Michele Hewitson interview: Jamie Whyte

By Michele Hewitson

The new face of Act is an unusual character - a former professional philosopher, sometime Times columnist and compulsive joker

Act's new leader, Jamie Whyte, finds very few politicians are distinctive characters. He exempts Rodney Hide and Winston Peters. Photo / Natalie Slade
Act's new leader, Jamie Whyte, finds very few politicians are distinctive characters. He exempts Rodney Hide and Winston Peters. Photo / Natalie Slade

The new leader of the Act party, Jamie Whyte, was having his first day off in two weeks on Wednesday, so he suggested lunch at his favourite restaurant, Andiamo, in Herne Bay. He lives just a hop away, in Kelmarna Ave. "That's the rough part of Herne Bay; the mean streets!" I felt I'd better insert the exclamation mark, to indicate that he was making a joke. He often is.

When I phoned him, he sounded as though he was at the bottom of a cave. He was in his house. "Don't you call my house a cave." He said, later, at lunch, when I suggested this might have been mistaken for abrasiveness: "That was a joke!"

He is 48, youngish for a leader of a political party, but old enough to, he hopes, not be changed too much by the machinations and tricks of politics. He has given some thought to this. "I am who I am by now."

He thinks most politicians are boring and he doesn't want to become boring or to stop saying what he really thinks or to stop making his jokes. A very few people manage to survive being distinctive characters in politics, he said.

Rodney Hide is one; Boris Johnson, another joker, is another; "Oh, and Winston, yeah, absolutely." He seems to be mildly irritated, at the very least, by most politicians.

"They're always so concerned about not making a mistake." He doesn't actually have any friends who are politicians but he does know Jonathan Coleman because he had a neighbour who married him.

He turned up to lunch wearing casual pants, with the bottoms rolled up, and canvas slip-on shoes. You can't imagine any of the former leaders of Act turning up to lunch with a journalist wearing anything other than a suit and tie. Which is rather the point of him. He's the new face of Act.

Why he wants to be the new face of Act is something I'm still not entirely sure about. He likes doing unexpected things and taking on a party which currently has zero per cent support in the polls is fairly unexpected for a former philosophy lecturer who likes funk and used to go clubbing in London. You could never imagine writing that sentence about those previous leaders: Roger or Richard or Rodney (it would be too mind-bogglingly bizarre to imagine it written about Don). I asked - as a joke given the attention given to Metiria Turei's dress sense - what he wore clubbing. He said: "A three-piece suit, and brogues." Really? "No, of course not. You're going to sweat heavily so you choose clothes that are suitable for sweating in." What a shame. I liked the image of a future Act leader dancing, sweatily, to funk, in a three-piece suit, and brogues.

He was briefly in a band with an old mate called Jim but they were never "a known entity". This was because nobody wanted to listen to their music. They got "a bit technical and starting getting into that kind of jazz fusion stuff and there is no audience for that".

He is an unusual character; possibly a restless one, in a disciplined way. If he sets his mind to do something, he does it, despite being lazy. "Who said I was lazy?" He did. "I didn't say I was lazy." He did; in a column. He also said his wife was even lazier and did nothing but go out for lunch and look after their then 2- year-old daughter - who was the laziest of the lot - on the odd occasions she wasn't asleep or at day care. "You can't say that. That's completely unfair. That was a satirical article mocking Gordon Brown's annoying habit of always, whenever he mentioned a family, saying 'hard-working families'."

It is this mocking that is likely to get him in trouble. He has been scathing of "Tory boys". He has said, of some politicians that "it's just the best job they are capable of getting ... Otherwise they would be working in the food industry ... or cleaning." He spluttered a lot more at that. "I said 'some', by the way." He will need to watch out for those traps called ellipses. He knows this and that he will have to stop talking in proper sentences, with sub-clauses. But will he be able to? We both had our doubts. I asked if he was arrogant and of course he said he didn't think so, but that some people "on the internet have decided I'm an egotist". He thinks this might be because his correct title is Dr Whyte and he's trying to stop people using it. "I think it sounds silly and, so what? It's just a university degree."

He has a doctorate in philosophy and lectured at Cambridge University before becoming a management consultant, and a sometime newspaper columnist. It seemed an odd career change, from philosopher to management consultant at Oliver Wyman, which deals in banking and insurance. "You've got to understand the kind of philosophy I do ... It's almost quasi-mathematical, it's very rigorous so I thought, 'maybe management consultant'." Still, it seems an odder choice for such a company to take him on. "They hired me because they thought I was clever." He persuaded them, then, that he was clever. So he must be clever. "I have succeeded in things that take cleverness."

