What Rough Beast? The Political Meaning of Aaron Gilmore’s Fall

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Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 5.52.41 PMTHE DESTRUCTION OF AARON GILMORE in 2013, like the destruction of Winston Peters in 2008, was a disturbing spectacle. Leaked information from political enemies was the fuel that fed both media conflagrations – piled-on in ever-increasing quantities the moment the fire looked like going out. In both cases there was much more going on behind the scenes than in front of the cameras. It must also be acknowledged that both victims made the persecutors’ job easier by their ill-judged responses.

Exactly why Mr Gilmore was singled-out for such a brutal public execution remains extremely murky. Some commentators have suggested that the arrogant and self-aggrandizing MP fell foul of the small but powerful National Party clique which had parachuted him into parliament.

Clustered around the ambitious Justice Minister, Judith Collins, this far-right group argues that the National Party has positioned itself too close to the centre of New Zealand politics, leaving it vulnerable to the electoral inconstancy of the swing voter. This is, of course, an obvious thrust at what they consider to be John Key’s centrist, “Labour-Lite”, pragmatism.

Though they would run a mile from the policies of Rob Muldoon, they share his strategic approach to New Zealand politics. Rather than pitch National’s message at the middle-class suburbs: the Listener strategy; the Collins faction prefers to court the angry white males of the upwardly-mobile working-class suburbs in the big cities: the Truth strategy. In place of Key’s cautious centrism, “Crusher’s Crowd” would reinstate a twenty-first century version of Muldoon’s right-wing populism.

In 2008, Mr Key calculated that the middle-class suburbs offered the best prospects of victory. That being the case, there could be no repetition of Don Brash’s fatal dalliance with the forces of the far-right.

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The relationship with extremist groups like the Exclusive Brethren had been vital to the task of re-gathering the scattered tribes of New Zealand conservatism under a single (National Party) banner. But Dr Brash’s strategy had a fatal weakness: the harder National tacked to the right, the more difficult it became to attract the soft, mostly female, swing voters who, as 2005 proved, constituted the crucial margin between victory and defeat.

In 2008 Mr Key locked those voters in by very publicly cutting the far-right adrift. His bi-partisanship over the anti-smacking legislation may have outraged groups like Family First, but Mr Key didn’t care. As the Maxim Institute put it to their aggrieved conservative brethren: “Who else are you going to vote for?”

The only possible answer to that question in 2008 was “Winston Peters”. But, when it came to thinking about NZ First, National was way ahead of them. The traps had already been set; the leaks already organised; and the traitors already bought. Mr Peters’ enemies knew him too well. Like Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, the NZ First leader was easily provoked and his reactions were much too predictable. Sonny’s enemies got him at the toll-booth, Winston was ambushed at a press conference.

Mr Key’s public declaration that the National Party would not enter into any kind of coalition deal with Mr Peters administered the final coup de grace to NZ First’s hopes. On election day 2008, Labour’s winning margin: the teachers, nurses, office workers and shop-assistants who had made Helen Clark prime-minister; trooped into the polling-booths to unmake her. And the far-right, muttering obscenities, dutifully shuffled-in behind them.

Those in the National Party who understood what had happened in 2008 were, from the very beginning of Key’s ministry, deeply apprehensive. Teachers, nurses, office workers and shop assistants could never form the foundation of an enduring conservative government. As public servants, the first two groups were already in National’s sights; and the loyalty of the latter two would wax and wane with the nation’s economic fortunes. While the Prime Minister’s charisma burned brightly, they might be persuaded to remain loyal, but if it dimmed, or if the Opposition parties ever got their act together, the office workers and the shoppies would be gone – and so would National.

With Ms Clark’s departure the Labour Party also had some strategic thinking to do. Labour’s most obvious strategy, following the defection of their female swing vote in 2008, was to re-orient itself in the direction of the demographic which had been steadily deserting the party since the watershed election of 1975 – the white working-class male.

For a few months, Labour’s new leader, Phil Goff, attempted just such a re-orientation. Arriving at his first annual conference as leader astride a throbbing Harley-Davidson, Goff did his best to present a macho image to his electoral base. Unfortunately for Mr Goff, macho is as macho does. For his new “Good Ole Boy” orientation to be bedded-in and believed he needed to persuade Labour’s very-far-from-macho caucus to embrace their inner redneck and start marching to a down-home alt.country beat. This he could not do. This failure to achieve a radical revision of Labour’s socio-political pitch vitiated Mr Goff’s leadership.

But if Labour didn’t want to reconstruct its electoral base on the strength of redneck pride, there were a hard core of National’s hard-right who recognised its value as an important adjunct to National’s traditional middle-class conservatism. If the deformed masculinity of the rugger-bugger and the petrol-head found no welcome in the Labour Party – why not invite them to join the Nats?

The right has always had a place for the tough-minded (but anti-intellectual) man of action. The sort of bloke who, a century ago, you might have found swaggering down the main street of Waihi in search of a Red Fed head to bash-in. The kind of man who signed-on to the new scab unions during the 1951 Waterfront Lockout. The type of thick-necked, beer-gutted, pig-hunting Kiwi sportsman that female anti-tour protesters learned to identify at a hundred paces, and crossed the street to avoid, in 1981. “Rob’s Mob” had thousands of them; “Crusher’s Crowd” could have thousands more.

This sort of New Zealander has never had much time for democratic debate. A debate suggests at least two sides to an issue – and such people are reluctant to acknowledge any political argument but their own. It’s precisely this sense of utter certainty that makes them so dangerous.

