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June 6, 2017 | by  | in Interview |
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Interview with Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan is the leader of The Opportunities Party and spoke at VUW on May 23. Following his talk, Salient sat down to speak to Gareth about ideology, media, unconditional basic income, drug reform, and immigration. The full audio can be found below and will be streamed on SalientFM.

 

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We asked James Shaw how he would delineate the Green Party from The Opportunities Party (TOP), and he said “their policy prescriptions are very close to ours, and in some cases are ours,” and suggested that your thinking was quite influential on him. As a point of difference, he said “my sense is that Gareth is not aiming for the people who have been voting Green. He’s trying to pitch to the blue/green vote — the people really concerned about inequality and the environment, but who prefer National to manage the economy.” Would you agree with this, and how would you respond to his comments about policy?

If we’re talking about the environment, I think the objectives are hugely similar. In terms of the policies, they are somewhat different — I’ve always had this sense of unease with the Green Party, well before James was there, over this refusal that’s been with them ever since they began here, to work with National. Which, you know, let’s face it — National is in government half of the time. My feeling is that with the environment you can’t just turn it on and off — environmental concerns are continuous, and getting a lot worse. And you will have noticed that the Nats have actually moved in on that Green Party base, with the Predator Free by 2050 [policy] and their definition of swimmable rivers — their polling is clearly showing that National Party voters are concerned about the environment as well. It’s not just the concern of the centre left to far left. I’ve had that conversation with Russell Normal when he was the leader, then I had it publicly with the Green Party after the last election and said, you guys are driving me nuts! Because they refuse to work with National, when odds are that National will be in government. Meanwhile, the environment is going to hell in a handbasket.

So, he’s correct I think, to a degree, on environment, and I’d extend that into some areas of social justice as well. There’s not a huge difference. But I’m a pretty orthodox economist and I don’t like to see businesses crunched, because I know that’s people’s livelihoods, so it’s a question of making sure the wealth that businesses generate is spread more fairly. But for goodness sake, don’t deliver a crushing blow to business in the meantime.

I think it’s just a question of balance. If I had to pick a party I was closest to in terms of social justice and the environment, absolutely — it’s the Greens. But if I had to pick a party I was closest to in matters of economics, it would be the Nats. What I’m trying to do is make those more compatible.

 

You quite strongly orient yourself as “anti-establishment.” How does TOP provide a different approach to the “established” parties under MMP?

The main thing with establishment parties is that they are filled with career politicians. So the priority for those people is keeping their job. So that drives them to (it’s how trustees act actually) do as little as possible because we don’t want to disturb the voters. So when the voters start screaming for something, then they’ll act. That’s why National has the most money, they’re polling all the time on issues. They’re spinning the wheels out in the electorate, and try to prevent issues from becoming a crisis. But it’s always operating at the margins — incrementally, as little as possible. Because let’s face it, most of us hate change, and even though the change might be for the good, we say you’re going to disturb my life, go away, and then when the change is made and we look back, we say, oh, that was pretty good.

So I can understand how that comes about in a democracy, that kind of inertia. From the voters point of view, it’s not attractive to voters, because voters don’t see any progress and get disillusioned, and their engagement in democracy falls away. Which is exactly what has happened. What we’re trying to do is to come in and say to both establishment parties, come on, go forward, make some progress. Stop just trying to minimise the differences. We don’t really have much of a spectrum here, it’s just a question of a different shade of grey. And I think that’s the issue, people get disillusioned with that after a while. When I say I’m anti-establishment, I mean we’re not career politicians, we’re just trying to get them to go forward on policies that will benefit all New Zealanders. And hurry up.

 

 

In an article on Stuff on February 7, you said you would like to see state-owned TVNZ sold, with the proceeds being used to set up a Public Journalism Fund, allowing various media companies to compete for the funding. You were quoted in that article saying, “It would employ journalists who haven’t lost their integrity, and [we] would be so relieved to get it back, to produce product that is in the public interest.” How would you delineate current content from “a product in the public interest,” and how would this be achieved through a private media company?

