Michele Hewitson interview: John Minto

By Michele Hewitson

Long-time activist and now mayoral candidate reveals himself as a courageous and kindly optimist, far from the humourless, hatchet-faced man he says is his image

John Minto, who describes himself as an outsider in the Auckland mayoral race, says he's "actually really good at dealing with people''.  Photo / Natalie Slade
John Minto, who describes himself as an outsider in the Auckland mayoral race, says he's "actually really good at dealing with people''. Photo / Natalie Slade

John Minto, Mana Movement's mayoral candidate, activist, face of the Stop the Tour protests of 1981 and hence "that humourless, hatchet-faced man from the 1980s" came to the door of his pretty house in Morningside and greeted me with a peck on the cheek.

This a skill few can manage without awkwardness or insincerity. He is good at it. Would he be kissing babies too? I wondered, in what was no doubt a trivial sort of way, expecting one of his scathing responses.

He said: "I've done that already!" Good heavens. Has he really? "Yeah, I was at a thing the other day ... and a friend of mine had his baby there and I said: 'Look, all good politicians grab babies', so I grabbed the baby. But I like babies anyway."

You can see that he'd be good with babies. He has a sweetness to his nature at odds with his public persona, and he has a lovely smile. But when you see him smiling, you think: Something strange is going on with John Minto's face. What is it? Oh, yes, he's smiling.

I am exaggerating this, of course, but there is a certain idea about him. People mistake his rhetoric for his personality: "Conflated by the media," he says. But people "see me in a more genial light now. I suppose it was an image forged in 1981 and ... I just accept that that went with the territory and somehow will never go away ... But I think it's pretty faded wallpaper now."

Still, he provided the "humourless, hatchet-faced man" quote two minutes after we sat down. He said: "These are old, old things. You're going back a long, long way."

I wasn't the one, either, who mentioned that, in his youth - he comes from a large Catholic family, of 10 kids - he contemplated becoming a priest. I did know this and so said: "Yes, you were, weren't you?" To which he replied, sounding utterly astounded: "Was I? Oh. Did you read that somewhere? I'm surprised I said that anywhere."

Well, he did! Which is hardly my fault, I'd have thought, but somehow it was. All I can think is that he has an almost pathological dislike of revealing anything about himself. Anyway, he is now an atheist who believes Jesus Christ did exist and that he "would have been a wonderful person to know ... But I don't believe he ever claimed to be God. That was put on to him a century after his death."

He is what he calls a "utilitarian person", if less so these days, so perhaps that also has something to do with it. Delving into pasts and personality is frivolous and achieves nothing. He is an activist, after all, and sitting around gazing at one's navel is a waste of good protesting time.

He said: "I'm surprised that you would have looked at paper files." That was amazingly rude but I didn't realise until later just how rude it was supposed to be (that peck on the cheek; that smile; the little plunger pot of coffee he made just for me ... ) Of course I looked at the paper files. He has his own file. "Yeah. Full of hatchet-faced pictures taken by the Herald."

The photographer said: "This isn't going to be a hatchet photo."

"Oh, yeah?" he said. "You wait until she gets the selection."

What? I don't get to make the selection. He must think I'm very powerful. "No."

When I phoned to ask for an interview he was perfectly friendly, if slightly wary, and said he didn't have his diary on him and he'd have to check it and get back to me. I thought: That'll be the end of that. But he phoned back and said he would see me, so that was very kind of him and so of course once at his house, I said: "Thank you for seeing me."

"Yeah. That's all right. I was told I had to." I'd love to know who told him he had to but, and not for the last time, he wasn't about to answer. "No. No. I've avoided these sorts of interviews before."

I thought it must have been his campaign manager who made him. "No." Who is his campaign manager? "I am."

Those bloody paper files. They tell me that he is an unlikely character to have became such a public one. He is shy. "Do you think I'm shy or do you say I'm shy?" He said he was shy! "Yeah, I was very shy when I was younger, much less so now. That might sound pathetic, I know."

He once said he was neither "brilliant nor charismatic nor particularly articulate".

"Um. Did I say that? Where did you get that quote? Oh, well, I think that's probably true. I don't see myself as charismatic."

Don't mayors have to have charisma? "I don't think they do. I think they have to get on with people; I think they have to have a good personality; I think they have to be able to drive policy agendas that are set by people rather than policy agenda that you squeeze into."

