It would be an exaggeration to say Gareth Huw Thomas Morgan is reeling at the backlash from his campaign to prevent cats killing native birds, but he admits that in a long career of courting controversy, there has been nothing quite like this.
In the first 24 hours after he launched his Cats to Go website – on which he declared domestic cats natural-born killers, called on councils to subject them to the same controls as dogs and urged people not to replace their feline pets when the animals died – even Morgan, a man seasoned by decades of public combat, was taken aback by the fury of the response.
“God, you’d think I had threatened to shoot people’s children,” he marvels. Overnight, he made enemies of doting cat-owners all over the world – among them SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge, with whom the economist-turned-entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist is now in a state of war.
Radio Live broadcaster Duncan Garner wondered if Morgan had gone mad. Another radio host, Kerre Woodham, suggested he was suffering from bored rich man’s syndrome.
It was classic Morgan: light the touch-paper and stand back. And just as typically, the uproar, far from intimidating him, only incited him to crank up the pressure.
Like the motorcycles he has ridden across the central Asian steppe, Morgan has no reverse gear. He went on TV3’s Campbell Live and offered a $5 bounty for every homeless cat put down by the SPCA. He also urged people to stop donating to the animal welfare organisation unless it abandoned its policy of releasing homeless cats after neutering them, which he describes as a frontal assault on New Zealand wildlife.
For good measure, Morgan invited people fed up with neighbours’ cats intruding on their properties to trap them in cages and deliver them to the local mayor.
Just back from China, where he attended the wedding of his second son, Floyd, Morgan is sitting in his 10th-storey office above Wellington’s Featherston St. He’s wearing his customary outfit, jeans and casual open-necked shirt, and nursing a painful shoulder, which he explains has been damaged by years of incorrect posture while sitting at his computer screen.
He’s just been on the phone to Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch, which wants to talk to him about the cats furore. “They reckon it’s the most aggressive media response they’ve ever seen,” he says. He seems both delighted and incredulous.
Earlier in the day, Morgan had talked to National Geographic magazine, and while in
China he’d picked up the Shanghai Daily News and seen the cats story on page three.
The day before, Nature magazine, widely regarded as the world’s most authoritative general science publication, had published the results of a study that suggested cats in the United States killed up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion small mammals a year, far exceeding previous estimates. Morgan had known something was coming up in Nature and pounced on the findings to give his campaign fresh momentum.
So far it has played out pretty much as expected, even if Morgan was initially taken aback by the venom. Once the first wave of fury has subsided, he observes, “the blogs tend to self-moderate. The more reasoned people come in on the second wave.”
Does he set out to attract attention by being outrageously provocative? “Dead right,” he says. That’s how he gets a public conversation going.
“People say to me, ‘Can’t you just moderate it a bit?’, and I say that if I did that it [the issue] would just get lost.”
He insists that he enjoys reasoned debate, but fights fire with fire. “If I get a f—wit coming at me, he’ll get it back with interest.”
Ultimately, he has great faith in the ability of an informed public to reach the right conclusions. In fact, that’s what drives most of what he does as a crusading philanthropist; New Zealand’s leading capitalist with a conscience.
It’s easy to dismiss Morgan as a rampant egotist, an incorrigible self-publicist and “arguably New Zealand’s biggest know-all”, as the Sunday Star-Times recently described him. A correspondent in Wellington’s Dominion Post went so far as to propose a new word, Morganisation, to describe “the effect of becoming an expert on anything when wealthy”.
Certainly he doesn’t seem haunted by self-doubt, holding forth in newspaper articles and blogs on a smorgasbord of issues: fishing, housing, finance, education, regulation, superannuation, welfare reform, climate change and conservation, to name a few.
His fondness for publicity breaches the egalitarian New Zealand convention that philanthropists should refrain from seeking public attention. Small wonder, then, that he attracts the attention of tall-poppy assassins.
But there is logic and consistency in most of what Morgan does. He chooses an issue, commissions research into it, determines whether a policy change is necessary, then goes to the people and explains what he thinks should be done and why. “Because once the public is fully informed, I think the public is amazingly rational.”
This approach enables him to advocate for change without getting involved in politics, which he detests because of the adversarial nature of the party system.
Most of what he does is driven by a core set of passionate beliefs, the most important of which is that New Zealand’s most precious resource is its environment. What differentiates him from other environmental do-gooders is that the millions he has made in business – first from his economic consultancy Infometrics, later from the sale of his son Sam’s brainchild Trade Me and most recently from Kiwibank’s acquisition of Gareth Morgan Investments – have given him the money to make things happen in the public-policy areas that matter to him.
Even before the $47 million payoff from Trade Me, which he helped bankroll in its infancy, Morgan was “pretty well off”. But the purchase of the internet auction website by Fairfax in 2007 was a game-changer.
It gave him the money to establish the Morgan Foundation, which funds a bewildering range of activities, including joint ventures with Unicef in Tanzania and the Solomons, bold environmental initiatives and research projects on public-policy issues such as climate change and welfare.
