Accusations haunt National and Labour in a week of troubles

Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell with National Party Leader Christopher Luxon (Newsroom Photo by Sam Sachdeva)

Peter Wilson
Wellington, September 24, 2022

Sam Uffindell is back in the National’s fold but Christopher Luxon’s refusal to release the report on his behaviour creates uncertainty over its findings, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is embroiled in a conflict of interest investigation and there is a warning MPs could be at risk in next year’s election campaign.

The week began with National’s Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell being reinstated as a caucus member after an investigation into allegations about his behaviour when he was a student at the University of Otago. He was stood down early last month after a woman told RNZ that while she was one of his flatmates he hammered on her bedroom door screaming obscenities and told her “hit the road, fatty.”

Investigation Report

National Leader Christopher Luxon engaged Maria Dew KC to investigate and received her report last Thursday (September 15, 2022).

On Monday (September 19, 2022), Luxon said it concluded that Uffindell “did not engage” in the behaviour of which he was accused. On that basis, the National caucus met and Uffindell had been fully reinstated.

National MPs did not see the report and Luxon didn’t release it, not even an executive summary. He said key parts were “faithfully communicated.”

“Voters are being asked to take a leap of faith,” said RNZ’s Political Editor Jane Patterson in an article headlined ‘National MP Sam Uffindell reinstated to caucus on the back of a secret King’s Counsel report.’

Patterson’s report quoted Uffindell as saying after his reinstatement that “things were said that I now realise my flatmate overheard” and he regretted that.

The Herald’s Political Editor Claire Trevett said that the investigation reportedly found there were differing accounts of what happened that night in the flat.

“The difference in the accounts appears to be that he was not smashing on her door when he said those things,” Trevett said.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta (RNZ File Photo by Angus Dreaver)

Negative news cycle

Without knowing what is in the report, that is the conclusion that has to be drawn and it seems to be the factor that allowed Luxon to say that Uffindell “did not engage” in the behaviour he was accused of.

Newsroom Political Editor Jo Moir said it seemed Luxon preferred to deal with a negative news cycle rather than throw sunlight on the report.

“It is almost impossible to form a view on whether National leader Christopher Luxon made the right call,” she said.

Moir came to the same conclusion as Trevett about what happened.

“Uffindell appears to be saying that allegations made by his former flatmate – that he yelled obscenities and insults at her while slamming on her door causing her to flee by jumping out her bedroom window – were actually comments he made to others that she overheard.”

The victim and her father said that they were happy for a redacted version to be made public. A redacted version could have hidden the identities of the 14 people who participated in the investigation.

It has been reported that very few people have seen the full report, and it could be that Luxon wants to limit the possibility of leaks to the media.

The secrecy aspect came back to bite Luxon in a cartoon published by Stuff showing him feeding the report into a shredder while telling Uffindell: “Public transparency rule number 1, Sam, never brush anything under the carpet.”

Uffindell previously admitted being a bully at boarding school but denied the flatmate’s accusations.

Luxon sees the issue as over with but it is very unlikely he has heard the last of it.

“The Uffindell palaver will fade into the background but the trouble with unanswered questions is that they hang over politicians at every twist and turn in their political careers,” Trevett said.

Uffindell will probably keep a low profile in Parliament and carefully stay out of trouble but, inevitably, the saga will be revisited when the time comes to select a candidate for Tauranga in next year’s election.

Trevett said questions around Uffindell would linger in voters’ minds.

Selectors’ dilemma

“They will linger too in the minds of the National Party faithful when Uffindell goes up for selection to stand again in the 2023 election – especially if some compelling challengers put their hands up for the job.

“The rush of a by-election can rule some people out – general elections are easier to plan for.”

The Herald said in an editorial if Uffindell presented himself for nomination next year he would present selectors with “quite a dilemma”.

“Neither he nor National has emerged from this well. It was another regrettable National candidate selection and it would be surprising if Uffindell runs again,” the paper said.

Government contracts probe

The government was involved in its own investigation controversy this week – State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes agreed to look into contracts given to Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s husband’s business by four government agencies.

