Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Leaders unplugged: Jamie Whyte - 'I'm a half-full kind of guy'

Act leader Jamie Whyte may have boosted his profile this week by talking about Maori privilege, but he still has a long way to go. Toby Manhire took him to a local pub quiz for our candid series on party leaders

Act leader Jamie Whyte says New Zealand isn't anti-intellectual - it's intellectual without being poncey. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Act leader Jamie Whyte says New Zealand isn't anti-intellectual - it's intellectual without being poncey. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Before the quiz begins, I introduce the guest. This gentleman here. Does anyone know who he is?

The full room upstairs at Montage Bar mumbles and shrugs. Someone from the sofas in the corner shouts: "John Banks?"

"You bastard," mutters the guest.

Is anyone here planning to vote for Act, I ask. Consistent with the party's recent polling, no one makes a sound.

"I'll cut your taxes," he splutters. Someone says something about Tories. "I'm not Conservative!" he retorts. "Can you tell them I'm not Conservative?"

The Herald's original idea had been that I'd go to Jamie Whyte's house one evening, armed with red wine, to discuss life, the universe and everything in his library: the philosophical new Act leader in his intellectual cave. But he doesn't have a library. He doesn't even hang on to many books when he's read them.

"That image, that some people have - 'he was a lecturer at Cambridge, he sits in a leather chair with a brandy' - I've never been that guy."

In that case, how about my pub quiz? And so here he is - dressed in a white-and-blue checked shirt and brown trousers, for what it's worth - ready with a round of questions to ask at the monthly Pt Chev quiz I run with a friend.

There is, at least, lots of wine. He's just finishing his first glass, a white, shortly before the quiz begins, when the photographer arrives. Another glass? "If you're asking me do I want another drink, the answer is yes," he says. "The question is, do I want to be photographed with a drink?"

The philosopher is doing public relations. Affirmative, he concludes: another drink. But red or white? And should it appear full or half-drunk? Undoubtedly, he must not grip it "in a poncey way".

"It should be half-full," he resolves. "I'm a half-full kind of guy." The photographer smiles tolerantly. And it shall be red. "Anything except a pinot noir. What is it with this pinot noir obsession in New Zealand these days?"

"You're talking to the wrong person," deadpans the photographer. "I'm from Central Otago."

Whyte, 49, came late to wine. He didn't have a drink before he was 23. Why? "I honestly don't know," he says, as everyone hunches over the quiz's picture round. "There are hypotheses for an urge not to drink." Such as the drinking culture when he was growing up in Auckland in the 70s and 80s. Maybe it was a rebellion - both parents were "keen drinkers". A bit like Saffy, the sober daughter in the sloshed British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous? "I guess I was, to some degree ... There were occasions when my parents would say, 'Come on Jamie, have a bloody drink. Come on, what's wrong with you, have a drink'."

He was teetotal but sociable through his undergraduate degree at Auckland University, before embracing bibulous scholarship at Cambridge. Later, after teaching philosophy there, he lived in London, working as a management consultant and occasional newspaper columnist, for a time playing a bit of jazz fusion with someone called Big Jim, and regularly going out dancing in the city's nightclubs.

He wasn't one for the pubs so much, preferring bars. "Although I don't like poncey bars, either. In London I didn't really have a regular. I had a regular restaurant."

The restaurant was an Italian, just off Baker St, where he attended a weekly salon - academics, journalists, economists - to talk about ideas. There were a few leftish types but "mainly it was people who were into free market economics, people who enjoyed a meal and a drink ... That's what I enjoy most in life. Sitting down with a good bowl of pasta, some mates, some wine, and talking about ideas."

He must miss that kind of high-minded congregation since moving home, then? Not at all, he insists. New Zealand isn't anti-intellectual - it's "intellectual without being" - that word again - "poncey". That's one of the "real perks of coming back to New Zealand and doing politics. In Act there are real characters."

A little too much character, perhaps. Whyte concedes that at times "personality [has] started to cloud the ideas". But it's time for Whyte to voice his questions (see panel) and, in any case, this is not an interview about politics. His round goes down well. There's a ripple of applause and a couple of people (one is the Herald's travel editor, it must be said), shake his hand afterwards.

The quiz finished, we settle outside for some personal questions. His wife, Zainab Sokona, was born in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), her father a local diamond trader, her mother a visitor from Mauritania in western Africa. She was educated at an international school in Belgium. As such, Whyte says, she is "unrooted to any particular country". They met in Belgium when Whyte was travelling for business. She was working in a bar.

Sokona, a designer, was at first unimpressed with the idea of her husband entering politics, and unsure about his leanings. "By now she's with me. But that's probably brainwashing."

