Let's talk about TOP

The AM Show 08/10/2020

This article comes courtesy of Newshub reporter Dan Satherley

Remember The Opportunities Party? The political upstarts led by the foul-mouthed economist with the moustache who hated cats

They're back for another go at Parliament, but this time under the leadership of an improv comedian who also happens to be an economist too, Geoff Simmons.

"We've transitioned now from a one-man-band to a sustainable movement," Simmons told The AM Show on Thursday. "We're a movement now and we're carrying on." 

Former leader and money-man Gareth Morgan quit the party in 2019, and has feuded with them ever since. In June last year he called the party "losers", "degenerates" and a "group of grovelling, compromising political aspirants". In response, the party shared a tweet calling him "socially retarded" and uploaded an animated gif of an old man shouting "get off my lawn". 

The ties are so severed, Simmons told The AM Show they don't even have a policy on cats.

That was Gareth's pet thing, excuse the pun.

Instead, they're hoping to completely upend the way the New Zealand economy works, starting with housing.

 

"It's the leading driver of poverty and it's also choking our economy, because so many Kiwis put all of their money into housing rather than businesses that actually create exports and jobs," Simmons said.

That's driven prices skywards, with international comparisons showing we have some of the most unaffordable housing in the world - Tauranga and Auckland are in the top 10 least-affordable cities in the world according to the 2020 Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. Of the eight New Zealand markets included in the research, every single one was ranked severely unaffordable. 

The Opportunities Party - also known as TOP - doesn't have a silver bullet, but a few major reforms planned to fix it. The biggest is tax.

"We need to reform the tax system so we tax housing the same as other assets," explained Simmons. "We don't want to increase the amount of tax that's taken - we just want to make sure that property is paying its fair share of tax."

The current plan is to have tax on housing kind of like rates - Simmons suggesting a 1 percent tax on equity. So if you had a home worth $1 million and it was all paid off, you'd pay $10,000 in property tax.

We'd use that money to bring down the tax on other investments, much like they do [in other countries]. If we tax property, then we could afford to bring down tax rates across the board by up to a third.

That includes business tax.

"New Zealand has the biggest tax difference between property and other investments in the world, and we have some of the highest tax rates on businesses in the Western world. We've got to bring those down, and it makes sense to pay for that by increasing the tax on property." 

Simmons says contrary to what the wealthiest would say, they don't pay the most tax because much of their income comes from property, leaving the tax burden on middle- and high-income people who actually work for their money.

The rich do - high-income earners do. The wealthy, no. That's property.

Geoff Simmons
Geoff Simmons. Photo credit: The AM Show

The other big TOP idea is the Universal Basic Income, or UBI, of about $250 a week - paid to everyone 18 or over, regardless of their income or employment status. It's essentially a scaled-down version of what elderly people already get in the pension, but expanded out for everyone.

Critics say it'll discourage work, with people able to quit their jobs without worrying about having to jump through hoops to access welfare. Simmons says the opposite is in fact true.

The whole idea is to reward effort. It rewards people for starting business, for studying. Most importantly, it rewards people for working. At the moment our benefit system traps people in poverty - when people try to work they lose their benefit and they're often no better off overall.

The evidence for UBI is mixed, but a recent two-year trial in Finland - the biggest to date - found unemployed people who received cash in the hand, no question asked, ended up working more days than those stuck on unemployment benefits. They also reported far greater mental health.  

But a metastudy looking at various different kinds of UBI tried around the world found limited evidence it would work, particularly when rolled out on a nationwide scale, with estimates one high enough for people to live on would cost up to 30 percent of GDP. 

TOP's UBI differs from the Greens' proposal for a guaranteed minimum income in that it will be universal. The Greens' plan is more generous to those out of work, but doesn't go to those who presently earn more than $325 a week (with exceptions). 

The latest Newshub-Reid Research poll had TOP on 0.9 percent, below the 2.44 percent they got in 2017 when they had Dr Morgan's financial muscle. If the party fails to get to 5 percent it's likely their supporters' votes won't count, with the party unlikely to win an electorate seat.

But Simmons doesn't see it that way.

It's not a wasted vote - it's inspired people to pick up our policies left, right and centre.