Saturday, April 13

The unbearable smugness of being TOP

Against my better judgment, I often find myself being drawn into arguments with supporters of The Opportunities Party. When this happens, I have to constantly remind myself that this is a tiny political party with no representation in Parliament and few prospects of ever achieving it. And yet, time and time again, I get sucked in. 

I try to justify these pointless debates by pointing to the inflated media attention TOP receives compared to other non-Parliamentary parties. The Outdoors Party, FreedomsNZ and New Conservative don’t even come close in terms of coverage.

But truthfully, the reason is this: there’s just something really annoying about TOP.

For a masterclass in the unbearable smugness that surrounds the party, consider the remarks of TOP’s current leader, Raj Manji, on Newshub Nation.

When questioned about his political heroes, Manji said he had none. With an air of casual dismissal, he reduced the influence of past political figures and presented himself as a solver of problems. He proceeded to scoff at our political system, describing it as an outdated relic of the 18th century, and slammed MMP as having gone stale after only 27 years.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

If Manji views politics as purely about problem-solving, why not nominate someone like Tony Blair, who had a crucial role in the Good Friday Agreement? Or Jimmy Carter, who brokered the Camp David Accords? Closer to home, what about Matu Rata and his pivotal efforts in the creation of the Waitangi Tribunal? Or Julius Vogel, who addressed economic stagnation and depopulation with bold infrastructure projects?

Not all politicians are problem solvers, but history is peppered with those who faced problems head on and strived to resolve them.

Do we have an 18th century political system? Well, yes, if you are referring to the concept of Parliamentary democracy. We definitely have one of those. Our Parliament is elected, possesses supreme law-making powers and the executive power is wielded by a cabinet selected from its members.

I’m not clear on the issue with this structure. Is anything really that fundamentally off? If not, New Zealand has always been and continues to be rather innovative within the Westminster tradition.

From doing away with the Legislative Council in 1951 to introducing livestreaming and broadcasting to launching an online petition system and creating the Independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Conduct, we’re quite adept at keeping pace with changing expectations. 

One of the most significant changes we’ve brought in is, of course, MMP. Discontent with how the traditional first-past-the-post system protected the incumbent parties, we embraced the new system in 1996 after a referendum in 1993. We were the first country outside of Europe to do so and the way we do executive government has continually evolved as a result. 

Yet, the supposed staleness of MMP is part of Manji’s disdain for the status quo. In reality, 27 years is not an unreasonable duration for a stable democracy to stick with a particular electoral system. It’s generally not a positive sign if a country keeps altering the rules under which its government is elected.

Maybe the changes that we’ve had since 1996 have not been radical enough for TOP’s liking.

So, what’s the party’s plan? This year the party submitted suggested changes to the Independent Electoral Review. What were their radical proposals for reshaping our democracy? Tweaks to the election threshold, caps on donations and strategies to curb the advantages enjoyed by incumbents.

Such reforms might be worthwhile. They would no doubt benefit TOP. But let’s not pretend these are proposals for substantial shifts or broader systemic changes aimed at enhancing democracy.

This brings us back to the arrogance at the heart of TOP and the mindset of so many of its supporters. They appear to believe, without evidence, that they alone have the key to unlocking New Zealand’s political and social potential. They talk as if they alone possess the bravery to challenge the status quo. 

So often, TOP disciples come across like first-year university students full of disdain for the political beliefs and opinions of their benighted parents. As they believe themselves to be wiser, more insightful and more capable of change than those with more experience, TOP similarly dismisses the collective experience of past generations and the wisdom embedded in our existing political structures.

Politics isn’t just about identifying issues and crafting theoretical solutions. It’s about building consensus among diverse groups, balancing contrasting interests and leading in a manner others can accept. More than anyone else, Raf Manji sounded like David Brent to me. 

In the final analysis, it is clear that the smugness that surrounds TOP is not just about the tone of their rhetoric, but also the substance of their claims. The hubris with which they make these calls is truly cringemaking. It’s an affectation that’s as unmerited as it is annoying, revealing a shallow understanding of the political landscape which – if nothing else – explains the party’s utter failure to contribute anything of value to our politics.