Opinion: It would be tempting to dismiss the controversies about the National MP Sam Uffindell and the Labour MP Dr Gaurav Sharma as nothing more than two people manifestly unsuitable for politics, who should never have been selected by their parties in the first place.
But that would be as wrong a response as it is shallow. Both the Uffindell and Sharma cases are the opposite sides of the same coin. Each are products of the major parties’ recruitment processes that treat personal suitability for the grind and drudgery of being a backbench MP as secondary to an impressive curriculum vitae. To that extent, both parties are as much to blame for the situations that have now exploded in public as are the individual MPs themselves.
In Uffindell’s case, the National Party should clearly have taken his back story far more seriously. It should either not have selected him in the first place, or, if he was the best candidate on offer, ensured that a comprehensive strategy was in place to deal with the revelations about his school and student behaviour once they inevitably became public. The selection panel seems to have been persuaded that his subsequent varied international financial and legal career overrode the other factors and was all that counted.
The upshot has been that Uffindell, along with the National Party, and its leader, have been left in the most unsatisfactory of situations. Whatever the outcome of the QC’s inquiry, Uffindell’s political career seems to be over before it even really started. The National Party’s apparently lackadaisical approach to vetting potential candidates has once more been exposed as inadequate, while Christopher Luxon has been left to sweep up a mess he had been kept unaware of, at the very time when, following a successful party conference and a lift in the polls, he should have been able to capitalise on National’s improving political fortunes.
Sharma’s extraordinary outburst against bullying within the Labour Party has many parallels with Uffindell’s case. He also seems to have been left largely to his own devices as this situation developed. The “wrap around” support the Prime Minister has promised him seems to have appeared only since he went public with his criticisms. The lack of overt support for him from other colleagues, the whispering campaign being waged against him, and his suspension show little sympathy for him within the Labour caucus. Like Uffindell, he faces a short political future. He holds the highly marginal Hamilton West seat, likely to swing back to National if there is any swing against the government. After these events he can hardly expect to shift above the low list ranking of 63 he received for the 2020 election, in the unlikely event he is selected again for Labour.
Like Luxon, the Prime Minister has now been placed in the awkward situation of having to clean up the perceived mess left behind by what one of her MPs has been doing, at the expense of being free to promote the Government’s message, at a time when it is fighting for its political life.
The unstated political reality behind both these stories is that being an MP, especially a new backbencher, can be bruising and frustrating. The environment is strictly hierarchical, where everybody is expected to know their place and abide by that, and where preserving the good of the party is paramount. New MPs need to learn to “breathe through their noses”, Sir Keith Holyoake used to say.
There is a long history in both the major parties of individuals whose careers have been sacrificed to protect the interests of the party and its leadership, and where those who step out of line, in whatever way, are ostracised as either unsuitable to be in Parliament at all, or unreliable and untrustworthy. Uffindell and Sharma seem set to join that list.
By nature, Parliament is highly competitive, with MPs tussling with colleagues for advancement within their party. This has led both main parties to focus on attracting candidates with impressive career records, but often with egos to match, sometimes at the expense of their ability to work alongside others collaboratively for a common goal.
Uffindell suffered from the arrogance of believing the worst stories from his past would not catch up with him, and that even if they did, he could talk his way out of them, just as he had to the National Party selection panel. As a high-achieving young doctor, a former Fulbright Scholar, with an MBA in politics and public health from George Washington University, Sharma might have expected to be set for high things early in his political career, and appears disgruntled this has not happened as quickly as he might have wished.
However, whatever their personal failings, Uffindell and Sharma have both been let down badly by their parties, who are now in effect hanging both out to dry. Upon accepting them as candidates, Labour and National should have had proper pastoral care programmes in place, based on a thorough knowledge of the individual personalities, to ensure that whatever challenges arose with them could be appropriately handled. Instead, we are left with the distinct implication from both parties that what has happened is substantially the responsibility of Uffindell and Sharma respectively, leaving National and Labour as almost innocent bystanders, accidentally caught up in this mess. Labour’s cowardice in abruptly suspending Sharma to rid itself of a “troublesome” MP is simply craven.
Uffindell and Sharma may well be about to become unfortunate footnotes in our recent political history, who will soon be forgotten, but National’s and Labour’s culpability in tolerating the situations that allowed these circumstances to develop in the first place can neither be overlooked nor forgiven.
Both major parties now need to take a long, cold look at their own recruitment practices and make them fit for purpose to prevent similar situations occurring again.