Why TOP’s demise is a warning for National

Peter Dunne argues Gareth Morgan's TOP was one of a long line of short-lived parties set up by moguls, and National can't rely on another flash-in-the-pan party for support

Since 1934, when the prominent Auckland businessman of the day, Sir William Goodfellow, (grandfather of the present National Party president, Peter Goodfellow) approached the then pre-eminent political organiser, A.E. Davey, to form the new centre-right Democrat Party to contest the 1935 election as an alternative to the economically conservative Reform/United Coalition and the apparently socialist Labour Party, there has been a consistent thread in New Zealand politics of business leaders forming and funding their own political parties to promote their message. From Goodfellow's Democrats through to Gareth Morgan's Opportunities Party (TOP), which went into abeyance this week, all have failed to achieve a political breakthrough.

Goodfellow's Democrats polled just over seven percent of the vote in 1935, contributing to the election of the Labour Party they were so opposed to. The party then went into abeyance, to become part of the modern National Party when it was formed out of the ashes of Reform and United in 1936.

In 1953, dissatisfaction with both the then-National Government and the Labour Opposition led Christchurch businessman Wilfrid Owen to set up the Social Credit Political League. While it won over 11 percent of the vote at the 1954 election, it did not win any seats, nor did it change the Government. A much poorer showing in 1957, when Labour was narrowly elected, led the League to dump Owen in 1959, setting off a period of long-term internal turmoil, interrupted by Vernon Cracknell's brief tenure in Hobson from 1966 to 1969. Only under Bruce Beetham in the late 1970s did Social Credit stage any comeback, winning over 21 percent of the vote in the 1981 election, but just two seats, before being swept out of Parliament altogether in 1987, and largely disappearing thereafter.

Wellington property magnate Sir Robert Jones' New Zealand Party appeared in 1984, winning 12 percent of the vote, but again no seats, although it could claim to have substantially influenced much of the Labour Government's policy agenda after 1984. Again, the party disintegrated after Jones walked away in 1986, disappearing altogether after a largely insignificant showing at the 1987 election.

Then came Colin Craig's Conservative Party in 2014 and 2017, prompted by an impressive showing from Craig in the 2013 Auckland Mayoral election. But the exposure of personal foibles, and obvious personnel differences, meant the party was a spent force by 2017.

Kim Dotcom's Internet Party, launched for the 2014 election to bring down the Key Government, promised much, failed to deliver anything, and was gone by 2017. Gareth Morgan's TOP, which attracted 2.4 percent of the vote in 2017 and has now disbanded is but the latest manifestation of the trend established by Goodfellow in 1934.

The common threads of all these moves are that political parties formed and funded by wealthy business leaders do not last, because those who form them quickly lose enthusiasm for the vehicle they have established and invested so much of their own capital in when they fail to get a sufficient return at the next election. The art of politics is, after all, vastly different from the world of the business takeover, and success in business is no assurance of success in politics.

So TOP is no different from the Democrat Party over 80 years ago in this regard.

While there was never a serious prospect of TOP working in a Government with National, its demise is potentially bad news for National for a couple of reasons.

First, in various speeches over recent weeks the leader of the National Party, in search of a coalition partner for 2020 and beyond, has speculated about what new political groupings, perhaps led by new well-known individuals, might emerge over the next couple of years. Yet, a glance at the history will quickly tell him such musing is likely to be in vain. New political parties formed this way have consistently failed, and, with the exception of Social Credit, have seldom lasted beyond one or two elections, even under MMP.

TOP's demise is another salutary warning that holding out for such an individual or vehicle is likely to be a forlorn hope.

Second, the only new parties formed in recent years to have lasted beyond one or two elections have been the Alliance, New Zealand First, the Greens, UnitedFuture and the Maori Party - all of which were formed by sitting MPs - and ACT, which was formed by former MPs still prominent at the time. But on the assumption the party-hopping legislation currently before Parliament passes, the sitting MPs option is likely to be closed for National in 2020.

So while TOP's departure might have allowed cat lovers to breathe a little easier, at a wider level has not made things any easier for National.

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