neo-liberalism of the time whilst TOP campaigns on an end to the bipartisan bickering that it argues has stymied much needed policy reform in areas such as tax, housing, welfare and the environment.
What TOP really needs is a new leader, one with a relatively clean political history, a strong public profile that demonstrates a willingness to speak truth to power and the courage to champion real change.
Part of Morgan’s decision to step back from leadership is a desire to keep saying things that might outrage and anger more delicate political souls so any new leader can expect to have broad parameters to work in.
With several viable candidates already on the radar TOP would do well to work through this process with more deliberation than it could afford in the ten months it had prior to polling day last September.
What is clear is that Morgan remains committed to the ideas and policies he founded the party on. That combined with his financial largesse gives the lie to claims that TOP was just another political vanity project. TOP now has the opportunity to become the only viable opposition party outside parliament.
Having resisted the urge to write bad love poetry to his media adviser and survived his first election campaign Morgan is prepared to move in on the political real estate left vacant by the demise of other minor parties and make TOP the clear contender for the balance of power at the next election.