Raf Manji, who became the leader of The Opportunities Party (TOP) last month, is hoping to make its mark on New Zealand’s political scene.

The 55-year-old former investment banker and two-term Christchurch City Councillor (2013 to 2019) is a person of Indian descent. He replaced Shai Navot, who headed TOP after the 2020 election. The party was founded in 2016 by economist and philanthropist Gareth Morgan.

Currently based in Wellington, Raf was born in north London to an Indian Muslim father and Irish Catholic mother. His father was born in Jamnagar, where his grandfather was involved in the textile business. His father moved to Mumbai, then Karachi, then London in his early 20s.

Raf moved to NZ in 2002 and has since been actively involved in governance, strategy and social enterprise. He has worked with the AsiaNZ Foundation, the Volunteer Army Foundation, and Christchurch Foundation to support and advocate for the affected families and survivors of the March 15, 2019 Terror Attack, among others.

Indian Weekender spoke to the multi-disciplinarian to know about his Indian connection, his vision for The Opportunities Party and what should be the priority of this government, and much more.

You are a person of Indian origin and have become the leader of TOP Party in New Zealand. Do you see it as the changing face of NZ's politics?
It will be refreshing for many people who feel unrepresented and not engaged in politics to see a different face and someone with a multicultural background. I hope it will encourage others to feel it's ok to take part and get involved in politics. Our demographics are changing rapidly, and everyone deserves to have a voice and be represented. 

Tell us about your journey so far in NZ to become a leader of TOP? What kind of responsibility are on your shoulders now?
I first engaged with TOP back in 2017 when I stood as an Independent in Ilam. They asked me to consider standing for them, but my pitch was very Christchurch focused, and whilst I supported their policy approach, it wasn't what I was trying to achieve in that election. I did speak to them again in 2020, but I had other commitments at that time. Then, I caught up with Geoff Simmons, the TOP leader for the 2020 election, and he said they were looking for a new leader, and after many conversations with the team, I decided to accept the role. It's a huge responsibility, and I took a while to decide. As a leader, you carry the hopes and dreams of party supporters, and you have to take them and others along with you in crafting a compelling vision for the country. That's a challenging and exciting assignment! 

How would you rate this current government in the way it has handled the pandemic so far? Would you have done it differently?
I think they did a good job in 2020 but became complacent in 2021, and we are suffering a bit from that. Some of their decisions around alternative testing systems, expanding MIQ, and preparing in advance for vacation have been questionable. I would have been a bit more imaginative around MIQ, introduced rapid testing much sooner, prepared the vacation program earlier (particularly for vulnerable communities), and settled visa issues much earlier. 

Do you think in the past few years, mainly because of border closures, strict immigration policy as well as MIQ, NZ's reputation as a sought-after destination has been tarnished?
We treated our migrant workers poorly and created huge and unnecessary uncertainty for many people. The government seems to be remedying that situation, but it has undoubtedly left a sour taste. We really need clarity in our immigration system and need to stop treating people as short-term cash cows. There is certainly some work to be done there. 

What are the biggest challenges that you feel this government has at present and needs immediate attention?
The housing situation is at a crisis point. There has been way too much investment into property, to the point where it is becoming impossible for many young people to afford a home or even rent a decent place. Our key focus is rebalancing our system to improve housing affordability and support incomes. We want to build a productive and innovative economy, not just be a place where people buy and sell houses from each other. Preparing for climate change, building resilient infrastructure, and getting the basics right is critical now as we face some challenging times.

Do you still have ties with India? How do you maintain your connection with India?
I don't have family ties there but have enjoyed my connection through my involvement with the AsiaNZ Foundation. I was lucky enough to have a holiday there just before Covid in January 2020. My father is from Gujarat, and I enjoyed visiting Ahmedabad, which is a noisy, industrious city. I hadn't spent much time in India, though I enjoyed several trips as a backpacker in the late 1980s, when I travelled most of the country in buses and trains, and then more recently on my 2020 visit. 

I really love travelling around. It's a great country with so much diversity, an incredible history, and some amazing places to stay. 

My father has always been a good cook and makes a good Dal. I also used to enjoy his sweets. I think food and cricket are the most prevalent influences in my life.

What is your vision concerning TOP?
To create a fairer society with opportunities for all. If we get the basics right, then people have the chance to prosper. We want everyone to have an opportunity to do well for themselves and their families.

As a party, where do you see TOP at present and say five years down the line?Hopefully, we will have entered Parliament in November 2023, and by the 2026 election, we will have reformed the tax system, made housing more affordable and more plentiful and created the framework for building a more sustainable and prosperous nation.   

As a party, what is the USP of TOP?
Our approach. We focus on what works and what delivers the outcomes we need to build a fairer society. We are neither left nor right, we can work with any party, and we are relentlessly focused on taking the country forward. 

What changes have you seen in NZ, be it economically, education, or immigration-wise, in the past ten years? And where do you see NZ 10 years down the line?
I think the country has become more diverse culturally and ethnically. I absolutely love seeing the new generation coming through with different backgrounds, ideas and a real zest for life. It's exciting to see. They will bring many new businesses to life and help us engage globally in a much more creative way. Our international education system has focused a bit too much on quantity, and I'd like to see more focus on research, entrepreneurship and innovation. We can also improve our engagement in overseas markets and use personal relationships to create a more flexible approach to enable people to come and go more easily. We want to attract talent but also send talent outwards, and building strong and trusted relationships will allow that conveyor belt to work for the benefit of all.

 

What new direction will you take the TOP Party, especially since it has seen quite a few leadership changes in recent years?
I want to make the party inclusive and open to all. There are too many people who are not connected to politics, and I want them to feel they have a place to go, which does not have decades of baggage and is primarily concerned with better outcomes for all. We want to engage with both the head and the heart and show some vision for what sustainable prosperity looks like. We have a chance to change the way politics is done in NZ, and hopefully, now is the right time. We haven't quite made it there in the last two elections, but I'm optimistic that it will be third time lucky! 

 

As a party, do you still have Universal Basic Income (UBI) as one of the key agendas?
Yes, the UBI is a key part of our 'Kiwi Dividend' Tax Switch, which will see us taxing housing properly and creating a higher tax-free threshold and flat tax of 33%. it recognises the huge amount of unpaid labour in the economy, the rise in gig and precarious work, and encourages people to seek more part-time work without facing onerous tax penalties.