Former Christchurch City Councillor Raf Manji is the new leader of TOP. Photo / Supplied – TOP
Raf Manji could have been Mayor of Christchurch.
Instead, the investment banker turned community budget adviser opted to take the reins at a political party he describes as having “radical centrist” views.
The Opportunities Party (TOP) leader is far from a household name outside of his hometown.
But after two terms as a popular city councillor and two decades throwing himself into community work, he is well-regarded and well-recognised in Christchurch.
That means that – even with TOP looking unlikely to hit the 5 per cent threshold for list seats in Parliament – it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of Manji winning a grassroots campaign on his home turf in the Ilam electorate.
Polling around 2 per cent, an electorate win could bring Manji and at least one other TOP candidate into Parliament – potentially throwing them the balance of power if the election results are as tight as current polling suggest they might be.
There has even been some talk of National opting out of the Ilam race and cutting him an Act-style deal as a potential coalition partner.
Speaking to the Money Talks podcast, Manji says he won’t be doing any pre-election deals.
In fact, he says that while he is prepared to work with any of the major parties – including Act and the Greens – his plan would be to sit on the cross-benches and support a stable minority government.
TOP is and has always been about policy and improving the equality of political decision-making, he says.
In a way it is almost a combination of a traditional Green Party and a traditional liberal economic party, of the kind Act used to be, Manji says.
The big one – in case you were wondering – is tax reform.
TOP’s policy involves cutting income tax in a way that might appeal to Act voters. But then it offsets the income tax cuts with a Land Value Tax.
That’s along the lines of the fundamental Capital Gains Tax reforms proposed by the Michael Cullen Tax Working Group, although more targeted towards land.
It also involves funding a universal basic income – something that might not appeal to conservative Act voters.
It is the sort of policy that often appeals to New Zealand’s financial market community and so perhaps it’s not surprising that it also makes sense to Manji – a former accountant, investment banker and trader in London who is also passionate about social and environmental issues.
But it was a romantic connection that brought the Londoner to New Zealand – initially as a backpacker in 1988 and then permanently in 2002 – following his partner to raise his family in Christchurch.
Manji also has a friendship with former investment banker and Prime Minister John Key – they met as currency traders at the Bankers Trust (a US investment bank) – in the mid-1990s.
Opting out of the banking high life in London was something he could afford to do after investing wisely for many years.
“I got to the point where money didn’t interest me particularly,” he says. “So I left. It was a bit of a shock to people. I was only 33. I just thought there is other things I want to do in life and earning loads of money wasn’t one of them. We had enough.”
When Manji moved to Christchurch, he started working in the startup space, in environmental technology.
But he also went back to Canterbury University and did a Master’s degree in political science.
He also volunteered for Christchurch Budget services.
“That was a real wake-up call for the struggles that so many people had,” he says. “I love talking to people about and helping them with money and I love a budget and spreadsheet.”
After the earthquakes, he got involved with the Student Army and earthquake recovery. He got to know Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel – who talked him into running for local government.
“A lot of people said to me: you’re mad, no one is going to vote for you, no one knows who you are,” he recalls.
“I said, I don’t know, I’ve been living here 10 years, my children go to school here I do a lot of community work … I knew a lot of people in the community and that was enough.
“People say it to me now I’m running in national politics … you’ll never get elected, no one is going to vote for you … but they often underestimate the importance of local networks.”
The approach from TOP came at the right time for him, he says. He sees the upcoming election as a pivotal one for New Zealand.
“I think we’re at a tipping point in the geo-political cycle,” he says. “In the mid-1980s everything changed and I think we’re coming to the end of that cycle.
“New Zealand is frankly sliding backwards for the first time I’ve felt since I’ve been here,” he says.
“And I just thought yes, something has got to change, and I thought it would be a good selection to be involved in.”
Listen to the full interview with Raf Manji here
Money Talks is a podcast run by the NZ Herald. You can follow the series on iHeartRadio, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes are out every Saturday.