The political party that enlists such men has already abandoned the niceties of democracy. It’s the force a party recruits when it’s planning to use the electorate’s votes as a weapon. Amplifiers of hate and prejudice, they’re the sort of people their party parades as proof that “the ordinary person in the street” is right behind its plans to discipline and punish. And, if that party’s opponents start making too much sense, these are the ones who will shout them down.

Whatever Aaron Gilmore did to offend these hard-nosed apparatchiks of the hard right, their retribution has been swift and certain. Even more disturbing, however, is the willingness of the mainstream news media to do their demolition work for them. Journalists have always been drawn from the ranks of the middle-class; what’s new and different about today’s scribes is their partiality to a “bit of rough”.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Canny analysis, thanks.

    I’m not sure that you’re right about where Key’s appeal to the electorate lies. Key’s always had a problem establishing trust with women voters around 30-55 y.o. – a key demographic sector. His support from men is much more secure, and he’s been able to reach out to them through the talkback radio work.

    And about Rob Muldoon’s strategic approach to New Zealand politics and a resurgence of that approach – Muldoon blurred the boundaries between his own political interests and those of the nation. He had no problem at all with recruiting the inteligence community to serve those interests.

  2. But was it just the ‘hard right’ Collins faction that did him in?

    Sitting in the House during the Gilmore speech, Joyce had a big grin on his face. And remember Joyce was the responsible Minister that signed off the release of those emails within 3 days of the OIA request being made.

  3. Leaked information from political enemies was the fuel that fed both media conflagrations.

    I was amazed at the speed that the OIA requests for dirt on Gilmore’s past were forthcoming. Usually, any request is sat upon for the maximum allowed period before information is released.

    The whole spectacle was distasteful.

  4. Muldoon was “right wing”? I saw him as more populist/quasi-left (in some matters). His anti-union approach was more because he couldn’t stand competition for political power, rather than any ideological stance…

    The “Think Big” projects; price/wage freeze; stroing protectionism and subsidies – all appeared more “leftist” than right wing.

    I recall one trip to Eastern Europe to visit my parent’s homeland and after a period of time there, I came to the sudden realisation that NZ was more socialist than the then-Soviet bloc…

    Someone else made the point that Joyce and Collins are the true leaders of National, with Key serving as a “brand” figure.

    If so, in an open election, how electable is Collins? Her appearances and utterings in the media makes Ruth Richardson look likeable and warm by comparison.

    Collins’ arrogance is a seething, roiling brew she can barely keep concealed beneath a veneer of civility…

    I think she’d be so unelectable as to make the Nats yearn for Don Brash to return… (The Far Far Right would love her to bits, though, I suspect.)

    • I recall one trip to Eastern Europe to visit my parent’s homeland and after a period of time there, I came to the sudden realisation that NZ was more socialist than the then-Soviet bloc…

      Spot-on. The conclusion of my parents who visited my father’s homeland around that time in Eastern Europe. There was riddled with corruption.

      My parents both voted for Muldoon because of his economic policies, particularly his support of the welfare state. Even today my father is full of praise for Muldoon which I find rather peculiar for someone so critical and subversive, someone who claims he’s a “true communist” (whatever that is) which is why he fled his homeland during the Stalinist era because of his opposition. My parents both vote NZ First because Peters’ economic position harks back to Muldoon. Even though they’re elderly they’re largely progressively minded, which may contrast with the stereotype many people believe of the elderly. They were against the 1981 Springbok Tour and oppose Peter’s right-wing elements. Not all supporters of Muldoon were rabid right-wingers it was more complex.

      Muldoon was a complex figure consider his work schemes for gangs and association with Black Power. How many of the current lot would have respects paid by gang members at their funerals?

  5. Maybe Aaron Gilmore was too close to the truth when he said he could get John Key to sack the waiter – a bit like the lawer in the Expressionist vampire film Nosferatu who makes the travel arrangements for Dracula and then ends up in an asylum eating flies and saying the great one has arrived.

    PS I’ve been quoting Yeat’s Second Coming a few times of late in regards to this Government. Quite simply, it is opening a door to Fascism. The question is, who is going to walk through it, or have they walked through it already.

    I assume the drawing is of Yeats. It would be great to have a credit for artworks used.

  6. Where does Simon Lusk fit into all of this? He obviously enjoys killing critters – I’ve seen the pictures – and it seems he enjoys killing off political careers. So who called him in to polish off Aaron Gilmmore? Is he in the Collins camp or the Joyce camp, or is he just a hired gun that works for either or both as he sees fit?

  7. My own view is that Gilmore, proved simply not to have the minimal level of competence to be a professional politician and therefore wasn’t useful to either the hard right or the softer conservative Nat faction. He had no intellect, style, was devoid of cool or ability to handle, deflect or shut down an interviewer. He wasn’t funny. There was nothing funny about Gilmore intentionally or deliberately. Any good politician, writer or artist, knows the best effects and hits are often accidental- but it requires a certain genius, music or cohesion to achieve. To coin a good pun. Gilmore was devoid.
    Also it appears Gilmore wasn’t clubable or the sort of man the few drinkers in the Nat cacus wanted to drink or dine with. In the Lab party the test of the fems was ‘would you want to set next to him in a 737, 747.
    The interesting thing about the Gilmore affair is that it raises the question- is any politician that would be selected by a South Island seat, anybody who could be a serious cabinet minister. Dalziel, Gilmore and David Round all appear to have been unacceptable to Auckland and Wellington. That is the interesting thing. What sells in the South is no longer acceptable cool or even bearable.

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