Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Why the Aaron Gilmore scandal is important

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National MP Aaron Gilmore. Photo / Getty Images
National MP Aaron Gilmore. Photo / Getty Images

Political scandals can bring out the worst in politicians, journalists, and even the public. When salacious details about the personal lives of politicians suddenly appear publicly, there can be a sense of sordidness and sensationalism about the debate.

There are many who regard the current Aaron Gilmore scandal with disdain, hoping that the public eye will move quickly onto more substantial political issues. There's certainly a very lighthearted and frivolous aspect to the story - which can best been seen in the collection of cartoons and photographs I've compiled about the scandal - see my blogpost: Images of Aaron Gilmore.

Various satirists are having a field day with the story - which is why blogger Scott Yorke (@ImperatorFish) recently tweeted, 'Dear Aaron Gilmore, Thank you. Yours sincerely, Satirists'. For the best satirical items on the Gilmore scandal - see Sebastian Boyle's Civilian blogpost, I'm not a fu*ktard.

I'm Batman, The Pigeon's Embattled MP facing 'severe punishment' after contradicting mother in public, Scott Yorke's More dirt from Aaron Gilmore's past emerges, Ben Uffindell's Aaron Gilmore threatens to use political position to end own career, and David Farrar's Gilmore to seek mandate in by-election.

The mainstream media, too, is relishing dealing with such a long running and colourful story. For example see Rebecca Wright's 5-minute The anatomy of an apology and her 4-minute video item from Gilmore's electorate (and empty electorate office) - watch: Is Aaron Gilmore coming or going?.

The latest chapter in the saga comes from the official release of a chain of emails written by Gilmore last November when he was working in a government department. This story is best covered by Andrea Vance in Aaron Gilmore in emails: This will come to haunt you. You can also read the full document of emails.

The charge that the scandal is being taken too seriously and is getting too much airing has been made repeatedly by Prime Minister John Key, who says it is distracting attention from the Government's positive stories - see Peter Wilson and Laura McQuillan's Kiwis aren't worried about Gilmore - Key. Andrea Vance has also reported that 'It is understood National want Gilmore to go before next week's Budget. There was anger yesterday that the scandal was a distraction from the Government's Mighty River Power share float' - see: Defiant MP refuses to resign.

Interestingly, many on the political left are making similar arguments regarding the intense focus being applied to the Gilmore scandal. Some arguments boil down to the idea that this is a 'National Party trick to distract the public from the GCSB or Mighty River Power'. Such ideas are put, for example by blogger Martyn Bradbury, who says, I still don't care about Aaron Gilmore. Danyl McLauchlan also believes the story is more of a 'media feeding frenzy' in which a 'total nobody is mildly offensive' - see: What this scandal needs is a good conspiracy theory. And Paul Buchanan says that 'There are very serious issues being discussed this week' and the Government is particularly vulnerable on them all, which is why 'National has to be delighted about the coverage of their drunken bully boy last on the list MP', and that the media and public should therefore forget about Gilmore and put our focus back 'onto the issues that actually matter' - see: Happy for Gilmore. But the best argument from the left is put by Gordon Campbell in his column, On the debt of gratitude that National owes to Aaron Gilmore.

Ostracised MP, Brendan Horan, is speaking out in sympathy for Gilmore, arguing he's done little that is wrong, and that he's having to endure 'trial by media' - see: Horan defends Gilmore: 'What did he do?'. Sympathy has also been expressed for Gilmore by PR expert, Mark Blackham, who sees hypocrisy on the part of those damning the politician, but also points the finger at Gilmore's party for not protecting him: 'Aaron Gilmore, MP, was abandoned by people he should have been able to count on; his Party. National should have counseled the relative newbie on the advantages of speedy public honesty. It should have helped him pick a factor from his behaviour that he could apologize for. Instead, it left the poor guy to be battered by the hypocrisy of the media and general public' - see: Drunk, or 'tired and emotional'. Blackham also says that public figures do make mistakes, and 'Life without this sort of expression would be damnably dull'.

But the Aaron Gilmore story does matter. And the scandal is actually one of substance, because it goes well beyond the narrow issue of how one MP behaved while out drinking. There are important political and constitutional questions now being debated as a result of Gilmore's actions.

For example, are some politicians just there for the money? After all, a backbench MP like Gilmore has a salary package of around $200,000 per annum. Is this a factor in him choosing to stay? It certainly is, according to blogging tax academic Deborah Russell, who explains Why Aaron Gilmore won't be quitting any time soon. She says 'I'm betting that he won't be going anytime soon. The reason is simple. He needs an income'.

