Two MPs bring their Parties, left and right, to the centre stage

Party leadership and culture issues with Sam Uffindell (Photo by Hagen Hopkins)

Peter Wilson
Wellington, August 18, 2022

It should have been a good week for National. A successful Party Conference at the weekend was followed by a poll showing Labour at its lowest ebb since 2017.

Then, on Monday (August 8, 2022), Stuff reported that the new MP for Tauranga Sam Uffindell had taken part in the beating of a 13-year-old at Kings College in 1999.

Uffindell was 16 at the time. The victim said unscrewed bed legs were used in the beating, Uffindell said he could not remember whether they were but admitted using his fists.

He was “asked to leave” Kings College, effectively expelled, and continued his studies at St Paul’s College in Hamilton.

Undisputed facts

The undisputed facts were all there. Uffindell, in his own words, described himself as a bully and a thug at school. He said that he had apologised to the victim in 2021, more than 20 years after the assault, denied it had anything to do with his political ambitions and said that he had learned from his mistakes during his teenage years and was now a changed man.

National Leader Christopher Luxon did not know about any of this until just before the story broke, nor did his Deputy Nicola Willis.

That was a story in itself. Uffindell had disclosed it to the Party’s selection panel and was chosen anyway. His Campaign Chair, Senior MP Todd McClay knew about it and told Luxon’s staff, but it was not passed on.

Tauranga voters did not know about it, and Luxon said they should have.

National’s leadership was now in sharp focus. Luxon and Willis acknowledged the seriousness of what Uffindell had done but supported him. Willis said he was not the same man he had been in his teens.

Sam Uffindell as a student in Dunedin (Otago Daily Times Photo by Gerard O’Brien)

The media focus

Luxon, according to the New Zealand Herald, had effectively “thrown him to the wolves” and told him to clear up his mess. He had to agree to every interview media outlets asked for, and he did. He was being given a second chance, and the media was not calling for his head.

The Herald said in an editorial what Uffindell had done was repugnant “but not unforgivable given his sincere apologised.”

Stuff’s Political Editor Luke Malpass said that while there was no ambiguity about the brutal and unacceptable nature of the boarding house assault there was a legitimate question about second chances.

“A lot of people, males especially, can be abominable in their teens before growing into responsible adults, who seek to atone for what they have done,” he said.

When Radio New Zealand (RNZ) spoke to people in Tauranga, most of them were prepared to forgive and forget. If it had ended there Uffindell would have survived a horrible few days and learned a lot about politics, and perhaps himself.

It did not, because RNZ broadcast an interview with a woman who was one of Uffindell’s flatmates in Dunedin in 2003, while he was a student at Otago University.

She spoke of heavy drinking and drug use, of the flat being trashed, and said Uffindell had hammered on her door screaming obscenities and telling her to get out.

Fearing for her safety she climbed out a window and ran away. Her father, who went to Dunedin the next day to help her move, told RNZ the flat had been wrecked.

Hamilton West MP Gaurav Sharma with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Twitter)

Serious concern

Uffindell, in response, admitted drinking and smoking cannabis while he was at university. He said there had been “a falling out” between flatmates. He denied the woman’s allegations.

Luxon said the allegations were “seriously concerning” and Uffindell was stood down from caucus. He appointed Maria Dew QC to investigate and determine the facts. That is expected to take about two weeks.

Calling an investigation gave Uffindell and Luxon the relief of not having to keep answering questions but did not stop the flow of awful publicity around the MP.

The Otago Daily Times published photos of the filthy Dunedin flat Uffindell and five other students occupied in 2004. On prominent display was a coat hook with women’s underwear hanging from it.

Health inspectors said it was a haven for vermin and disease. The flatmates were taking part in a competition for the city’s filthiest flat, the report said.

Willis asked to comment on the display of women’s underwear and replied “Yuck.”

Has Uffindell been fatally tainted by his past? The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan thought so. In an article headlined ‘Why Sam Uffindell is toast,’ he explained his reasons.

“Uffindell has broken laws that the Party wants to defend and strengthen, he has spurned the opportunities the party exhorts people to maximise and is a living refutation of the doctrine of personal responsibility the party purports to exist for,” Coughlan said.

“Worse still, Uffindell is the embodiment of the Labour-Green caricature of National as a Silver Spoon caucus of mendacious patricians whose idea of ‘consequences’ in public life depends on the accused’s culpability, rather than universal principles.”

