Election 2020

TOP looks to turn the worm

Winning an electorate seat might be more important than the party vote for TOP, but if they don't make it there a future tilt at council elections could be on the cards

The Opportunities Party is eagerly hunting its "worm moment" in the former electorate of the man who tamed it, but the opportunities for them to get lucky are fast-diminishing.

If the party isn't successful this time around its leader has signalled they could consider putting up candidates for the 2022 local government elections to build up some profile for their brand and candidates.

From the Universal Basic Income to today's announcement signalling more central government funding for local government, TOP has been churning out policy announcements, but polling more poorly than when former leader Gareth Morgan was outraging many with his call for the eradication of domestic cats.

TOP got to 2.44 percent of the vote in 2017, but in the months leading up to this election its polling has ranged from zero to 1.5 percent (40 percent below its vote share last time). 

Leader Geoff Simmons acknowledges former party leader Morgan brought two crucial things the party has lacked this time: money and attention. 

"We're operating at less than 20 percent of what Gareth had, for sure. Probably closer to 10 percent of what's Gareth's budget was.

"Gareth certainly increased our profile - the amount of people who knew about TOP - he also put quite a few people off voting for us."

Attention is the reason his party entertained appointing Jami-Lee Ross as co-leader. Ross approached TOP for a leadership position before forming a coalition with the NZ Public Party. 

"Everyone's so busy paying their mortgages and rents that they don't have enough money to spend in small businesses.

With a sitting electorate MP like Ross TOP would have secured its place on the television debate stage and had a better chance of getting into Parliament. 

Simmons said the party cut off talks after Newsroom broke the story about a second set of allegations against Ross.

Now Advance NZ has been able to exploit Ross' seat to secure its place in the debate and TOP has been left protesting the unfairness of it all from the sidelines.

"We could have been at that debate if we'd accepted Jami-Lee Ross as co-leader. He came to us before Advance NZ.

"Don't get me wrong there was great nervousness at even having a conversation with him, but as soon as that [Newsroom's story] came out it was like 'nah, this is a terrible, terrible idea'."

Not getting onto the debate stage is a major blow for the party because its leader thinks this election is most analogous to 2002 where National was trounced by Labour.

Former Ōhāriu MP Peter Dunne managed to secure a decent chunk of the party vote for United Future during that election by turning the "worm" - a visual aggregator of select viewer opinion that changed as the debate wore on - during a live television debate.

"It's all about that moment and being ready for that critical moment when it comes along," Simmons said.

"Yes, it takes a bit of luck. It takes the ball bouncing your way, but you've also got to be in the right place when the ball bounces the right way."

Once opinion polls show National is making no headway Simmons believes voters will start looking for other options - which is where he thought TOP could squeak through as a "commonsense" centrist alternative in the mould of Dunne.

"Labour's going to win the election. That seems pretty clear. So this election is about who is going to be their partner."

Housing is a 'ponzi scheme'

Simmons said the party is trying to start a sustainable movement.

"What I am certain of is that this approach is better for the long-term sustainability of the party."

One of its core planks is a focus on housing not just a supply problem to be solved through construction, but as a cause of many problems within society including poverty and crime.

"Our economy is built on housing and that's a ponzi scheme. 

"We can't get rich buying and selling houses off each other. We have to get out of that game if we really want to increase our incomes and work smarter as a country."

Property and the taxation of it is a major area where they split off from the Greens despite sharing other similar policy objectives.

Peter Dunne 'turning the worm' during an infamous 2002 election debate. Photo: still from TVNZ video

TOP has proposed a property tax rather than the broader wealth tax the Greens have said they favour.

From their perspective the problem with the Greens is that their policies don't tax property more harshly than other forms of wealth.

"We have some of the highest taxes on businesses in the Western World. Some of the lowest taxes on property.

"Why are you going to take on the risk of employing people. Health and safety risks all that sort of stuff when it's easy to make money by sticking your money in housing? That is a massive, massive issue going forward." 

The issue particularly riles up TOP's Ōhāriu candidate Jessica Hammond.

"One of the under-appreciated problems of our housing crisis is that it sucks a) sucks capital away from businesses because everyone's investing in capital and b) it sucks spending money away.

