Aaron Gilmore lacking 'sprezzatura'

CHRIS TROTTER
Last updated 05:00 10/05/2013
Aaron Gilmore
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
BORROWED TIME?: National MP Aaron Gilmore speaking at a media conference at Parliament on Tuesday.

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OPINION: The behaviour of National list MP Aaron Gilmore raises some interesting questions about the qualities required of a successful backbencher.

Mr Gilmore himself has fulsomely apologised for the errant conduct which thrust him, battered and blinking back tears, into the news media's searing spotlight.

Has he done enough to rescue his political career? Probably not. The National Party's ranking committee is unlikely to give the accident-prone Mr Gilmore a third chance.

What should he have done differently? Is there a clear path for ambitious and capable backbench MPs to follow?

Sir Keith Holyoake's advice to his new entrants was succinct: "Learn to breathe through your nose." Which was the orotund National prime minister's way of saying: "Keep your mouth shut."

Strange advice, perhaps, for someone formally charged with representing the people of New Zealand.

Sound advice, however, for a backbench MP keen to negotiate his way through the caucus hierarchy that dominates the real-world functioning of Parliament.

Watching, listening, assessing and, when the time is right, forming durable political alliances, is the optimum path for new backbench MPs. And, while they're keeping their eyes open and their mouths shut, undertaking cheerfully and effectively whatever tasks the party whips assign them.

The spirit in which backbench MPs perform these often mind-numbingly boring parliamentary chores plays a crucial role in how well, or badly, the newcomers' colleagues rate them. Are they hard workers? Do they complain? Are they team players? Affirmative answers to these questions are the paving stones of the backbencher's path to success: to being trusted, promoted and, ultimately, given access to the levers of executive power.

But the successful backbencher needs something more than a reputation for being a "good soldier" in the party's army. Six centuries ago, an Italian Renaissance scholar and politician, Baldassare Castiglione, gave that "something more" a name. In his famous Book of the Courtier, Castiglione called that special quality that separates the Aaron Gilmores from the Simon Bridges; the Jacqui Deans from the Amy Adams sprezzatura.

Now, as is so often the case with such words, there is no adequate English translation. Professor emeritus of cultural history at Cambridge University Peter Burke, one of the world's leading specialists on the early-modern period of European history, describes this crucial political quality as "nonchalance" and "careful negligence".

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The successful 16th century courtier, writes Prof Burke in his 1996 book The Fortunes of the Courtier, "conceals art, and presents what is done and said as if it was done without effort and virtually without thought".

Or, as we might say: "Today's successful practitioner of the art of politics makes it look easy." Or, we could translate sprezzatura as "being very, very cool".

Cool politicians earn that description by doing everything in style, effortlessly, and without the slightest suggestion of boastfulness or trying too hard. They're as polite and charming to the hotel waiter as they are to prime ministers and presidents. They are never afraid to make a joke at their own expense and know, instinctively, when it's time to say and/or do nothing, and when it's time to take a stand.

I've known a great many politicians in my time, but only a handful had Castiglione's sprezzatura. On a good day, Richard Prebble could make politics look easy. So, too, could Rod Donald. And if the extraordinary esteem in which he continues to be held by his fellow citizens is any guide, Prime Minister John Key has it in spades. Indeed, a PR maven of my acquaintance reckons Mr Key has more "emotional intelligence" than any other politician he's ever met.

And who, among the more recent intakes of New Zealand parliamentarians is demonstrating the "effortless ease" with which the game of politics should be played by 21st century courtiers?

Were I looking at National, I'd say Sam Lotu-Iiga; at Labour, Phil Twyford.

How not to play the game?

Mr Gilmore, take a bow.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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