Why I'm sticking with TOP

Image attribution: https://thekiwifirewalker.blogspot.co.nz/2017/08/elections-2017-political-billboards.html

There have been a flurry of resignations from The Opportunities Party and within the party, and some candidates have felt the need to publicly declare why they are leaving.

But I'm staying with the party, and I'd like to explain why.

I like Gareth Morgan and I agree with him

I find Gareth very likeable in person: he has a gruff charm that masks a softer, caring, side. He really does care about the future of New Zealand.  He can see, very clearly, that our society has been going off the rails for the past few decades and has no realistic plan for the future.  

Finding himself suddenly very wealthy, he chose to use his wealth for good. He first created the Morgan Foundation, to develop workable and effective policy solutions for some of our most pressing social and economic problems. And then, after a series of governments failed to heed those ideas, he started The Opportunities Party as a vehicle to get those solutions adopted in government.

Not many wealthy people would make those sorts of choices, and it speaks volumes for the sort of person he is, that he made that choice. 

Gareth is also very smart. In stepping down from the party leadership role he has demonstrated that the party is not just about him and his own ideas.  That sets him apart from a number of men who have started political parties in the past, including Bob Jones, Winston Peters, Jim Anderton, Roger Douglas, and Peter Dunne.

Gareth lacks some of the qualities required of a successful politician. In particular he says what he really thinks, rather than what people want to hear, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly - two qualities are a big part of a politicians job. 

But he also understands that. His time as TOP leader served a particular purpose: he used his public profile to get TOP up and running.  It won 2.4% of the vote in this year's election, which was more than all the other "also ran" parties (those that fell below the 5% MMP threshold) put together. 

So TOP is now "on the radar" of public consciousness. His time as leader has served its purpose and has now run its course.  The challenge now is to grow TOP into a party that will be a serious contender in the 2020 general election.

TOP's purpose

TOP was formed in late 2016, the National Party was disinterested in making meaningful change and the Labour Party looked too weak to win government.

The prospects for introducing real, fundamental, and much-needed policy change seemed poor: the Labour party was lingering at below 30% in the opinion polls, the Greens were stuck at around 12% and NZ First was polling around 10% (but with no clear indication whether they would support another National-led or Labour-led government).

This followed nearly 27 years of slack, slow, and/or self-interested policymaking by the establishment parties and their various coalition partners.

The last really radical change made by a New Zealand government were the brutal welfare cuts in Hon. Ruth Richardson's 1991 "Mother of all Budgets". Those cuts were a social and economic disaster that no subsequent government would reverse, or replace with something better.

New Zealand languished under another eight years of the Bolger/Shipley government, then nine years of Helen Clark's careful incrementalism, followed by eight more years of John Key's do-little populism.

Changes that evidently could be made, and needed to be made, were not: house prices rose relentlessly in comparison to median incomes. Carbon emissions rose constantly.  The rich got much, much, richer while homelessness and poverty increased. Clark's Labour government made attempts to address some of these issues, with the Emissions Trading Scheme and the Working for Families tax package, for instance, but those initiatives worked better in theory than practice.

TOP emerged into that context: seeking to change this pattern of lethargic and complacent government, and to make some meaningful and much-needed changes.

During the course of the election campaign the context changed. In a few weeks, during July/August 2017, Jacinda Ardern was elevated to the leadership of the Labour Party and Metiria Turei resigned from the Greens leadership, leaving James Shaw as the party's sole spokesperson.

The Labour/Green grouping then gained enough support and credibility to put Winston Peters and his NZ First Party in the "kingmaker" position, helped by the National Party running a campaign that sought to become a majority government without a substantial coalition partner.  It had closed the door on Winston Peters with its television advertisement, and (possibly) by leaking details of his superannuation payments.

Jacinda Ardern, on becoming Labour's leader, promised that her government would take bold positive steps and make a real difference. There are early indications that it might. But it remains to be seen whether the new government really has the will, and the competence, to bring about the significant changes that New Zealand urgently needs if we are to be a fair, sustainable and successful nation in the 21st century.

I have doubts. Twenty-seven years of policy lassitude from the two major parties has left me angry, anxious and impatient. I haven't fully trusted Labour since the neo-liberal revolution, ushered in by David Lange's fourth Labour government.  I worry that the Greens will self-destruct; their inability to manage their own affairs, based on wonky internal systems, processes, and culture, could be their undoing.  And of course we can't be sure whether New Zealand First will continue to support a progressive government after the next election.

Finally, there's the prospect of a resurgent National Party government in 2020, continuing to deploy the "win at all costs" tactics of centre-right parties around the world: careless and callously indifferent to the effect of  their game-playing and populist rhetoric on civil rights, civility, and the practice of responsible democratic governance.

So the current government might surprise us all, by becoming more than the sum of its parts.  But that does not solve a bigger problem, which is the weakness of party politics in New Zealand.

The Possibilities of Opportunities  

As a "start-up" party, TOP is not beholden to its own history and entrenched culture.  It has the opportunity, over the coming months, to remodel itself.

TOP has significant points of difference from other parties in the way we make policy, and talk about it, which provides a solid foundation on which TOP can continue to build.

We influenced the 2017 election campaign by focusing on policy. We promoted the message that policy matters most: what a government promises to do, and what it delivers, are more important than than personalities and corporate image.

We have explained what the problems are, and the solutions to them, in online videos. We have engaged party members and citizens in policy discussions, particularly on cannabis and alcohol law reform. We've treated voters as competent adults, able to understand and engage in complex policy issues such as taxation reform.

The challenge for TOP, over the next three years, is to become as good at 'doing politics' as it is at making policy - and also to become even better at making policy.

We can put even more effort into informing citizens about policy issues and engaging them in policy development, and generally engaging more people, more effectively, in the democratic governance of our nation.

The party has the opportunity now to consider the role of political parties in our political system; applying the same depth and clarity of thought that we have already applied to developing economic and social policy.

We must consider what role a political party should, ideally, play in facilitating and strengthening the relationship between citizens and their government. We can identify what a really good political party should be like, and then become like that.

TOP has the capacity to become something different: not just another political party, in the same mould as the existing parties, but a fundamentally new, and better, type of political party.

That prospect excites and interests me, more than any other aspect of New Zealand politics, right now. And so I'm sticking with TOP, intending to help make that happen.

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