We have to differentiate between the production and distribution of the product. There are so many different ways now to distribute news, current affairs, and that sort of thing. The internet is one for example — you can do that for minimal cost. So I think the obsession with controlling or owning the means of distribution is not as important as it used to be.

And then there should be a test — this is under our constitutional reform policy — we should have public interest broadcasting, absolutely, I think it’s critical because if people aren’t fully informed, the public will go off on tangents. There’s an obligation on someone to make sure the public is fully and fairly informed, and I’ve always seen that as the role of public sector journalism. Now what’s happened over recent decades, we first moved a large part of journalism to the commercial-based stations — funding is coming from advertising, not from the public purse. That’s what has befallen TVNZ, that it’s 100% commercially funded. To me, TVNZ has failed the public interest test, because they’re driven by revenue. I know the journos down at a lower level will try like hell to keep the two separate, but that has now become a losing fight. I’m thinking of things like Al Jazeera or Fox News, they absolutely have a corporate agenda — like [Rupert] Murdoch with Fox. It’s the biggest channel in the news, by a mile, which is terrifying. So if we come back to little old New Zealand, when we’ve got, quite clearly, corporate agendas being run — such as the ZB Network with Mike Hosking, it’s very obvious that’s what it is, you can just expect more and more of that.

I’m saying, that’s tainted, that’s not public interest journalism. TVNZ is already on the way, so we’re left with Radio New Zealand basically, which is a gem. What I was saying is that we should always apply the test to whatever broadcaster is receiving government funding, and ask whether it is serving the public interest first. First and foremost and nothing else.

Radio New Zealand does pass that test, but I’m increasingly hearing the argument that they are running a Labour party agenda. I do hear that quite a lot. That comes to the second part of your question — how on earth do you protect the integrity of that? I know it’s not commercial, but it could be subject to a political agenda. I think you just need a broadcasting standards authority that really looks after that jewel in the crown.

Unfortunately the journos get caught up in that commercialisation and have their integrity impinged, which is what has happened with Mike Hosking. Advertising, politics, and commercial agendas should not impinge on the quality of the content. If you go and work for this [journalism] body that’s publically funded, then there’s no chance of their integrity being impinged by the threat of losing a job.

 

You have received considerable attention for your social media presence; in particular, a series of tweets in April where you called critics “whores” and raged against “bottom feeding” tourists and “PC culture” in New Zealand. How do you view the relationship between ethics and social media, and how does this kind of reactive social media presence fit with the rational, evidence based approach you advocate for in decision making?

There’s a huge difference between having a discussion in a controlled environment where objectivity is the benchmark — like the conversation we’re having now. There’s a huge difference between that and social media, where you don’t know who you’re talking to, and we know social media is populated quite heavily by what are known as trolls. I think of that medium as very much a street brawl, and there will be people on that medium who want an engaged debate, and then there will be others purely there to disrupt the discussion, and then a third lot there who want to engage but essentially don’t have the information base to be able to participate sensibly.

So you’re dealing with someone and you don’t know where they are on that spectrum. And I’ve always said, three strikes and you’re out. So as soon as you come in and start to be abusive, you’ll probably get that back with interest, but you’ll also get a warning that if you keep acting like that, you’ll get blocked.

We’ve blocked quite a lot of people. While it would be wonderful to treat everyone the same, when people have got an agenda… I think I’ve banned every known far right person in New Zealand from our [Facebook] page.

 

That three strike system serves to differentiate between people’s agendas, but in reality, surely there’s a huge grey area where you’re talking about people who don’t have the requisite knowledge to engage in the conversation you’re willing to have — then you block them, don’t you just end up talking to….

That’s the bubble. The problem is that you could end up speaking in your own bubble. It’s a new phenomenon, it’s so different to the old days where you had editorially moderated discussions in newsprint. We tend to hide their comments, we do that first and then if they keep coming at you, that’s when we would consider blocking them. We try to have a system so it’s not out of the blue. It’s not easy. I find that social space quite interesting, because it’s not an independently controlled space.