They don't discuss politics much. "There is no way she is going to tolerate it ... I get about 15 minutes, talking with her, in one go, on politics. The girls don't want it, obviously. And in all honesty I get fed up with it."

The girls are Rachel, 11, and Khadija, 7. They are not a morning family. Whyte and his wife take turns waking early and depositing the girls at a bus-stop (Rachel, for St Cuthbert's) and to school (Khadija, at a local primary). They live in St Marys Bay and have just the one car, a BMW 118 - "not flash, it's eight years old".

Does he mind this line of questioning? Not at all, he says. "I want to know who the person is that I'm voting for. People should identify who they are ... the question is, where to draw the line."

Where would he draw the line? "I'll give you a perfectly good example. You can't ask me about my sex life. You can't ask me what I get up to in my bedroom. I don't think that's anyone's business."

Okay. What does he get up to in his bedroom? A pause. "Read books. Read philosophy books."

It's getting late, but we need to explore the truth. In an interview in 2004, to mark the publication of his book, Bad Thoughts, Whyte said he'd "always been obsessed with truth", that it had "always driven me mad to see people saying things that are well known to be rubbish". Indeed, his PhD thesis at Cambridge was titled, simply, "Truth".

And now he's gone into a line of work renowned for evasion, dissembling, disingenuousness. The perils of truthfulness were made plain when Whyte was asked by the Ruminator blog about incest. He said the state shouldn't intervene if a brother and sister wish to marry one another, prompting a flurry of aghast headlines. Whether it's stage-managing a picture in a bar or discussing philosophical stances on incest, he just can't be properly honest any more, can he?

A long pause. "Ah, yeah. That is the worst aspect of it. That is the bit - that's the most potentially painful aspect of it. And I need to find a way of handling that efficiently. So. Richard Prebble [now Act campaign manager] suggested that the right way to think about it was: you ask me an opinion as a philosopher, but I don't have any opinions as a philosopher any more. I'm the leader of the Act Party. I may have those opinions, but they're not coming out ... I don't think that's completely corrupt."

One last thing. Why get into politics at all? Surely he could have a nice life as a consultant, a writer, a think-tanker, earn good money, live a good life. It's late, it's raining, sirens scream past, and Whyte is back on to hypotheses and urges.

"Remember when you asked me why I didn't drink - I had to hypothesise, come up with theories like an external third party thinking about them. I don't think my motivations for what I do leap out at me. So you ask me this question: I just know that I do, but I don't know exactly why.

"I've thought about it - why am I doing this? - because it's not entirely pleasant, and it's not an earner, and it's certainly not an earner if I don't bloody win ... I felt some need to step up, to go beyond just talking, talking, talking, talking."

An altruistic act, then? "It's not like that. It's that you have urges," he says, drawing a comparison with the decision to have children.

"It presents itself to you as an irresistible urge. It's not saintly. I'm not being a saint. I'm just faced with these urges. And they may be vanity, for all I know ... I do genuinely believe the things I say. I've come home, I've got an opportunity with Act, and I've taken it."

It is nearly midnight. I persuade Whyte to have one last glass. He recalls the glory days of the New Zealand Party, Bob Jones' libertarian vehicle designed to drive Muldoon and National out of Government in 1984. He was at Pakuranga College and saw Jones speak, a fulminating, funny, confrontational whirl.

"That was my political awakening," he says, with a laugh.

These days "all the fun has gone out of it", he says. "In general, public figures have to be much more proper ... But what can I do?"

The philosopher-politician has this solace: "We're all going to die. Just bear that it mind. It helps you get through a lot of stuff."

Jamie Whyte's pub quiz round

1. Which NZ politician had a Jurassic Park moment and what animal does he want to bring back into our lives?

2. According to the US National Centre for Health Statistics, which of the following recreations is most likely to result in death and which is the least likely? Motorbike racing, hang-gliding, sky-diving, boxing.

3. Who won the men's title at Wimbledon every year from 1910 to 1913, and which country did he come from?

4. New Zealand is a "country of inveterate, backwoods, thick-headed, egotistical philistines". Which foreign politician said this?

5. Under our MMP electoral system, suppose that there were 100 seats in Parliament, 50 of which were electorate seats. And suppose there were only two parties, the Red Party and the Blue Party. If Red wins 40 of the electorate seats and 50 per cent of the party vote, how many members of Parliament do Red have, and how many Blue?

Answers: 1. Trevor Mallard, Moa; 2. Hang-gliding, sky-diving; 3. Anthony Wilding, NZ; 4. Vladimir Lenin; 5. 50/50.

- NZ Herald

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