Allegations of misdemeanour and bullying destroy Parliamentary culture

Sam Uffindell and Christopher Luxon (RNZ Illustration by Nik Dirga)

Radio New Zealand
Wellington, August 13, 2022

“It has been immensely frustrating as a distraction, but it’s important that it’s fronted and it’s important that we confront it,” – National Party leader Christopher Luxon

National’s brand-new Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell has his political career hanging in the balance – but the rapid fall from grace has led to further accusations of bullying across the aisle.

Sworn in at Parliament just the previous week, Uffindell’s chances of remaining in the longer term are growing slim.

On Monday (August 8, 2022), Stuff revealed his fifth-form expulsion from King’s College in Auckland for viciously beating a younger student late at night. Uffindell admitted the incident, describing it as the “stupidest thing he’d ever done” and while “by far the worst” incident he had been involved in, he had been a thug and a bully who had hurt other students too.

The Tauranga Electorate

He told reporters that he had matured in the years since and had worked hard to be a better person, and contacted the victim – in July last year, more than two decades later – to apologise.

Nine months after that apology, he was seeking a seat at Parliament, chosen from among four candidates to contest the electorate. He is adamant the two things are not related.

Considered a National Party stronghold, Uffindell comfortably won in Tauranga – securing more than 11,000 votes. Upwards of 20 National MPs visited the city during his campaign – among them, Mark Mitchell was keen to highlight Uffindell as proof the Party’s candidate selection processes had improved.

“I think that when you see the quality of Sam, it is a clear indication of the quality of candidates that we are going to have next year for the general election.”

Seven weeks later, those words haunt the Party – the focus shifting back once more to those selection processes and the leadership of Christopher Luxon. He had first learned of the incident just hours before the news broke, despite Uffindell declaring it to the party board and the selection panel – including campaign chair and senior National MP Todd McClay.

McClay on Tuesday was careful with his words.

“It is not my role as a campaign chair to talk directly to the leader,” he said.

Improving the selection process

Luxon later clarified that his staff had been told of the attack by McClay, but in error, the information was never passed on. Had it been so, he would have made it public, he said.

National’s new President Sylvia Wood, elected last weekend at the Party’s annual conference, suggested that the Party’s rules were to blame for the information not reaching the leader: candidate selection is kept confidential with participants signing an undertaking not to share details. She said that it was now clear that the process could be improved.

Then, bombshell number two: a woman who flatted with Uffindell at Otago University claiming, and backed up by her father, the MP had been an aggressive bully who once pounded on her bedroom door, screaming obscenities, until she fled through her window, quitting the house for good.

RNZ on Tuesday night sought a response to that interview, and it was swift: Uffindell denied the allegations but was suspended from National’s caucus during a two-week investigation by a senior lawyer of the “very concerning” claims.

Thursday brought yet more details of Uffindell’s student days – a health-hazard flat, with women’s underwear, proudly displayed – and Luxon was again forced to admit more needed to be done on candidate selections.

He did not try to hide his frustration: fresh questions over the Party’s culture were the last thing he would have wanted, spoiling the momentum of a successful annual conference and a poll suggesting National and ACT together could form a government.

New bombshell in Labour Camp

But as the horror week for National neared its end, a new bombshell was yet to come for his opponents: Labour backbencher Gaurav Sharma decrying rampant bullying – by his own Party, the Prime Minister’s office, and wider Parliament – in an article published on the NZ Herald.

The MP for Hamilton West described a systemic stonewalling and ghosting of MPs, coordinated with the whips’ – who are responsible for party discipline – gaslighting and victimising complainants.

It was now Labour Whip Duncan Webb, Parliamentary Service Chief Executive Rafael Gonzalez-Montero and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern having to front questions over a bullying culture.

Webb said that the Parliamentary Service had put a hiring pause on Sharma’s office earlier in the year, “providing the MP further assistance” before lifting it.

Ardern said that they disputed Sharma’s allegations, and at its core, the problem was over employment within Sharma’s office.

“As a result of that he has sought an alternative solution via different individuals – via the whips, via for instance a member in my office,” she said.

“Starting as a new MP can be challenging and one of the toughest parts is navigating the new environment but also the role you must play as an MP managing others.”

She said Sharma was a valued member of Labour’s caucus, and she would be raising his very public approach to dealing with the problem at a later date.

Sharma has not responded to requests for comment but asserts he is not a bully.

It’s been a hectic week, with hard outcomes for both major parties. The question is how each will deal with its members, and whether yet more skeletons remain hidden.

In today’s Focus on Politics podcast, Political Reporter Katie Scotcher examines one of the fastest political downfalls in New Zealand’s history.

The above story and illustration have been published under a Special Arrangement with www.rnz.co.nz

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