He sounds posh, although he isn't particularly, and English although he certainly isn't. We don't like posh and English; we like people who speak like the PM, don't we? "I'm not going to change the way I speak. It's not about how I speak." And, he said, "Chris Trotter likes it!" The very lefty Trotter wrote a rather complimentary column about him. This may not have been entirely helpful. "Chris Trotter is my target market!"

A mocking, clever politician? He's not sure he can stop telling jokes. "I've failed to stop already a couple of times. I know people are very cautious ... " He thinks people can cope with jokes and brains. He has been having a small amount of media training but as far as I can tell this amounts to advising him not to answer questions about taking Ecstasy. He wrote, in a column for the Times: "Those who have never taken Ecstasy might not know how wonderful it feels." So of course I said: 'So, how wonderful is Ecstasy?" "Ha, ha. I've been told it's really great, hence the name." Does he think people would hold it against him if he said he'd taken Ecstasy? "Well, I mean, I do drink and I'm drinking with you. I hope people won't hold that against me." We had a glass each, if that is drinking.

He wrote a book called Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking. He gave up being a professional philosopher (although he has never actually given up being a philosopher) for a couple of reasons. One was that he went to a conference where a talk was given by the author of a book called Against Animals and whose argument was that "animals can't be in pain because they can't form a concept of pain because they don't have language ... I'm sitting there thinking: 'I'm a grown man and I'm sitting around listening to this wank. Is this a worthy way of going about your life?' And it was starting to get on my nerves, I can tell you." Afterwards he went out with his philosopher mates and decided they were "slightly dorky", so he got on the first train out of there and went to visit a non-philosopher mate, and that was about it with him and academia.

The other reason was money. He was earning about 17,000 ($33,700) a year, and was married to a PhD student, with "no earning prospects" and he decided that if he was going to have kids, 17,000 a year would just about cover one kid at one private school for a year. Why could this yet-to-be-conceived child not go to a public school? "Have you seen the state schools in London?"

Anyway that marriage, a "tumultuous" one, didn't last and the divorce is the reason, he said, that he hasn't "got much money now. I felt really bad about it and perhaps was over-generous". There were two fiancees before that. He was lukewarm about talking about this tumultuous past of his. "It's complicated. I don't really want to discuss it." I did. "I'm sure you do but it's got nothing to do with the correct policy agenda for New Zealand." But he is not very good at sustaining pomposity and said, in the end about his four engagements: "I'm running at a 50 per cent success rate."

He says he was a bit priggish as a boy about things like smoking and drinking and didn't have a drink until he was 23. Now of course he thinks people can do what they like as long as other people don't have to pay for the consequences.

He married again and he and his wife Zainab have two daughters, the 6-year-old is at a state primary school; the 10-year-old is at St Cuths - his mother went there, he said, to my raised eyebrows. His wife was born in what was then Zaire and raised in Belgium. Her family like him but her father "disapproves of me because he's Muslim and I'm an atheist and he doesn't particularly care for atheists". It's not because he's white.

"No, no. He'd prefer me to be black but it's being an atheist that's really hard to take. He'd rather I was even a Jew. Even a Jew! Actually the truth is I am Jewish, maybe." He thinks his mother's mother was Jewish, the "maybe" is because he's "having trouble with the family tree".

He is not a Libertarian and he gets irritated that people think he is one. "It's a stupid term." He is "a so-called realist". I have no idea what a so-called realist is. "I believe in reality, right? I think that's hardly a radical position. Unfortunately it has become a bit unusual."

He is not right wing. "I don't think an economic liberal is right wing." That, I thought, was a bit of a problem because he is the leader of a party assumed to be right wing. "I don't normally argue, but we're having a chat [so] I've got time to make the point. Normally I'd just let it go."

Would he really? I think that about as likely as him giving up telling his jokes.

He told two, one too long and a bit rude to include and this one, which is also a true story: A philosopher goes to a deli and asks what kinds of doughnuts are on offer. The waitress says they have plain and sugar and chocolate - at least she thinks they have chocolate, she's not sure. The philosopher says: "Well, can you check? If you haven't got chocolate, I'll have plain but if you have got chocolate, I'll have sugar."

This is hilarious because it's a philosophy joke about a "fallacy in decision theory", okay? He laughed all day the first time he heard it. I wish him luck with his political career because he's certainly interesting, but he's really got to work on those jokes.

- NZ Herald

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