Coughlan said that Uffindell’s only conceivable future in Parliament was either to never talk about law and order or to discuss and be honest about the way his experience had informed his attitude to justice.

“Neither of these paths appears open to him. A Tauranga MP can hardly keep silent on law and order, and National’s current policy platform gives little opportunity for Uffindell to expound on justice without looking like a hypocrite,” he said.

Labour’s Chief Whip Duncan Webb (Photo: VNP Photo by Phil Smith)

Choices for Luxon

Coughlan concluded that if the investigation substantiated the allegations, “Uffindell will be forced to go.

It would have to be conclusive for Luxon to decide that Uffindell has to go, and he would not do that because it would create even more problems.

He could ask for Uffindell’s resignation, and if he did not get it expel him from caucus. That would be really messy and it would be surrounded by a vast amount of bad publicity.

A resignation would mean another by-election in Tauranga, and the Uffindell story would just go on and on.

This week, it sucked up all the oxygen that National could have used to keep up its momentum after the annual conference and its new policy designed to get young people off benefits and into work, and the poll that showed National and ACT had enough support to form a government.

The One News Poll

The 1 News Kantar poll was a strange one. The main parties had each lost two points since the last poll in May, pushing National down to 37% and Labour down to 33%.

In the personal popularity ratings – the preferred Prime Minister poll – Jacinda Ardern and Luxon both dropped three points. Ardern was down to 30% and Luxon to 22%.

ACT gained four points to 11%, although the Party had not appeared to do anything to earn the sharp rise. It could have been a natural correction to the low rating in the previous poll.

Whatever the reason, it was enough to push the combined support for National and ACT to a level which would give them a total of 62 seats in Parliament, enough to form a government, while Labour and the Greens would have 55.

It is difficult to define what is going on with this Poll but it does continue a trend of the right gaining ground while Labour slides down.

That trend will be worrying the government because it will need to reverse it before the end of the year so that it does not go into the summer recess behind National. And it does not want to start an election year on the back foot.

Ardern had an explanation that is starting to sound familiar.

“We have been through a tough time as a nation… there is a lot for us to do and that is what I am focused on,” she said.

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson also used the tough time angle, adding that it was winter and a lot of people were sick.

He is right in that it is a miserable time of year, but Labour will need need a stunningly good summer to turn the polls around.

The Gaurav Sharma issue

On Thursday it was Labour’s turn to have to deal with an MP problem, and this one was extraordinary. Hamilton West MP Gaurav Sharma wrote a column which was published in the Herald. He claimed that MP-on-MP bullying was rampant in Parliament and was facilitated by those supposed to prevent it.

The low-profile first-term MP accused the Parliamentary Service of working hand-in-hand with the offices of Party Whips and Leaders – including the Prime Minister’s Office.

He said that in his experience when MPs raised serious concerns about colleague’s behaviour, the service stonewalled the conversation and passed it on to the Party Whips. The complaining MP was then “gaslighted and victimised further.”

Sharma believes that he has been bullied but did not explain how or by whom.

His very unusual way of going public would not have pleased his colleagues. Many said that they did not know anything about his issues and none said they had experienced any bullying.

Labour’s Chief whip Duncan Webb confirmed that his office had been working with the Parliamentary Service and Sharma “to address employment matters” in his office.

The Parliamentary Service denied disrupting the complaints process.

Labour will do its best to shut this down before it gets out of control. On Friday morning, RNZ’s Political Editor Jane Patterson said Sharma appeared to have gone to the ground.

Other political news

Parliament passed legislation repealing the Three Strikes Law, which automatically hands maximum sentences to criminals who commit three serious crimes. It was created by the previous National-led government and was an ACT Party initiative. Those two parties opposed the repeal. Justice Minister Kiri Allan said discretion was being returned to judges.

“All of the same measures that are required by the three strikes regime will still be available to judges once the repeal takes effect,” she said.

The Firearms Prohibition Order Legislation Bill was passed into law with the support of all parties on its third reading. It gives courts the power to ban anyone convicted of specific crimes – including murder and some family violence offences – from accessing or using guns. Courts will be able to impose a firearms prohibition order, or FPO, which lasts for 10 years.

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 article and pictures have been published under a Special Arrangement with www.rnz.co.nz

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