Reports on Sam Uffindell’s childhood bullying, while serious, need to be kept in context – but Uffindell and the National Party do have serious questions to ask about their lack of transparency, Sam Sachdeva writes
Comment: Less than 48 hours after the National Party’s annual conference, Christopher Luxon should have been talking about his new welfare policy and a 1News Kantar Public poll showing his party in the box seat to form the next government.
Instead, he was carrying out rapid damage control in the wake of revelations about the behaviour of his newest MP, and dealing with yet more questions about the party’s vetting.
On Monday, Stuff reported Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell had been asked to leave the prestigious King’s College as a 16-year-old after assaulting a younger student late at night.
The victim told Stuff of photos showing “this skinny little white kid covered in bruises”, and said an apology offered by Uffindell last year felt hollow given his subsequent decision to run for Parliament.
If the story is primarily one of a 13-year-old subjected to unprovoked physical violence, it is obviously also about an MP, and a party, now under the microscope.
Luxon tried to thread the needle when fronting the media, supporting Uffindell for showing “tremendous amounts of contrition and empathy” while criticising the National Party’s internal processes.
While Uffindell had disclosed the incident on his application form for the Tauranga candidacy, which led to “deep reference checks” by the selection panel, Luxon – with those who voted in the by-election – only found out about the incident when the news broke.
“I should have been informed…the delegates ultimately should have been informed, and most importantly, I think the voters in Tauranga should have been informed so they can form their own judgment, and they should have had that information in the campaign,” the leader said.
It is hard to understand why none of the senior figures involved in the selection process – including former president Peter Goodfellow and Rotorua MP Todd McClay – advised Uffindell to come clean to the public, rather than sitting on a scandal in the hopes it would never see the light.
This is far from the first time National’s candidate selection processes have been called into question. Former MPs Todd Barclay, Hamish Walker and Andrew Falloon all bowed out after one term following various scandals, while Upper Harbour candidate Jake Bezzant resigned from the party in the wake of questions about his business record and allegations of impersonating an ex-girlfriend online.
There is an important distinction to be made between Uffindell’s childhood offending 22 years ago and that of the other men, which came while they were either in, or running for, elected office.
Demanding a precise accounting of just how many people the teenager punched, tackled or called names during his schooling is not entirely fair, and it is reasonable to believe people can change for the better as they enter adulthood.
But the National delegates who selected Uffindell for Tauranga, and the voters who elected him, were unfairly denied the opportunity to make that judgment themselves.
It is hard to understand why none of the senior figures involved in the selection process – including former president Peter Goodfellow and Rotorua MP Todd McClay – advised the candidate to come clean to the public, rather than sitting on a scandal in the hopes it would never see the light.
Luxon and his team have clearly decided sunlight, albeit late in arriving, is the best form of disinfectant. After interviews with Newstalk ZB and RNZ on Monday evening, Uffindell spoke to both the TVNZ and Newshub breakfast shows, as well as Morning Report, on Tuesday before taking further questions from political journalists at Parliament.
But that will come as scant consolation to party members or voters who might have made a different choice had they been fully informed as to his background.
The other problem for the MP and his leader is how the incident may undermine, or at least complicate, its attempts to prosecute the Government for an alleged softness on crime.
As many have pointed out, the consequences for a Māori or Pasifika teen who committed an identical assault at a lower-decile school may have been far more serious than merely being asked to leave – without even a formal expulsion.
Luxon’s most notable stumble came when he said of Uffindell, “We’re not talking about criminal behaviour”, before later backtracking to a degree.
“I see it as assault, I absolutely do – sorry, I was talking about a technical legal offence.”
Labour have largely, and wisely, stayed away from weaponising the issue, but it is not hard to see the matter being thrown back in National’s face whenever they talk about youth offenders being out of control.
Uffindell will certainly find it harder to rail against “a growing culture of lawlessness, lack of accountability, [and] a sense of impunity” as he did in his maiden speech last month.
Any further skeletons tumbling out of candidates’ closets will do further damage to the idea National is ready to return to power.
More stories are all but certain to come out, something he acknowledged in saying: “I’m sure I have hurt other people physically and mentally … I wasn’t a great person at high school, I’m not proud of the person I was.”
That may not be enough to end his political career – unless his claim the incident detailed by Stuff was “by far the worst incident I was involved in” proves to be false – but further allegations will undermine his and the party’s efforts to move on.
There is a broader issue here related to the culture at such boarding schools and boys’ colleges.
While Uffindell put the blame on himself rather than any institutional failings at King’s College, a number of alumni –including former Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway – have suggested such behaviour was a more extreme version of normalised behaviour there, a claim supported by previous reports.
That is not something for which Uffindell, Luxon or National can claim any responsibility, but it is nonetheless a problem which may need further work to address.
In the meantime, National has its own internal issues to tackle, as any further skeletons tumbling out of candidates’ closets will do further damage to the idea it is ready to return to power.