Turbulent times for National and Labour

A great week for Christopher Luxon until the Sam Uffindell affair (Photo Supplied)

Jane Patterson
Wellington, August 13, 2022

What a difference less than a week can make!

The National Party lurched from a successful annual conference and positive polling to a damaging controversy over a rookie MP that has dragged in some of its most senior people.

Sam Uffindell’s self-confessed attack on a younger student at a prestigious Auckland boarding school, followed by serious allegations of bullying and abusive behaviour, represents everything National has been trying to prove that it is not so, after a series of MPs behaving badly sparked scandal after scandal during the last term.

Labour MP’s attacks

It is all the more galling for Leader Christopher Luxon that it is self-inflicted, once again plunging the Party into a debate about its culture, its leadership and the way it chooses its MPs.

However, both major parties end the week with their houses in disorder.

Staying well out of the Uffindell controversy, Labour found itself dealing with a bombshell dropped out of the blue by a rogue backbench MP as the sitting block drew to a close. Little-known MP for Hamilton West Gaurav Sharma unleashed an extraordinary attack on Party whips, the Parliamentary Service and the Prime Minister’s office, accusing them of working together to bully, gaslight and control MPs who raised any concerns.

Carefully worded statements were released by the Labour Whips and Parliamentary Service about working “over the past year to address employment matters with Dr Sharma.”

The picture emerging is of an MP who was having high staff turnover and was unhappy with the way complaints from his office were dealt with by Parliamentary Service. Hiring at his office had been paused, the Whip’s Office says, for “providing further assistance” first.

His op-ed in the New Zealand Herald has blown the whole thing open and Labour will have to move today to address the extreme allegations levelled against several parties, but also manage the MP who appears to have gone to the ground; provide pastoral care but also open communications to avoid further political damage.

National and the new MP for Tauranga

It was Luxon’s first conference as Leader at the weekend, a slick operation with new branding presenting him well, allowing for some robust policy debate and seeming to leave party delegates pretty happy National was back on track and shaping up as a contender for next year. The election of new President Sylvia Wood marked a leadership refresh after years under Peter Goodfellow.

The following night a 1 News Kantar Public Poll delivered more good news for the right: under the latest results National and ACT would have enough support to govern alone, despite National and Luxon both losing support, so too did Labour and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

But then a bombshell for National centred around its newest MP Sam Uffindell, less than a week after he had been sworn in. A Stuff story about him being thrown out of King’s College after beating up a younger student in a boarding school raid more than 20 years ago. He had disclosed the incident to the party’s selection panel – but that information had not made it to the delegates who would elect him as a candidate, Luxon as party leader, or the voting public.

Contrition unhelpful

There were apologies and declarations of contrition and redemption. None of it cast Uffindell in a great light, but after assurances, that he was a completely reformed individual, he retained the backing of his leader. That support was stretched to the limit the following day with claims from a former flatmate and her father painting Uffindell as aggressive, abusive and “out of control” at university – accusations the MP rejects. National acted quickly, suspending him from caucus and bringing in QC Maria Dew to carry out a hasty investigation.

As well as the character of the man National chose to represent it in Tauranga, this has reignited debate about candidate selection and whether National’s rules – despite a major review – are fit for purpose; furthermore, whether it has truly cleaned house and has its culture right. Luxon also questioned the Party’s selection rules which mean disclosures from candidates that could be political dynamite are not widely shared, even with the parliamentary leadership.

In fact – Uffindell’s disclosure was passed on to a staff member in the leader’s office but it was not communicated to Luxon, an embarrassing admission reflecting on the competence, or judgement, of the leadership team at a time when credibility and trust are so vital to National’s fortunes.

Uffindell’s political future is on a knife edge. There will be no more tolerance: if anything, else that can be corroborated comes out, he would be cut loose. The QC investigation will take two to three weeks and Luxon will hope it is clear-cut either way – that will make his decision more straightforward.

The whole thing has been “frustrating,” says Luxon, as National should have been enjoying a positive week and piling the pressure on the government, instead of talking about itself.

His judgement will be tested in the coming weeks as he deals with not only the Dew report but also anything else that might come up. Unless Uffindell is exonerated by Dew, none of the options for National is pretty.

They could expel him from the Caucus – à la Jami-Lee Ross – leaving him to sit as an independent at the back of the Chamber until the general election.

National could invoke the Party-hopping law and have him ejected from Parliament altogether, but they did not want to use it for Ross, so it is doubtful if they would trigger it for Uffindell.

Breather for Parliamentarians

If he left of his own volition or was forced out, there would be another by-election in Tauranga with the shadow of the Uffindell scandal hanging over it.

Both National and Labour will have a breather with Parliament in recess next week, but the questions about these MPs, their future, and how party leaders manage any further fallout will keep on coming.

Jane Patterson is Political Editor at Radio New Zealand. The above story and pictures have been published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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