Who's left when Morgan's on TOP?

6:29 am on 5 November 2016

Power Play - Economist Gareth Morgan has set a cat amongst the native birds with his sudden decision to set up a political party, just a year out from the general election.

Gareth Morgan, Economist and leader of The Opportunities Party.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The timing of Dr Morgan's announcement could be read as a challenge to the Labour Party, which has gathered in Auckland for its annual conference.

Dr Morgan held a press conference at 11am yesterday outside Parliament, as Labour Party members would have been happily nursing their flat whites in policy discussions in Auckland.

He insists his policies will overlap with both National and Labour, but given the direction of his Big Kahuna book on tax policy - capital gains tax, universal basic income and more fairness - the similarities appear more left-leaning than the status quo.

He says his party, The Opportunities Party, would aim to improve fairness, environmental sustainability and national pride, while reducing poverty and house prices.

That could be read off the Green Party manifesto, and Dr Morgan himself admitted on Nine to Noon yesterday, that he agreed with the Greens on almost all environmental and climate change policy.

Greens co-leader James Shaw, in his typically cautious fashion, warned Dr Morgan it was hard to build support for a political party and get it over the 5 percent threshold.

He said he thought, perhaps hopefully, that Dr Morgan's party was more likely to take votes off National than the Greens.

Given the Morgan Foundation has taken a tough line on environmental issues and been scathingly critical of the government's record on climate change, it seems unlikely National Party voters would tip Dr Morgan's way.

Gareth Morgan, Economist and leader of The Opportunities Party.

Gareth Morgan might steal votes from Labour and the Greens. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Gareth Morgan is not afraid to stir the pot, which, it has to be said, the Greens appear less willing to do under Mr Shaw's leadership.

Dr Morgan accuses political parties of being too afraid of losing voters to really say what they mean, and that may well be true.

The political risk for the left is the addition of another party makes it appear fragmented. As 2014 illustrated, that makes voters nervous and unwilling to trust their vote to what could be a messy stitch-up of parties.

The difference this election will be that Labour and the Greens are clear they want to work together - a far cry from David Cunliffe's decision to reject other parties on the left in 2014.

Labour and the Greens together already face an uphill battle to get the support they need to form a government.

The risk Gareth Morgan poses is, if he gets less than 5 percent, the votes that went his way could have made the difference to getting Labour and the Greens over the line.

Furthermore, if he does get more than 5 percent and into Parliament, a Labour-Green block could not rely on The Opportunities Party's vote for a governing block.

Dr Morgan insists he does not want to be in a coalition with National or Labour, rather, he wants to sit on the cross-benches.

That may be an easy way to be non-committal, but what message does that send voters?

Would they risk their vote to a spanking new party, with no track record, and a high chance it could be wasted should The Opportunities Party fail to hit the 5 percent threshold? If it does get there, what good can it do if it has no power?

The fact Andrew Little and James Shaw have been quick off the blocks to respond to the formation of The Opportunities Party shows how seriously they are taking it.

Gareth Morgan insists his policies run across the political spectrum, but it is Labour and the Greens who look wary.

The other aspect of Dr Morgan's potential appeal to voters could be the "Trump Effect", in that he is not an establishment figure. Given turnout in New Zealand is not as bad as in other countries, it is hard to know how disaffected voters are with New Zealand's system.

If we are going to go down the US-politics analogy road, Gareth Morgan is possibly more of a Bernie Sanders than a Donald Trump. He aims to be more of an agitator and a disrupter, forcing the established parties into more vigorous policy debate.

All of this aside, there are still no guarantees The Opportunities Party will come to fruition. Gareth Morgan has given himself a March deadline to decide whether there is any public appetite for a new party.

Should it not go ahead, there will likely be a red-green sigh of relief from the left.

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