I thought the observation that it was strange that he had chosen a public life was a reasonable one - especially now that he is standing for mayor - but he gave me a bleak and unreadable look. What was that look for? "Ha. This is the drilling down into the personality of the person." Does he ever drill down into himself? "Ha, ha!" He turned to the photographer and asked, rather desperately: "Has she ever interviewed herself, Natalie?"

In other words, drilling him is fruitless. So I'll take a few guesses. He is, I think, in many ways quite conservative. He has married twice; the first time to Angela Zanderigo and they have two boys. His second wife is Bronwen Summers. I don't know what she does, or anything much else about her other than that she is a member of the Greens, because he wouldn't tell me.

Asking about his marriages was "a woman's question". I had wondered whether his activism might have had anything to do with the end of his first marriage. Why is that a woman's question? "Oh, heavens! It is indeed a woman's question!"

Some more woman's questions then: Does he do any housework? "Oh, crumbs!" He does, and he cooks a bit although he has never - hold on to your hats! - been a "foodie or a wine-y".

He feeds the birds, has a cat (really his son's cat) called Eric and two chickens. He lives in a house worth over a million dollars (who doesn't in that part of Auckland?) which is cosy and comfortable and has gorgeous chairs and curtains in William Morris fabrics, which are the opposite of the austerity one might have imagined. "He was a great socialist, William Morris."

His idea of good things to do: Biking, swimming, tramping. I said: "And what do you do for fun?" He said: "Those things are fun!"

He asked what I did for fun and I said gardening and reading and he said: "Bronwen would say the same things!" We could get married! I said. That is how you make a hardened activist blanch.

Running for mayor is fun. He really would like to be mayor, but "I think at this stage we're the outsiders. You wouldn't put a lot of money on us on iPredict."

He said: "I'm waiting for you to ask me about: 'Do you use the bus?"' Okay. Does he go on the bus? "Yeah, I go on the bus." You can look at his website to see his policies. I'm sticking to my woman's questions.

Because now he is running for mayor so he does have to do these sorts of interviews and he loved every minute of it. I am being sarcastic. I may have caught this from him. His stock response to anything I said he didn't like, didn't want to answer, or found boring and idiotic was: "Yeah, yeah, yeah." So it was a bit like being stuck in a Beatles' song as sung by Lennon in a bad mood, say.

But that would give entirely the wrong impression of him. Because he's an optimist, isn't he? "Yeah. Very good point. That's a very good question you asked. I think that's the core of who I am: I'm an optimist. If I was a realist or a pessimist, then I probably wouldn't do a lot of the things that I've got involved in. I am an optimist. I think things can be different." I was feeling rather optimistic myself, just then. Because, phew! One good question in an hour wasn't bad going, by my standards, which by his, are low.

He has not, by the way, chosen this life; it sort of chose him: "You get into something and life moves on."

He said, by way of selling himself as mayor: "This whole public persona ... I've done huge amounts of things in my life that have been involved with - in fact all of them are involved in - relationships with people: Being a teacher, being on the board of trustees, being involved with various groups. All of it is personality-driven because you've got to be ... I'm actually really good at dealing with people."

I'd agree, to a point and the point is that he is also combative and has been a teacher for 30-odd years, so he can be blunt - to another point which might look like rudeness. I asked, at the end, if the dreaded interview had been as awful as expected (yes) and he said : "... I look at your column and I think there must be a lot of people who read it otherwise they wouldn't keep it going."

He had already told me that it irritated him because the thrust of it is "dissecting the personality ... It's sort of focusing on things that are trivial." How to woo one's interviewer. "Oh, well. I'm not trying to woo you. I'm trying to tell you this is the person; [these are] my real views." Then: "I should have some biscuits here for you. I'm sorry. I normally would. I'd hate you to think I was ..." I supplied: "A miserable bastard?" "Thank you," he said but of course he's been called far worse things.

Actually - and this is entirely trivial and so matters not a jot - I don't think he's a miserable, hatchet-faced bastard at all. I ought to have been offended by the rude things he said but they were said without an ounce of guile, or nastiness. He was simply being honest. Immediately after saying them, he offered another drink before I left and would I like a ride anywhere?

So none of that was meant to be taken personally and, weirdly, I didn't. He doesn't do personal, after all. Bad luck for him that I do, and it is also possibly bad luck for him that I liked him a lot. He's courageous and kindly and he's spent his life doing hard things, including teaching - and being interviewed when he hates it.

He's supposed to be humourless, but he certainly made me laugh.

- NZ Herald

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