"Everyone's so busy paying their mortgages and rents that they don't have enough money to spend in small businesses.

"So if we're talking about support for small business we've got to solve the housing crisis so that people can actually buy coffees at their local cafes and takeaways and put shoes on their kids' feet."

Hammond said the housing crisis was a "slow-moving crisis" ignored by both parties, because they didn't have the "guts" to fix it.

"A lot of the big problems are actually really, really easy to solve it's just that Labour and National have been ignoring the experts for decades.

"Labour's been really good at following the experts on Covid. Well we've got another crisis that kills people which is the housing crisis.

"I'd like to see a stand-up at 1pm every day talking about how they're going to stop children getting rheumatic fever. This is a slow-moving crisis that kills."

Electorates important for small parties

Hammond isn't deputy leader - that's former crown prosecutor Shai Navot - but she's important to the party's prospects because Ōhāriu is a seat they view as their best chance for an upset.

The other two are Dunedin (contested by Ben Peters) and Rongotai (where Simmons is running an increasingly personal campaign against sitting MP Paul Eagle). 

They are increasingly conscious of the fact no small party has been elected into Parliament for the first time without an electorate seat - either as a way to avoid the five percent threshold or a safety net to convince voters their vote won't be wasted. 

Electorate votes could prove more important than party votes for TOP. Photo: Dileepa Fonseka

ACT had Wellington Central, the Greens had Coromandel, NZ First had Tauranga and the Progressive Party had Wigram. 

"For small parties who are targeting electorates - which is us in Ohariu, which is David Seymour in Epsom, which is the Māori party in the Māori electorates - the electorate votes are tremendously important," Hammond said.

"There's no point voting for Labour or National with your electorate vote unless you absolutely love that candidate.

"It doesn't help those parties at all. It's not going to grow the number of seats they have in Parliament...but for small parties the electorate votes are really important."

Future local government run a possibility

TOP's latest policy announcement was made at the Mt Victoria Tunnel and advocated for approximately $2.5b to be set aside every year to fund local government infrastructure projects. 

The amount is meant to represent the percentage of GST revenue the Government collects from development work in council areas every year.

Councils would be able to apply for a share of the fund for infrastructure projects.

The amount they were eligible for would depend on the level of GST collected from development work in their area.

Simmons said all applications would be subject to a business case process with a heavy-emphasis on Benefit-Cost Ratios (BCRs). 

"There is a real problem with local government infrastructure. Local Government has been doing their best to fund infrastructure over the past couple of decades, but now they're hitting up against debt ceilings.

"And at the same time, they're having their revenue crunched by Covid. So there's a massive issue there that needs urgent attention from the Government.

"This is a big deal because this determines really how much we can deal to the housing crisis."

However, the party's support for local government could extend beyond just policy announcements in the future. 

While TOP had previously ruled out a council run during the last batch of local government elections the decision would be considered again for the 2022 round.

"It's something we certainly discussed back in 2019..we didn't have the kind of infrastructure needed to put into that kind of [local government] campaign at the time so we chose not to do it.

"But yeah, it's very much on the table for 2022.

"It certainly is a way to build profile and to build your pool of candidates, for sure. That's a question that the board will have to make after the election."

Hammond is less convinced on the local government front. Councillors have to colour between well-defined central government lines and she doesn't believe that fits with the radical change element of TOP. 

Predictably, she's focused on pulling off an upset in the Ōhāriu electorate where she placed a distant third behind Labour's Greg O'Connor and National's Brett Hudson last time around. 

"If our worm moment has to happen on social media or just from every one of our supporters convincing one or two other people - we'll take whatever worm we can get."

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Garry Moore
Moore and Moore Solutions Ltd
17 September 2020
TOP should campaign heavily in Christchurch Central. Labour has let the people of Canterbury down really badly with the appointment of Lester Levy as Crown Monitor and Sir John Hansen as Chair of the Canterbury District Health Board. These people have garroted a world class administration and Labour has completely reversed all the promises it made before the last election to protect CDHB. This is fundamentally dishonest politics. The silence of the local Labour MP's has been unacceptable.


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