 

 

Regarding the wording of one major part of your policy, the Unconditional Basic Income [UBI], why “Unconditional Basic Income” rather than “Universal” as it’s commonly referred to?

Because until we get it for everyone, it would be a lie to call it universal. What we’re trying to do is step our way through it. Anybody who asks, I’m willing to say this is the vision, and essentially how you’d fund it is with a flat tax rate.

 

In your speech at VUW on May 23, you said “we’re going to do it in steps: cut superannuation in half, then introduce UBI for any family with children under three, then depending on budget we will also have UBI for 18-21 year olds.” Could you explain a bit more about the proposed tax reforms and how it will relate to the existing welfare system?

Proponents of the UBI, the idealists, would say you can have a UBI instead of targeted welfare. But in New Zealand, targeted welfare has been allowed to run so far for so long now, it’s almost too late. I can’t work out how to fund a UBI that is high enough to deal with the worst cases of deprivation, and fund it. I can’t get the UBI high enough to fund that.

So, there’s people on the minimum wage, who are also getting the accommodation supplement and Working For Families — not even the minimum wage is a living wage, as we all know. That’s how far the economy has been able to run, and market wages diverting from subsistent wages.

The way I describe it is that the UBI will displace the worst, the most demeaning, the most cruel elements of poverty — we are making the in-work tax credit available to every low-income family in the workforce. At the moment, our current ‘witchcraft welfare’ system says if you work 20 hours you get it, but if you work 19 you don’t. I can’t think of a more cruel way to target welfare, so that’s the kind of thing we’d want to see go, and provide a fairer approach to welfare.

I want to see us roll out the UBI as far as we can, and roll back the targeted benefits. We won’t be able to get them all, it’s a rollback, not a displacement.

 

 

TOP’s Cannabis policy suggests decriminalising cannabis based on a harm-minimisation approach, seeking to “align our law with the objective of reducing harm to minimise the problems arising from its inevitable use.” Legalising cannabis moves cannabis from being a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act to a regulated one. And although you do provide some links in the policy document to harm-focussed studies, in fact there is little evidence to suggest that cannabis is less “harmful” than other controlled substances. Arguably, this distinction could just further contribute to the bifurcation we currently have — where some drugs are criminal and others (like alcohol and coffee) are not, for no particular evidence-based reason. If the argument to decriminalise is based on harm, shouldn’t this extend further than cannabis?

That’s a pretty wide question. I tend to see drug use and abuse, taken in isolation, primarily a health issue, not a justice issue. The harm from cannabis is from three types: overuse of the substance for the young ones; harm from the contact with the criminal underworld, which is huge, that’s the one that’s leading us to P; and then harm from processing ordinary Kiwis through the criminal justice system. So we want to get rid of those last two sources of harm —  instead of the underworld getting the money, we get the money in tax, and use that to educate and treat any addiction, but mainly educate the young ones. The most popular area of demand is 15–20 year olds, but that’s the most vulnerable group. I think the whole cannabis thing has its own specific set of issues, mainly to do with criminalisation.

Now, if we come to alcohol, the harm caused is much bigger. That needs its own set of solutions, and there’s been a lot of work done since they dropped the purchase age from 20 to 18, there’s been a lot of work done on the consequences. That’s lightly regulated, and I think we need to do more there to minimise harm, because it’s costing us so much.

Now onto the other stuff. In 2008, there were 25 of these, what do they call them, psychoactive substances registered with the UN Commission of Drugs and Crime. Seven years on, there’s something like 500 of them registered, and the range of them is infinite in terms of what can be done. The knowledge of the harms directly from the use of the drug, let alone the criminal underworld undertones with it all, the evidence is just not there. You see the worst cases, but you don’t really know the effects. I’m trying to get all of this stuff out of the criminal justice system and into the health system; legalising it once we know enough around the circumstances of that particular drug, to know how to put the right regulative market around it. So I see it as a journey. We’re very much in line with the thinking of the Drug Foundation here.

The problem is, we had a commission on cannabis, and they made recommendations 20 years ago, and nothing has been done. And the problem has gotten so much worse in terms of the criminal underworld. There was a community I was out in, in Porirua, where they — the crims — cut off their supply to cannabis, and say, you’ve got to have P now. So I see it as a process.

