The Whyte stuff
A self-professed expert on plain-speaking throws his hat into the ring for a tilt at politics. By STEVE KILGALLON
Among Jamie Whyte's many publications is one on the contorted rhetoric of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
And his most recent job was translating technical management jargon into real English. He is, then, a self-professed expert on plain speaking. And yet he would like to become a politician.
"The minute someone starts using language in a certain way, you know they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Politicians do it, consultants do it, all sorts of advisers do it, religious people do it," says Whyte, one of two candidates to be the next ACT Party leader and one of three who wants to be its Epsom candidate.
"Someone like David Cunliffe has more or less grown up in politics . . . it's probably second nature for him to talk in that gobbledegook; in fact, he would probably have difficulties speaking plainly.
"But it is the other way round for me. It's not going to work. People are offering me media training [which he's accepted] . . . but I suspect it's not going to take."
Actually, he says, his former career in management consultancy is perfect preparation because it "teaches you to speak bullshit".
But you want some plain speaking? Here's what he thinks of his putative future colleagues, the good members of the Parliament of New Zealand.
For some, he says, "shamefully, it's just that it's the best job they are capable of getting . . . they have no particular talents, somehow they have managed to get in with their party and get elevated and they are as happy as a pig in shit. Otherwise, they would be working in the food industry [think McDonald's] or cleaning."
Still others, he says scornfully, are the ideology-free, poorly-read "Tory boy" types who think they are the "shepherds of society".
Cheerful, convivial, entertaining company, clearly very intelligent, prone to the odd curse, Whyte is a youthful-looking 48-year-old father of two with a shaven head and tailored shirt.
He's an unlikely pollie and of course, considers himself in neither of the categories described above. "I'm not a careerist politician. I am not doing this because I am desperate to be an MP."
Whyte's much purer motivation is ideas. As befits a former Cambridge University philosophy lecturer, he can talk sharply and at length about ideology - for example, he offers a discourse on how ACT are the true party of enlightenment thinking.
Once a columnist for The Times and the Wall St Journal, his writing is spiky, provocative and based on the premise that the state intrudes too much on our lives and liberty - in tax, religion, prison sentences, drinking laws, almost everything.
One column criticised the Australian Advertising Standards Authority for banning an advert where a toddler drove a car (in case it might cause even a single copycat incident).
"The AASB should have let the child die," he wrote mockingly. "It is worth it for the fun of watching an amusing advert. Some will ﬁnd the idea of sacriﬁcing a child for the sake of a little entertainment objectionable. But it is not a little entertainment. When millions of people are entertained a little, that is a lot of entertainment - easily worth the life of a child."
This sort of thing, a willingness to answer questions properly and no apparent desire to say the most expedient thing may lead Whyte into some trouble down the track. He admits he has fewer opportunities to be slippery than the average backbencher: "If you want to know what I think about something you can look it up, so there is no point bullshitting."
Cheerfully, he recounts being interviewed by TV3, who "didn't f . . . me up, but they could have because I walked into an absolute beginner's trap" of being asked a series of yes-no questions to delineate the difference between him and Colin Craig.
He dodged, although was happy enough to offer up his educated scepticism on man-made global warming.
During the Rugby World Cup, Whyte's mother became terminally ill and he had to make several visits home. It was then he realised he much preferred Auckland to London, and decided to return permanently with his wife Zainab Fokona, a designer, and children Rachel, 10, and Khadija, six. That decision sparked another, to become involved in politics.
The last time the Star-Times interviewed Whyte, in 2008, he'd suggested a desire to get involved, but wasn't sure with which party. He remembers that, and says it was because at the time Don Brash was leading National and he identified a fellow traveller but it was all too soon back then.
Insteas, Whyte, Auckland-raised and educated, continued his shuttling between New Zealand and England; he took a masters and doctorate at Cambridge, lectured there for three years, had a brief stint as a foreign currency trader then became a management consultant, which took him to Sydney and then back to London.
He also wrote four books on politics and philosophy, one a genuine bestseller.
Since returning home, he's felt moved to advise ACT members that counter to popular belief, he is a Kiwi, an understandable misconception when you hear him speak.
