Jamie Whyte is the new leader of ACT, a party currently polling at 0.4%, this is promising compared to the 0.00% it polled quite recently. Its most recent leader is currently facing court charges. It’s also a party which in the last election, received just 1% of the vote nationally.
Jamie holds a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge and his résumé includes Management Consulting and writing for The Times and Wall Street Journal. I’ve seen Jamie on TV. His bald head suggests tones of a South London brawler. His British rounded vowels and academic background allude to an old-fashioned, professorial type of gent. However, none of those impressions come close to truth.
At the outset of our call, Jamie let’s me know that he’s lunching on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, and writing – something he does “most days”. I ask what his honest predictions are for this election year, he tells me they’ll hold Epsom and believes ACT can capture 3 – 4% of the vote in the short term and above 5% in 2017. This seems incredibly ambitious to me, all things considered. But Jamie is convinced 10% of New Zealanders are sympathetic to ACT’s viewpoint, what’s been missing is leadership that people can rally behind. Even if his numbers are off, it’s hard to argue with his explanation of what’s been lacking.
He believes the future of the party depends on two things – First, “Us” the members of ACT, which I took to mean, how he performs as leader and perhaps extending how David Seymour the ACT non-leader running for Epsom goes. The second thing is how his ‘political competitors’ perform. It was a choice of wording I had to giggle at, hammering home Jamie’s belief in the free market and borrowing language from his business consultation career. The way Jamie sees it, National has drifted too far to the centre over the years, with John Key playing the role of populist leader and as a result, ACT can swoop in and pick up those feeling forgotten on the right.
I quiz Jamie on where his belief in free market ideology does NOT extend to in society. “I’m not too keen on private armies” he replies. “Well, actually public armies are a threat too…” as Jamie drifts into a discussion on coups and overthrows. What about private prisons? “I’m not sure I’m personally in favour of private prisons.” His trepidation stems from prison systems not having a ‘consumer’ who can choose the best supplier and the industry’s ability to lobby Government. And education? Jamie begins unwinding a lengthy explanation of why the current state system is just bloody awful.
In the ACT leader’s future NZ, parents would be given a voucher by the Government worth $X,000 and the marketplace of schools competes to provide the best and varying options for parents – “liberalising the supply side [of education]” as Jamie put it.
“Think of it like this” Jamie, in his stern but ever-so-slightly posh British-tinged voice begins, “when you are poor or unemployed, the Government gives you money, not food… That’s because of the observation that private suppliers do a better job of catering to the needs of consumers than the state.” This doesn’t quite stack up for me, surely food being distributed by the Government would be a bad idea logistically, you have issues of food perishing, for example. Education administration is quite different. And besides, food suppliers have one driving force – the profit motive, whereas education is handled by the state because it’s the only party that has an agenda that isn’t the profit motive. “That’s exactly the problem!” Jamie stops me dead. “Once you remove the profit motive the system becomes captured by the suppliers, they don’t care any longer about what people really want and they are motivated by their own ideas about what people should have. That’s a terrible situation… They’re under no competitive pressure to produce a good product.”
Much has been said of Jamie’s prior personal writings about drugs, from what I can tell, he has advocated for decriminalisation across the board. I don’t bother asking about this. But what about incest – should the state intervene if adult siblings want to marry each other?
“Well personally, I don’t think they [the State] should. However, it’s a matter of almost no significance because it just doesn’t happen.” If nothing else, I’m impressed by the consistency in his belief in Classical Liberalism. I can’t think of any other NZ politicians I could get that answer from. Jamie quickly reminds me that these are his views, not ACT views and not policies he’ll be representing in his job as leader. And this is, what I see as the problem with Jamie Whyte.
I believe this is a man who will bore of the realities and confines of political life. It is easier to speak your mind freely and shirk the political doubletalk (essential language in Wellington) at the start of a political career. But eventually the weight of constant polls, the banality of Parliamentary protocol and established tradition takes a toll. This is a man used to thinking, discussing and writing about big ideas, hell – he wrote a thesis for his PhD about the nature of truth. He lunches on Ponsonby Road and writes “most days”. He has split his life across both hemispheres, been a hired writing gun by illustrious organisations, run an international business consultancy and been engaged four times. He doesn’t have any friends who are politicians and it’s no wonder.
Despite his occasional brashness on the phone, I had so much to like about Jamie. I think his political term will be littered with battles and bark. I think he will articulate a portion of New Zealand and the right-wing ideologies they believe in better than his recent predecessors. However, I don’t see the love of being a politician that, in my view, is essential for party leadership. And because of that, I don’t expect to see him remaining in that chair come 2017. Considering this is ACT’s fourth leader in as many years, that can’t be good for the party.
Cover photo credit: NZHerald