Mahuta is married to Gannin Ormsby, who owns the consultancy company Ka Awatea Services.

National Public Services Spokesperson Simeon Brown twice wrote to Hughes asking for the company’s contracts with Kainga Ora, the Ministry for the Environment, the Department of Conservation and Te Puni Kokiri to be investigated.

The contracts have been the subject of media reports.

Mahuta herself wrote to Public Services Minister Chris Hipkins, saying that she would “support this matter being raised with the Public Services Commissioner,” RNZ reported.

The Minister has consistently said that she declared any conflicts of interest and had conducted herself consistently with the Cabinet Manual.

Hughes responded on Wednesday, saying in a letter to Brown he did not think that the matter reached the threshold for an inquiry under the Public Services Act but he agreed that how the four agencies managed conflict of interest issues needed to be looked into.

Hipkins asked for Hughes’ findings to be reported to him and publicly at the same time.

The Herald’s Audrey Young said there was no clear scandal “but a series of stories which left you wondering whether Crown agencies had shown favouritism.”

While Mahuta was not accused of impropriety, the issue was not going to go away and the mud was sticking.

“What is surprising is that Hughes did not act earlier of his own volition. He has a famously honed political antenna and must have realised that this was a case of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ that was damaging his own public service as well as the Minister,” she said.

Young said that important questions had been raised, especially since Mahuta was an Associate Minister for three of the agencies at the time the contracts were awarded – Environment, Kainga Ora and TPK.

Brown said that he was pleased Hughes was going to look into it.

“I did ask for an inquiry; this is more of an investigation. I think that an inquiry would have more powers attached to be able to actually get that information and be sure it was as full and as fulsome as possible… this is too little, too late from the government,” he said.

Hipkins said he had not seen any evidence at all that any Ministers had been involved in any of the decisions regarding Mahuta’s family.

Politicians under threat

Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson warned this week that next year’s election campaign would be riskier for politicians than in the past because of the threat level.

“I have been an MP for 14 years; I have been around this building for two decades. It is different now, the threats are greater, they are more often and more intense,” he said.

Robertson said that he experienced those threats in July (2022) during a visit to Whangarei where a disruptive crowd screamed that he was a “paedophile and other revolting things.”

He said he felt safe because he had police protection at the time but such security could not be provided to all MPs from all Parties.

Luxon said that he felt “pretty safe” as he went around the country.

“One of the great strengths of the New Zealand system, I think, is being highly accessible, people are pretty good to me, I think,” Stuff reported.

Mourning the Queen

In Parliament, a Bill was put through under urgency so that there could be a one-off public holiday on Monday to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

The debate was not all about misty-eyed reflections, RNZ reported.

Both the main parties supported the Bill but ACT and the Maori Party did not- for starkly different reasons.

Maori Party Co-Leader Rawiri Waititi said that he had honoured Tikanga by giving people time to grieve for the Queen, and now it was time to express grievances.

“We must acknowledge the brutal genocide and ongoing impact of colonialism, of the imperial project that was overseen by the House of Windsor and its forebears, here in Aotearoa and around the world. The Crown was built on stolen assets and exploitation of Tangata Whenua and indigenous peoples all over the world, this holiday is a torturous and an insulting reminder for us,” he said.

ACT’s worry

ACT leader David Seymour was worried about the economic cost, as he was about Matariki Day when that was announced. He said that his Deputy, Brooke van Velden had raised in her speech the impact on the health system.

“She pointed out that in one District of Wairarapa, 488 procedures were being postponed that day, one GP clinic has cancelled 122 appointments,” he said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was away all of this week, attending the Queen’s funeral in London and then flying to New York for the UN General Assembly’s big debate of the year.

In New York, she delivered a speech on behalf of Prince William to a star-studded event – the climate-focused Earthshot Prize Innovation summit.

It was founded by Prince William in 2020, designed to incentivise efforts to find solutions to repair and protect the planet.

Ardern was introduced by billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who described her as “a global leader on climate change.”

Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire. The above Report and pictures have been published under a special agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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