If explaining is losing, then Jamie Whyte's bid to revive the ACT party is off to a poor start. In the lead-up to the party conference, which started in Auckland yesterday, little attention was being paid to life after John Banks, flat taxes, or the retirement age.
Instead, most media questions being put to Dr Whyte, the new leader-elect, sought an explanation of his view on incest. He admitted this week that although it was not something he supported (and he did not believe it happened to an extent worth worrying about), in his view, where consenting adults were involved the state should not interfere.
The comments came in an interview with the Ruminator blog. Despite suspecting he was being "set up" in being asked just how limited the role of the state should be, Dr Whyte could not resist. "The problem is being a philosopher, I have some bad habits. I kind of felt obliged to answer."
Thinking of the thousand laws he would like to repeal if he made it into Parliament, those on incest were not among them, he said.
Dr Whyte goes on to quote his philosophical hero, John Stuart Mill, who said that the state should intervene only to prevent harm. "That has become the standard view. It's not an extreme position of mine. This is me being completely conventional."
He regretted taking attention away from ACT's revival. Yet though he admitted the comments probably constituted a mistake, he stood by them. "I'm not apologising for what I think."
Unless he cures his habit of saying what he thinks, there is every chance Dr Whyte's views will earn him more headlines.
His most recent book of columns, Free Thoughts, spells out a world view consistent with the incest comments. Chances are, any questions put to Dr Whyte starting: "Should the government" will likely be answered, no, because he believes that the government should stay out of private business.
One column hints that Dr Whyte has the same stance on polygamy as incest (when asked, he did not deny this). As far as he is concerned, consenting adults can do as they please.
His columns for some of the world's leading newspapers are full of nuanced arguments, which could offend many unless he carefully explains himself.
In one, he reasons "corporate philanthropy is tantamount to theft". His logic is that charity by companies, if it is genuine, is simply spending money which belongs to its shareholders, who should be left to direct their generosity themselves.
Dr Whyte says it was written to debunk claims that companies should be obliged to perform acts of philanthropy. In reality, he claims, acts of corporate charity were really just a marketing tactic. "In a way, if it's fake, it's okay. If it's genuine, it's robbery."
Another column argues that Christians cannot really believe what they claim, otherwise they would behave differently, using the example that Catholics believe abortion is slaughter.
"Is the lack of Catholic anti-abortion militancy not then strange? If they believe what they claim to, then they are no better than those who turned a blind eye to the Nazi atrocities," he wrote in The Times in 2008. "But I do not think they are that wicked. It is just that they do not really believe the things they say about foetuses and immortal souls."
Elsewhere he had described Christianity as a "mixture of wilful ignorance mixed with an air of assumed moral superiority".
Asked how he can appeal to Christian voters, or work with Christian MPs in Parliament, Dr Whyte says his philosophy fits well with many Christians, as he argued against rules which limited the practising of religion.
Likewise, his statement that "social mobility is a bad thing" could offend egalitarians.
Less than a month after becoming leader, he is already concerned he will be forced to repeatedly explain himself, rather than ACT's "exciting" policies.
Despite believing his clearly thought out views would be a virtue, he admits it may count against him that everything is written down. "That may be the sort of thing that people like in a politician, but it seems it isn't. I get trashed for this, and everyone else gets away with being vague and woolly. Why don't you go out and trash them for that?"
- © Fairfax NZ News
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