Russell also picks up on another crucial issue in the Gilmore debate - whether party leaders should be able to remove their MPs from Parliament. Russell says that in any workplace 'we have legislation that protects employees. It's to ensure that employers don't have the capacity to exploit employees'. And so it should be for politicians. She is worth quoting at length on this: 'A Member of Parliament can't be tossed out of the house just because the leader of her or his party demands it. The objective is not so much to protect an MP's employment, as to ensure that each and every Member of Parliament can participate in deliberations in the House, work with constituents, offer advice and opinions without fear of being sanctioned, and vote freely. We need our Members of Parliament to have this freedom. And that means that from time to time, short of calling an election, a political party may find it very, very hard to get rid of an obnoxious MP. That's the cost of the laws protecting our MPs' tenure, and it's a small cost to pay. It has been borne by various parties in the past, and right now, that cost is being borne by the National Party'.

Others are less sure. This week's Listener editorial, Listing badly [paywalled] calls for an overhaul of the list MP system: 'Gilmore's greater sin is to bring the list MP system into more odium. It hasn't escaped voters' attention that it's almost always list MPs who end up in disgrace. There is an inarguable lack of rigour in most parties' list selection processes, and the public is chronically dissatisfied with the parties' lack of accountability and indistinct work programme. List MPs enter Parliament expressly at the pleasure of their party, but cannot be sacked unless they commit a criminal offence. But because the system allows party elites to wield patronage-power, there's no reform agenda in sight'.

Certainly Gilmore is bringing list MPs into disrepute, says another ex-list MP, Deborah Coddington, who is calling on him to resign: 'in particular he's bringing down the name of list MPs because it just shows up how difficult it is to get rid of them. They can hang around like a bad smell."' - see Jacob Brown's Gilmore damaging list MPs' rep.

New Zealanders already have low confidence in the institution of Parliament and the debate is moving on to the quality of our MPs. How well do the political parties function in staffing the Parliament with able candidates? Increasingly the parties - which have very few members these days - are struggling - see Tracy Watkins' National struggles to fill list despite pay.

The issue is also a very important one in terms of the ideological direction of the country and its most popular political party. The Gilmore issue raises questions about the political nature of the National Party - how does it orientate to the common person, or indeed the working person or waiter? Is it still the party of privilege and the establishment? An argument can be made that the Gilmore episode is an aberration for National, and that the modern party has indeed changed , which is why Gilmore suddenly seems out of place in the caucus. Other leftwing bloggers make the opposing argument - see Greg Presland's Aaron Gilmore - you are the weakest link ... Goodbye, and Sam Durbin's Born To Rule. Or is it more complicated than this? Giovanni Tiso (@gtiso) tried to sum up some of these issue in an insightful tweet: 'The moral of Gilmore's story: our politicians are allowed to abuse workers as a group, but not individually'. Leftwing academic and blogger Grant Duncan elaborates on this line of thinking in The Kindness-To-Waiters (KTW) Test. But leftwing activist Don Franks has a different take, encouraging Gilmore to keep fighting - see: Go Aaron Gilmore.

Chris Trotter writes today that 'The behaviour of National list MP Aaron Gilmore raises some interesting questions about the qualities required of a successful backbencher'. He outlines these qualities, but also suggests that they need a special quality ('sprezzatura') that Gilmore lacks, but Trotter has seen in politicians as diverse as John Key, Richard Prebble, Rod Donald, Phil Twyford, Sam Lotu-liga, and Simon Bridges - see: Aaron Gilmore lacking 'sprezzatura'.

So what will happen next? The commentariat is united in demanding or predicting that Gilmore resign from Parliament - see, for example, the strongly worded columns by John Armstrong - MP has no choice but to fall on his sword - and Vernon Small - Gilmore must be axed.

I argued on Radio NZ's Morning Report today that I thought the most likely scenario would be that the National Party would do a deal with Gilmore in which he is temporarily suspended from the National caucus for an indeterminate period of time, with the carrot being that he might be able to return if he shuts up, votes correctly in Parliament, and does nothing further to damage the party - see: Radio NZ's National in difficult position over Gilmore.

Ex-party president of National, Michelle Boag, has said she expects a deal to be made with the MP, but if such a deal was broken by Gilmore, he'd have to resign: 'I suspect that if they did he would do so, because I think he would understand that he doesn't really have the credibility, nor any equity, to fight a battle' - see: Gilmore may stay on.

Traders on iPredict provide some further indication through the stock, 'Aaron Gilmore to depart from National Party Caucus by 1 July 2013' - this currently indicates a 79% chance of departure.

So who will replace Gilmore if he ends up resigning? The details of the next person on the National list, Claudette Hauiti are given in The Standard blogpost, What if Gilmore quits?. Certainly we should be expecting more revelations to come out about Gilmore. Patrick Gower has been digging and prying - see: Aaron Gilmore: I won't resign. And Jock Anderson has further allegations in his NBR story, Photo claim 'frankly outrageous' - Gilmore (paywalled). These relate to allegations of an inappropriate photo being emailed by Gilmore, that he 'he tried to wriggle out of paying for a $1050 bid in a charity auction', and more examples of the MP's boasts. Expect more such dirt to fly. Hopefully such revelations will be more illuminating than salacious.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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