Actually, he's an ACT natural, would never have fitted in National. He talks about how the state should be smaller, offer more freedoms. He hates the Greens ("watermelons, green on the outside, red on the inside"), disdains Cunliffe, likes John Key but is frustrated at what he sees as National's tendency to accept Labour reforms when they take power.
For example, he's "appalled" by Labour's extension of welfare "deep into the middle classes", saying it is a hugely inefficient way of recirculating people's own money, and can't understand why it hasn't been rolled back.
Why, he wonders, are there more laws every year and not fewer: surely after 200 years of effective parliamentary democracy there shouldn't be many stones left unturned? So we get intrusive, inconsistent legislation that leaves room for discretion. Such as? "If you take smacking . . ." A pause; frantic backpedalling. "No, I am not going there."
Emphatically, he says, an ACT party led by Whyte would not go to war on Treaty issues. "I've got no interest in Maori-bashing as a political game."
At first, it appeared he might come from nowhere and get a clear run. Then David Seymour put up his hand, followed by ACT heavyweight John Boscawen.
Whyte handled both announcements with equanimity. Boscawen's declaration, he reckoned, gave the party a chance to debate its direction and give the winner a clear mandate to lead. And Seymour, he says, is very bright and likeable. "He's much more clued up than I am, and he definitely wouldn't have given you all the dangerous shit you could f . . . me up with," he says with a big grin.
Yesterday, ACT convened at millionaire backer Allan Gibbs' farm near Helensville, in what Whyte termed a "pow-wow" that is likely to be an important precursor to February 1, when a decision will be made on both leader and Epsom candidate. Whyte will position himself as the brave but long-term choice.
The party, he says, needs rebranding, "somewhat, well, a lot actually". While he may now be the leadership outsider, he says he's the one capable of leading that long-term reinvigoration back to the heady days of nine parliamentary seats; he fears they have been seen by too many as "mean-spirited".
To reach that target of a 5 per cent vote share, they must communicate their ideas better, although he admits they are still not chasing the popular vote; ACT voters, he says, are clever, "not typical people on the whole, a little bit more thoughtful, more interested in ideas".
The initial target, however, is two seats (which would require a constituency victory in Epsom and at least 1.5 per cent of the overall party vote). They would be "seriously f . . ed up" if they can't achieve that.
With Whyte competing against Boscawen for the leadership and Boscawen and Seymour for Epsom, he carefully lays out the arguments for and against splitting the two jobs. But it appears he favours being leader and relying on that second seat, saying: "I don't want to be as lonely as John Banks was; and I would be even lonelier because I don't have all those mates in the National Party. So I run that risk: I can live with that. I won't commit suicide if I don't get in. I will go make some money."
What ACT can achieve, he says, is speaking out for ideas, preventing National "backsliding" on key issues, and following the John Banks example and picking one major policy and forcing it through.
That's a realistic but limited platform and it's entirely possible he could get himself into Parliament, and find himself sat there not just lonely but extremely frustrated: "But I sit out here very frustrated; you can be one of those guys in his lounge yelling at the TV, or in Parliament yelling at the opposition on the other side," he smiles. "I'd rather be yelling across the chamber than at the TV."
The 30-year-old said last week he represented "exuberance against experience" and has, despite his age, long been active in ACT politics.
He was ACT on Campus chairman while studying engineering and philosophy at Auckland University, and first stood for Parliament in 2005 in Mt Albert.
Spent the past few years working for conservative political think tanks in Canada, but plans to return home if he wins the Epsom nomination.
An accountant, he has been a longtime ACT heavyweight, joining the party a year after its formation in 1995 and serving variously as board member, treasurer, campaign manager, and most recently, president, as well as being a significant party donor.
He was a list MP from 2008 to 2011, having been fourth on the party list, and was Consumer Affairs Minister, then parliamentary leader (with Don Brash as leader outside the House) after Rodney Hide's resignation.
He also stood in the 2009 Mt Albert by-election, placing fourth with 968 votes and receiving a free lamington to the head from a protester.
- Originally published in the Sunday Star-Times on January 19 2014