 

You mentioned needing an evidence-based approach…

It’s either got to be evidence-based, or what I call evidence-informed. If you criminalise something or it’s illegal, it’s really hard to get the data to research the effects of it. You’re in a catch-22. Most policies, you have the evidence taking you so far, but you still need to make value judgements. As long as you can separate that research from the ideology — the values you are anchoring your evidence gathering process on. It’s like everything.

 

But in terms of the proliferation of synthetic or psychoactive drugs, there are certainly some that have been around for long enough for an accumulation of research. And if you’re advocating a health-based approach, what’s the purpose of delineating those from cannabis when the majority of the harm is coming from criminalisation?

That’s a good question, and I think that’s where we’ve got to go and take on each of those. We need to ask if the harm from criminalisation is greater than the harm of the drug itself. I’m with you, totally, but cannabis is the easy one. It’s easy, but it’s 20 years, and there’s no willingness on the part of Labour or National to do anything.

We did market research to see what would spin young people’s wheels, in terms of their engagement with the democratic process, and this was the main one. When we started talking to that cohort, it wasn’t about [being] potheads, it was about the fact that the establishment has just put a barrier down, despite all the evidence. That’s what upsets most informed people. It’s ageist prejudice, in a way.

 

 

On December 15 last year, you summed up TOP’s immigration policy to the NZ Herald: “If you can improve the lifestyle and income of us, New Zealanders, then you’re welcome. If you can’t, we’d love to have you visit, and we’d love to have you come study, but not stay.” You’ve pledged your support for increasing the refugee quota, at least to double it — but you are very focused on minimising immigration. Could you elaborate more on this policy? Would the focus not be better tied to infrastructure?

In regards to all the evidence about immigration, there’s plenty of scope to get it wrong. We have to really have a thought out immigration policy. And when it comes to economic migrants, that’s the objective — to lift the living standard and quality of life of New Zealanders.

Immigration policy in New Zealand has waxed and waned a bit, but that has always driven it. If what these people are doing will lift the GDP per capita, that’s great. But it’s all changed dramatically — there are people out there who think that New Zealand would be a far better place with 10–20 million people in it. And you say to them, why? And they say, because then we can have metros, and enough critical mass to replicate bigger cities. And why would you want that? There isn’t a mandate for that from the public, it’s just that particular group of people who think that — businesses who see that as an opportunity for increased turnover.

It works as a short-term stabilisation move, like what we did after the Global Financial Crisis — increased immigration. But then the government should have cut it back. Because not only did they increase the numbers, but in order to do that, they compromised on the skill quota. I’ve got quite a few mates — my son married a Chinese girl, she’s from the middle of China, so I’ve seen it firsthand and what happens is that these people come in, enrol in Private Tertiary Education or a polytech for an education they don’t need, as a means to get residency. And the people are reasonably well off, they’re nothing like refugees, but they’re basically buying their residency by paying the foreign education fee. And then they pay their relatives to employ them at a higher wage, so they’re buying a job, so that they can get permanent residency. The whole system is corrupt. And what we’re seeing is those people suppressing New Zealand wages. Those already here on modest wages can’t get trickle-down. It’s corrupting our whole system, and we’re heading to a low-wage economy. Taxpayers are going to have to keep writing bills to bridge the gap between the minimum wage and the market wage.

 

You’re delineating between those who, in your words, “paid their way” to get here, and refugees — but what about the grey area of people moving to try and get a better life, but don’t fall into that refugee bracket? Would you delineate them further?

Um… yeah? Well, not really, because the supply of them is infinite. We’re either opening our doors to them on humanitarian grounds or on some other grounds — we just need to be clean about how we define those groups. If we’re going to allow so many genuine refugees, and so many of the grey area, I’m happy with that, as long as society makes the decision. But when people are coming in under false pretenses, that’s the issue. We need to have that public debate, actually. Shade of grey? Sure, but define it.

 

 

Lastly, what is your favourite colour?

Blue, I guess.

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