He still shows an almost childlike delight talking about the Trade Me windfall. “It’s a funny feeling when you suddenly get so much money overnight – bang!” he exclaims. It was also a dilemma, because he didn’t want his life ruined. So he and his wife, Joanne, decided, as he puts it, to give the bloody stuff away.
“That set us on a voyage of discovery about how to do philanthropy in a satisfying way. We wanted to get a buzz out of it, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Morgan has since made as much money again from the sale of Gareth Morgan Investments, but it seems to have made little difference to his lifestyle. He doesn’t seem interested in the usual trappings of wealth. He and Joanne own a big old house in fashionable Oriental Bay but he drives a small Toyota Yaris and an environmentally responsible Toyota hybrid that he has owned for years.
His chaotic-looking open-plan office is devoid of decoration and he makes no claim to be an aficionado of the arts, although he enjoys art-house films, enthuses over Wellington playwright Dave Armstrong’s latest comedy at Circa Theatre and has a taste for country music (his current favourite being Iris DeMent’s acclaimed album Sing the Delta).
A hyperactive character who rises at 4am, Morgan typically has several projects on the go at once, all of which are scrawled on a cluttered whiteboard. Even as he’s telling you he has too much on his plate, he’s eagerly explaining his next campaign. “I keep taking stuff on,” he says. “It’s almost like I need help.” The statement is accompanied by a characteristic high-pitched, yelping laugh.
There was no inkling, when Morgan was growing up in the central North Island town of Putaruru, of the course his life would follow. He was the second in a family of five but the first to be born in New Zealand. His older sister was born in Cardiff before his Welsh parents made the decision to emigrate from a Britain recovering from the ravages of war.
His father was an Oxford-educated forestry scientist who had spent 10 years working in West Africa. A flip of a coin determined whether the family would move to Canada or New Zealand. “They had to go where there were forests,” Morgan says. Putaruru was a working-class town with seven timber mills, none of which survive. His father worked for a private forestry company and Morgan went to a primary school where he was one of only three Pakeha children in his class.
He recalls that his family felt isolated in stultifying small-town New Zealand – “my mother was always telling my father off for bringing us here” – but there were lively debates around the dinner table and he was encouraged to have a view on world affairs, such as the Vietnam War and Rhodesian independence (an issue that particularly interested his father, with his Colonial Service background). Morgan was often at odds with his parents, whom he describes as “very conservative, but not in a churchy way”.
At Putaruru High School he was bottom of the class in the third and fourth forms, but then something clicked in the fifth. “Once I learnt how to learn, man, you couldn’t stop me. I was like a sponge.” A mischief-maker up till then (he says he was suspended three times), he now puts his misbehaviour down to boredom.
Morgan was good at physics and chemistry and went to Massey University intending to do a science degree. Economics was just an add-on, one he nominated because he had once been impressed by a visiting relative who worked for the World Bank. But as his studies progressed, the science subjects dropped away and economics took over.
He eventually completed a doctorate at Victoria University of Wellington under the supervision of Professor Bryan Philpott, whom he names as a significant influence in his life. It was partly from Philpott that he picked up the trick of capturing attention with a provocative position to get a debate started.
Philpott leaned to the left while his pupil inclined the other way, but no one could describe Morgan as a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue. He believes passionately in free markets – “the market is very efficient in terms of allocating resources if it’s allowed to function” – but eschews the idea of unfettered, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism.
On some issues – the Treaty and climate change, for example – he lines up with the left. He believes the Treaty, which is the subject of a Morgan Foundation research project, is a living document, not a relic, and that Pakeha have an “abysmal” understanding of it compared with Maori.
What fascinates Morgan about economics is that despite its arid image – the dismal science and all that – it’s essentially the study of human behaviour. He uses its tools all the time; “you can apply them across so many things”.
His “conservation stuff”, for example, is about converting what he describes as our natural capital – “the environment, the bush and all that” – into incomes and jobs.
Here he shifts into classic Gareth Morgan mode. “I hear John Key going on about the lack of [economic] growth, winding back the Emissions Trading Scheme, getting the mines going, bowling some more forests … so in other words, for him the environment is the antithesis of economic development.
“And I’m saying, ‘No, no, no – it’s the biggest asset you’ve got, staring you in the face, Dumbo. Come on!’”
Having just returned from Lanzhou, one of the most polluted cities in China, he is more convinced than ever that the New Zealand environment is a massive asset. “So I look at it and I think, ‘How can we monetise it?’ Certainly not by ruining it.”
OUT, DAMNED PREDATOR
For a textbook example of Morganism in action, consider Stewart Island. Morgan’s declared goal is to rid the island of all predators – an extraordinarily ambitious target, given that at 170,000ha, it’s 15 times the size of Campbell Island, the biggest New Zealand island to be made predator-free so far.
Morgan says it would be the world’s biggest island to be cleared and the first with permanent human occupants – a huge complication because of the need for stringent border controls.
It may seem an outrageously presumptuous goal, but this is a man who loves setting Quixotic targets. On his next international motorcycle escapade, he plans to lead a group of riders through North and South Korea with the aim of promoting the unification of the two countries. It doesn’t seem to deter him that this is an objective that has thwarted international statesmen since before his birth in 1953.
