Opinion: Will TOP’s leadership change just be lipstick on a pig?

Geoff Simmons (right), seen here with Gareth Morgan during the election campaign, has resigned as TOP co-Deputy leader. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Political scientist Bryce Edwards surveys what’s happening in the fledgling Opportunities party, and suggests the party needs some of the radical change they advocate for others.

Gareth Morgan is doing the right thing in stepping down from the leadership of the party he created. He’s simply not right as a leader for this fledging party. This has been proven time and time again by the controversies he’s caused, which have got him plenty of news coverage but alienated potential supporters.

Political visionaries normally don’t make the best leaders. Morgan with TOP, Roger Douglas with Act, Kim Dotcom with the Internet Party, and Colin Craig with the Conservatives, all showed some sort of flair and insight in creating parties that were able to tap into a potential voter base, contribute new ideas, and add something useful to political debate and the party system.

The ability of such parties to flourish normally depends on the degree to which founders can step away from their parties and let others build them. Most of the above examples illustrate how parties flounder due to the inability of those founding personalities to loosen their grip on their project. Roger Douglas is, perhaps, the exception – he stepped down as leader, allowing Richard Prebble to take over and achieve success in subsequent elections.

In announcing that he will eventually allow someone else to lead the Opportunities Party, Gareth Morgan appears to be doing the very minimum needed to let go of the leadership. This suggests he will retain tight control of the party, which is a bad omen for TOP. The timeframe for replacing him is vague, and could be years away. And even then, there are signs that he wishes to retain some sort of effective joint leadership in which a new leader is merely leading the “parliamentary wing”. He’ll still have his hands on the party organisation.

This also relates strongly to the fact that he controls the purse-strings. And this, of course, is the other weakness of parties created and run by wealthy individuals. Are they really democracies, or does money always talk loudest? So, as long as TOP is reliant on Morgan’s generosity it will still be his party, and therefore tied to his image and subject to his wishes.

Even if Morgan has the best intentions, it’s unlikely the new leader will have true autonomy. Morgan has already shown himself to be something of a control-freak, and so the chances of the party blossoming outside of his grasp seems unlikely.

This is surely the background to Geoff Simmons resigning today as co-Deputy Leader. Simmons should be the shoe-in to replace Morgan – he proved himself as a talented politician during the campaign, and would be an excellent leader on the national stage. He has the talent and personality to make TOP a success. But he’s probably highly cognisant that he would never be his “own man” if he takes over.

Nonetheless, after Simmons gets back from his months of travelling and reflection he’s still the most likely contender for the leadership. But who else could lead the party?

The party’s PR person, Sean Plunket, is another option. Originally just a “hired gun” for the party, Plunket seems to have morphed into a “true believer”. He brings a background in media and publicity but his approach could be too reminiscent of Morgan’s controversial style. Plunket would also take the party to a more rightwing and conservative position than Simmons would.

There are other possibilities from within the 2017 candidate pool. For example, the current Co-Deputy Leader, and former East Coast Bays candidate, Teresa Moore would be an obvious option.

There are also plenty of possibilities from outside of the party. Former United Future leader Damien Light would easily slot into the party, and has already proven himself, briefly, on the national stage.

It’s becoming particularly common for media personalities to shift into parliamentary politics, and so perhaps there will be some broadcasters and journalists able to step into the role. Someone like Rachel Smalley could be a good fit. There will be other wildcards.

However, TOP’s problems require more than just a new lick of paint. At the heart of its failure in 2017 was the ideological ambiguity it presented to voters. There still isn’t any strong clarity about what the party represents. Characterising itself as “evidence-based” is hardly a compelling narrative.

More than this, the party has exuded two very different – in fact mutually-exclusive – messages about its political character. For some, the party is a vehicle for Wellington cosmopolitan policy wonks. It’s part of that urban elite who like to read books about public policy, and have a strong allegiance to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. For others, it’s a more provincial, down-to-earth, straight-talking party of outsiders for those sick of the establishment parties.

The problem for TOP, is it can’t be both those things. It needs to have a clearer position on the political spectrum. Its future might be as a replacement for New Zealand First, if that party suffers in coalition and from the eventual retirement of Winston Peters. Or maybe it will be some sort of environmental-oriented party. It could even become a blue-green friend of National’s.

But these are questions TOP don’t seem to be addressing. They probably need to be considering other big questions like their name as well. And that funding question – of being reliant on Gareth Morgan’s fortune – will continue to dog them.

Therefore, the party needs more of a shake-up than currently appears to be on offer. There is no doubt that there is room for more minor parties in New Zealand politics. But it’s not clear that TOP is radical enough to give itself the degree of restructuring that it advocates for the rest of politics.