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Is Tauranga headed towards yet another by-election?

Bryce Edwards: This scandal undermines National’s attempt to establish itself as the party of law and order.
Dr Bryce Edwards
Contributing Writer, Democracy Project
August 11th, 2022

OPINION: If National causes yet another by-election to be held in Tauranga, not only will it cost the taxpayers another unnecessary $1m for the taxpayers after Simon Bridges called it quits earlier in the year, but National will also pay a big price in terms of its reputation and integrity.

A by-election is definitely on the cards, now that more damaging revelations about National’s new MP Sam Uffindell have come to light. National’s leader is now distancing himself from his MP, saying: “We’ve had an MP involved in completely unacceptable and unlawful behaviour.”

Although there is further investigation taking place, it’s hard to see how Luxon will be able to welcome Uffindell back fully after this. Even if Uffindell is cleared of further allegations, and if no more dirt comes out on him – which is looking increasingly unlikely – National will want to be free of him as quickly as possible. And if that means Uffindell has to resign, then National will make it happen. They will then try to make a virtue of not putting up with low standards (even if that’s exactly what has happened).

New damning revelations

Uffindell gave a good performance yesterday in the media, looking contrite and promising that there were no further skeletons in his closet. But the same day his caucus were made aware that new allegations were being made about Uffindell’s past behaviour.

These were aired this morning on RNZ, with a former flatmate coming forward with her story of flatting with Uffindell at the University of Otago in 2003. She paints a picture of Uffindell as an aggressive bully, whose threatening behaviour forced her flee from the flat.

According to the anonymous source, Uffindell’s behaviour that year showed a pattern of bullying, leading to one night in which she had to lock herself in her room and eventually escape through her window. She claims “He was smashing on my door and yelling obscenities and basically telling me to get out – ‘hit the road, fatty’.”

The witnesses’ father says he had to come and collect her the next day, claiming: “The flat itself was completely trashed. There wasn’t a stick of furniture left. There was no crockery left. There were no handles left on anything. It had all been broken… It was clear… [Uffindell] had real issues, real problems… he was out of control.”

The women claims that Uffindell took “excessive” alcohol and drugs and would trash the flat. Uffindell has responded with the explanation that in this second-year flat, “a number of flatmates fell out”, and that the bullying allegations “simply did not happen”. He admits he “enjoyed a student lifestyle” with drugs and alcohol.

The National Party has also confirmed today a further story that Uffindell had been suspended from a second private boarding school, St Paul’s, having broken rules prohibiting leaving the property, to go to a party.

National suspends Uffindell; Luxon throws him under the bus

National’s orientation towards Uffindell has quickly shifted. Last night at 11:20pm, Luxon announced that he was suspending the MP, and had commissioned independent QC Maria Dew to carry out a two-week investigation into Uffindell.

Luxon is now talking very critically about the alleged incidents and his MP. He says the allegations are “serious and concerning”, and “I can tell you as a father, my daughter flatting, I’d want them to be properly investigated”.

Luxon is also having trouble explaining if Uffindell has his support. His reply on TV today was: “We’ll find out in the next few weeks.”

Uffindell’s political future is bleak

Writing about what happens now, broadcaster Rachel Smalley says: “Sam Uffindell, I think, has hit the end of the road with his political career. Where there’s smoke there can be fire. When the smoke rings keep coming — that indicates the emergence of a pattern of behaviour, however long ago.  And that, in the lead-up to an election becomes a major distraction.”

Smalley also thinks a by-election is likely, and will be damaging for National: “That’s expensive, the good people of Tauranga will be fatigued, and depending on how well National manages the narrative around this, you could see something of a protest vote — perhaps a shift towards act in the blue safe seat.”

RNZ’s Tim Watkin is similarly pessimistic about Uffindell’s chances of recovering from this and writes today about why his political career is over if the latest allegations are verified: “He had categorically told the public the Kings assault was the whole story and it had changed him. If his violent behaviour extended beyond high school, then he’s misled the public and his party; it’s hard to see him surviving that. Especially given National’s struggle with badly behaving MPs in recent years and its need to put to bed the public perception of a party that doesn’t practice the values it preaches.”

Even if somehow Uffindel survives the growing calls for him to resign, he will probably be told not to bother submitting his nomination as National’s candidate for the general election. Like Todd Barclay, he might just have to wait out his time in disgrace, disappearing from public view.

Who else is being damaged by the Uffindell scandal?

The bigger threat from this scandal is to the National Party itself. As Rachel Smalley writes today, “it speaks to a fundamental lack of rigour in National’s appointment process. How do they vet their candidates?  How in-depth is the vetting process? The reference checks? The character checks?”

The party had been doing well to recover from a few years of disastrous candidate selections, and has been trying to convince the public that it has turned a corner. The Uffindell revelations completely undermine this message.

Tim Watkin has a list of National Party figures who have some explaining to do: “The party has to answer why then-party president Peter Goodfellow and current MP Todd McClay knew of the assault and said and did nothing. And why they didn’t tell party leader Christopher Luxon. Not telling the leader provides him with plausible deniability, but is that good enough?”

McClay is certainly now in the firing line – he was involved in Uffindell’s selection, and then ran his by-election campaign. He’s claiming that the selection panel took the admission of assault very seriously, but concluded that Uffindell was reformed. As to why McClay didn’t advise Uffindell to come clean in the campaign, he simply says: “During the campaign, we were very, very focused on the various things that were coming up.” As to Luxon being left in the dark about the. Issue, McClay reported feels “it was not his role as campaign chairman to talk directly to the leader about things that happened in the selection process.”

Luxon might well feel aggrieved about not being informed. As today’s Herald editorial says, “Those who decided to sit on this cut their leader off at the knees.”

Other officials in the National Party will also need to account for the lack of transparency. For example, newly-appointed party president, Sylvia Wood, was on the pre-selection panel, and with a background in HR surely should have known that this needed to be properly dealt with.

And National delegates who chose Uffindell for Tauranga without knowing about his past will be less than impressed.

Is National the party of law and order, or of privilege?

This scandal undermines National’s attempt to establish itself as the party of law and order. The whole scandal might also reiterate to voters the notion that the party is made up of privileged “toffs”.

Writing about Uffindell’s boarding school expulsion, Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass explains the problem: “What will grate with many people, however, is not so much the fact that he got a second chance, but the inequality of second chances. The offending occurred in an exclusive institution, a controlled environment and the main life consequence was being forced to leave a school that Uffindel said that enjoyed. Another boy, in different economic circumstance who committed something similar on the street could well have faced very different consequences. That disparity isn’t Uffindell’s fault, but it does hit a political vulnerability for National – that it’s the party of the privileged.”

Similarly, Tim Watkin writes today: “Voters will now be asking whether that ‘tough on crime’ approach is merely for poorer, browner members of society or whether it extends to members of their own caucus.”

Certainly, when it comes to National’s campaigns on crime, their MPs might now be much less inclined to call Labour “soft on crime”. And any focus on out-of-control youth offenders will be easily mocked by opponents.

2020 was a very big year for scandals in politics, with many resignations and revelations involving all the political parties in Parliament. Then things calmed down somewhat. But as has been pointed out by others, Sam Uffindell was a new MP for roughly 185 hours before being suspending by his own party. The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan has asked if this is a new record. It will certainly be a record if Tauranga faces a second by-election within just a few months.

Article originally published on Democracy Project and republished to The Platform with permission.

Bryce Edwards is a senior associate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies and lecturer at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.