Morgan launched his Stewart Island initiative in typically provocative fashion, issuing a press statement in which he declared an intention to eliminate all cats on the island.
The immediate reaction was predictable: who did Morgan think he was, trying to boss Stewart Islanders around? Then he spent a week on the island being shown around by locals and familiarising himself with the issues, at the end of which he called a meeting in the local hall (needless to say, it was filled) to outline his plan.
He “hit them where it hurt”, pointing out, among other things, that the school in Oban used to have 85 pupils and now had only 25. “I reminded them that they used to support themselves through fishing. It’s totally rooted now – they’re all working for the big fishing companies. There are no jobs for their kids and half the fishing boats don’t even call there.
“I emphasised the economic opportunities, which are massive, and told them they would be doing a cool thing setting an example to the rest of New Zealand.” That was followed by a secret ballot in which, Morgan says, two-thirds of the island’s residents voted, of whom 86% were in favour of the plan.
The Department of Conservation was involved from the outset – Morgan has a warm relationship with DoC head Al Morrison – and now he’s working out how to raise the estimated $40 million that eradication will cost.
These are early days, he says, “but we’re getting traction”. And if he needed any additional incentive, a visit to predator-free Ulva Island off the Stewart Island coast provided it. “You stand there and, man, the birds are awesome. It’s what the New Zealand bush should sound like.”
He will follow a similar strategy with the Cats to Go initiative. Morgan’s close friend and lieutenant Nick Tansley, formerly a top-rating Wellington radio DJ, suggested using the Wellington suburb of Karori as a test-bed because the adjoining Zealandia sanctuary has heightened local awareness of the benefits of prolific native birdlife.
By the time this article appears, the affable Tansley will be door-knocking in Karori, explaining Morgan’s proposal and preparing the ground. Then Morgan will hold a meeting in the Karori Town Hall at which he will tell the suburb’s citizens they are “extraordinarily privileged to live next to this place that the rest of us are paying for” and asking why native birds are spreading out beyond the predator-proof fences of Zealandia, only to die in local backyards because of cats.
Morgan thrives on such encounters with the public, having honed his presentation technique over years of conducting business seminars for Infometrics – which he sold in 1999 – and national speaking tours with Joanne, recounting their motorcycle expeditions in out-of-the way places such as Turkmenistan.
Paradoxically, he admits he’s not always at ease in more intimate social settings. “I’m not a party animal, not a social person. Joanne is much better in those situations.”
His wife is his mate in every sense. The youngest of eight children raised in Invercargill on a widow’s benefit (her father died when she was two), she met him at Massey while studying horticulture. They have four children – two boys, two girls – and five grandchildren.
Frugal, resourceful and adventurous in her own right, Joanne is the one who fixes the motorbikes when they break down in remote places (“I make the tea,” her husband says). In the past two years she has taken up mountaineering and set herself the goal of climbing every New Zealand peak higher than 3000m. Morgan says there are 14 of them and she has knocked off six.
Joanne’s forays into the mountains have led the Morgans to look at sponsoring search and rescue, but their offer of support comes with a condition attached: they want foreigners to be charged for access to national parks and to meet the cost if they have to be rescued.
It’s a classic Morgan tactic. “I want leverage for every dollar I spend. I don’t want to just hand the money over.”
It sounds like another furore in the making, but Morgan is optimistic that he can make a compelling case in every cause he takes on. “In the end, the arguments win. They always win. They’ll win on this cats thing – just you watch.”
Read more: Marc Wilson’s article ‘Mad as a cat’
Freaking-out Phoenix fans
Cat lovers aren’t the only people Gareth Morgan has been antagonising lately.
More sensitive even than cat lovers, supporters of the Phoenix football team want Gareth Morgan’s head on a spike for intervening in the management of the struggling Wellington-based side, which he part-owns through the Welnix consortium, a group of wealthy Wellington business identities that acquired the team from bankrupt property developer Terry Serepisos.
That has drawn Morgan into head-on conflict with Wellington newspaper the Dominion Post, whose sports writers he accuses of being gossip columnists who misrepresented his presence at Phoenix training sessions. (Morgan says he was just trying to work out how many video cameras were needed to cover the team at training; the paper concluded he was usurping coach Ricki Herbert and published a story and pictures under the headline “Who’s the boss?”)
Morgan further antagonised Phoenix followers in a radio interview by labelling fans who didn’t understand the long-term goal of turning the team’s performance around as “pathetic” and wanting “instant gratification”. Cue howls of outrage from wounded team loyalists.
He says Phoenix fans tell him: “You’re not allowed to talk about football – you’re an economist.” In other words, “I should just hand over the money and shut up”.
Although Morgan admits courting controversy, the media attention in recent weeks bemuses him. “It’s a new experience, really. There’s something wrong with the media. Is it so competitive online that they have to be sensational?”
He even says some of his neighbours were approached by a New Zealand Herald reporter asking about his behaviour. “For f—’s sake, you’d think I was some sort of movie star. We’ll have the paparazzi here next week.”
See also: Morgan floats clean-river scheme