Gordon Campbell on the debt of gratitude that National owes to Aaron Gilmore

Comes the time, comes the man. Aaron Gilmore has become the poster child for everything that is loathsome about politicians and the political process. However, it might be time for a sense of proportion to creep into the Gilmore saga. It would be nice to think Gilmore had established a new benchmark. I’d certainly be in favour of everyone in Parliament losing their job if and when they display an obnoxious sense of entitlement as they threaten the livelihoods of workers and beneficiaries. But that isn’t going to happen. On the contrary, some of Gilmore’s colleagues (e.g. Simon Bridges) are being praised for their apparent disregard for the needs of those on the minimum wage, and for the public’s civil rights to protest about risks to the environment. Gilmore, it should be remembered, was already the lowliest of National’s backbenchers He had little or no power to inflict damage on the public, beyond being lobby fodder for the government.

In fact, you could argue that Gilmore has already done sterling service to his party and its leader John Key over the past fortnight – far more than he could ever have accomplished as a backbench MP. Almost singlehandedly, his antics have distracted the media and the public from this week’s Mighty River Power debacle. His gifts as a flak catcher didn’t stop there. The Gilmore saga also usefully diverted attention from the brain spasm that induced John Key to publicly describe Wellington as a dying city beyond the government’s powers to resuscitate – a comment that sounded much like the same smart aleck arrogance and irresponsibility that Gilmore displayed at Hanmer Springs.

In fact, Gilmore has usefully enabled Key to look like a pillar of rectitude – a man who is trying his darndest to rid National of its wayward back bencher but gosh, is being prevented by the vagaries of MMP from doing so. Key has depicted himself as a virtual prisoner prevented by Parliamentary red tape from doing what he, and the public, would like to do to Gilmore. For similar reasons, the entire National parliamentary caucus should be passing a vote of thanks to their errant colleague – if only because on a compared-to-Gilmore basis almost all of them can look a lot better, and can go to local electorate meetings with a sigh and a “What can we do?” bearing of long suffering. When National MPs are carrying such a burden, for any aggrieved party member to raise the MRP fiasco would seem like very bad form.

Oh, but in the meantime of course, John Key will be happy to accept Gilmore’s vote to further his own legislative agenda – and if not him, his eventual replacement, whatever. That’s the element of pantomine in this whole business. Gilmore knows he can’t be sacked – and he isn’t about to altruistically walk away from a backbencher income worth at least $150,000 in base salary and perks. Key knows he can’t sack Gilmore. The crunch question for Key would be – will you decline to accept a vote cast by Gilmore on any of your upcoming legislation, given that reliance on such a tarnished MP will taint any laws passed with his help, and thereby lower the status of Parliament in the eyes of the public? I think we know the answer to that one.

That’s the point. The Gilmore saga – in all its shock horror, revelation aspects – is mainly about the striking of poses. It is a matter of impression management, and little more. Probably, it rather suits National to keep him around as a distraction, as a useful contrast and for his ongoing support on cliffhanger votes, and – no doubt – it suits him to keep his salary. A win/win for those concerned.

MRP fallout
Incredible to watch the attempt to shift the political blame for the Mighty River Power fiasco from those responsible – i.e., the government that could never offer a credible economic rationale for the float – onto those watching from the sidelines. Labour and the Greens it seems, had the temerity to offer not only criticism, but a real political alternative that addresses the needs of the 97% of New Zealanders unable or unwilling to take part in sharemarket speculation over an asset they own. Shame on them.

To listen to the critics of NZ Power, the Opposition was obliged to suspend democratic debate entirely, lest any alternative proposal or critical debate should prevent this turkey from hobbling over the finish line. Well, lest the contrary arguments vanish entirely down the memory hole: there is no sane economic rationale for the asset sales programme. The fate of the Tiwai Point smelter is still hanging over this float, with many possible consequences for pricing and profit taking. (In the past week, multimillion dollar backdated employment costs have also just been added to the smelter’s liabilities.) There are residual obligations on water rights. There are three other energy companies being lined up in this process, in a market already containing such options in Contact Energy etc etc.

Even with all those liabilities, the wonder is that a $2.50 share price was still achieved. Yet the political fallout from this wildly unpopular gambit is being heaped on the parties that consistently opposed the plan. Only in New Zealand could such gullibility pass itself off as the hard nosed wisdom of the market.