Is Aaron Gilmore the Reese Witherspoon of New Zealand's Parliament?
Let's get the obvious out of the way. Alcohol makes people do dumb things. Even the most sane and sensible of us have been known to, under its influence, don a parrot puppet and flail around the dance floor at the front of an Abel [embarrassed edit: Able] Tasman's gig.
(And no - that wasn't a story about me. My story involves a trip to A&E to have a large gash in my hand sewn up and half a sewing needle removed from my palm whilst under a general anesthetic. And if that makes me a hypocrite for writing this post, then so be it.)
So it's not that earth shattering a revelation that the recent re-MP Aaron Gilmore apparently turned into a bit of a dick after over-imbibing at a dinner in Hamner Springs. Sure, bawling out a poor waiter just for abiding by the Sale of Liquor Act and being a responsible host is pretty far up there on the list of dickish things to do. However, like I say, alcohol makes people act in a dumb way.
You know what is really, really dumb, though? Failing to tell the Prime Minister the full story about what happened and instead try to spread the blame for your dickish actions onto the others you were dining with. Only to have one of those fellow diners come out and tell the world that you not only flashed your newly-minted parliamentary business card at the waiter, but threatened to have the PM's office get involved and sack the waiter from his job.
Because consider John Key's statement about Mr Gilmore's actions earlier today:
''I think it's a bit disappointing. He [Gilmore] was clearly involved in a group that was involved in some slightly unruly behaviour. ... My office spoke to him. I haven't had a chance personally to speak to him. The bottom line is we have a level of expectation how our MPs should behave. I think he will take a moment to reflect on recent events and whether he met the standards of an MP. In hindsight, he acknowledged he was part of a group that did not meet that standard and has apologised."
That pretty much reflects Mr Gilmore's own statement on the matter:
"As a group of diners our behaviour was at times boisterous, and I sincerely apologise for any offence this may have caused to staff and/or patrons. I intend to convey my apologies on behalf of the group to hotel staff, and understand that members of Parliament should uphold, and be seen to uphold, the highest of standards at all times. On this occasion I believe as a group our behaviour fell short of this mark, and I should have recognised this at the time."
Then compare Mr Gilmore's account with that of Andrew Riches, the Christchurch lawyer who was part of the "boisterous" group that allegedly shared joint responsibility for any inappropriate actions on the night in question.
While the group was enjoying itself, I certainly would not consider the other members to be acting in a boisterous manner nor in any other way that would bring them into disrepute.
I felt compelled to leave a private note of apology directly in relation to one incident at the conclusion of the night where Mr Gilmore attempted to use his status as a Member of Parliament to his own advantage once he had been denied further alcohol service. He threatened to have the Prime Minister’s Office intervene and end the waiter’s employment. His business card was presented to verify his identity. This was extremely embarrassing.
By the time this incident occurred the remainder of our party had left the restaurant and were not connected to these events in anyway, I consider attributing blame to any other person to be completely unjustified.
Now, this presents us with something of a "he-said/he-said" situation. And while it may be that neither account is 100% accurate - the Rashomon effect could be in full flight here, helped along by wine's distorting lens - they diverge so radically that they can't both be variations of some deeper, "true" state of affairs. So we need to ask, whose version of the night's events do we find the more credible?
Well, one way to do so would be to look at what each of the participants in the story have to gain or lose. There seems no immediately obvious reason why Mr Riches would want to invent such a tale - as the President of Canterbury Young Professionals, you wouldn't think him a natural enemy of Mr Gilmore. To say nothing of the fact that he was a close enough acquaintance for Mr Gilmore to blow off the formal dinner for the National Party's regional conference and eat with him instead. And if Mr Riches did invent the tale, he went to quite some lengths to embellish it, including leaving a note to apologise for Mr Gilmore's alleged behaviour.
On the other hand, Mr Gilmore's just got back into Parliament on the back of Lockwood Smith leaving for London and Paul Quinn deciding he has nothing more to offer the people of New Zealand. Does his newly regained place in the House give him any particular reason to recast events in ways that downplay any embarrasing behaviour he may have engaged in? The reader may judge.
Also relevant to this the issue of credibility is Mr Gilmore's maths. In this story, he is said to claim "the group of five shared four bottles of wine over several hours, and he had had one beer before dinner." But he also is quoted as saying; "I can't be 100% sure of everything I say after having a bottle and a half of wine". So, apparently the other four members of his group got "boisterous" on the remaining two-and-a-half bottles of wine ... to the extent (claims Mr Gilmore) that "two members of the dining party became 'grossly intoxicated', with one needing to be escorted away."
Now, sure, in the depths of a good dinner, things can get a little ... hazy. So there's a chance that the four bottles were actually a few more, just as there's the possibility that a bottle and a half was a bit of an under-estimation of Mr Gilmore's consumption. We've all been there.
But when your basic defence is "I do not believe I said what Mr Riches said I said", it doesn't help that you also say "I can't be 100% sure of everything I say after having a bottle and a half of wine". Because that makes it look like you accept you may very well have said what is alleged, but that you really, really hope you didn't. Or, at least, you really, really hope that no-one else comes along to corroborate that you said what you believe you didn't say (even if you can't be 100% sure about what you did or didn't say). Which is not exactly a compelling rebuttal of the charges.
So, what will come of all this? Probably nothing.
John Key has indicated that, absent any formal complaint from the wait staff involved, he's not going to look into the matter any further. Fair enough. It's for the PM to decide what ethical standards he expects of his National Party MPs. And as Mr Gilmore is one of his team, as team leader he probably feels he's got to back his members when they tell him something happened (or didn't happen). Plus it would look a bit careless if just after welcoming Mr Gilmore back into the caucus, he had to stand him down (or worse).
But still. It's not exactly the sort of re-introduction to the national political scene that Mr Gilmore would have wanted. I mean, didn't you know who he is? Well, I bet you do now.