OPINION: It’s hard to have confidence in the National Party’s supposed exoneration of MP Sam Uffindell over allegations of ethical violations as an adult. The party’s processes have been far too opaque, which means there will always be a cloud over the integrity and character of their new MP for Tauranga. And, perhaps even worse for National, it raises questions about the party’s own integrity and transparency.
Yesterday Sam Uffindell announced at a press conference that an independent investigation into his behaviour as an adult at the University of Otago had “cleared” him. Together with National’s leader Christopher Luxon and party president Sylvia Woods, Uffindell fronted up to the media to report on the month-long investigation carried out by Kings Counsel lawyer Maria Dew.
According to Luxon, Dew’s investigation didn’t substantiate allegations about Uffindell’s university bullying “as reported in the media”. Apparently, Dew had interviewed various witnesses and, Luxon says there were “differing accounts” about Uffindell’s flatting conduct. And on the basis of this, National rejected complaints about Uffindell by his former flatmate and her father.
Does this constitute a whitewash?
The big problem with yesterday’s announcement is that National is expecting the public to take its word on the investigation and outcome. The party is refusing to release Dew’s report in any form. It won’t even release an executive summary of it.
Nor will the report’s author front to the public about what her investigation found. In similar cases, investigating authors have released their own precis of the confidential report.
None of this has happened, which should make the public suspicious that a whitewash has occurred. This doesn’t mean Dew has acted inappropriately, but that her report can’t be accepted as an exoneration of Uffindell if it can’t be read and verified as such.
Of course, there is no rule that says National needs to release anything. It is the party’s prerogative about how it handles such information.
However, by choosing not to be transparent National forfeits credibility on the issue, and risks losing public confidence. If a party is not willing to be transparent on a key issue of public interest, then how can it credibly criticise the Labour Government’s lack of transparency on so many issues?
Politicians are quick to appeal to things like “safety” and “confidentiality” when justifying such secrecy. And, they have done so in this case, knowing full well that privacy needs to be taken seriously. But the suspicion should be that they are using these justifications as weasel words for their own interests. There are simply not credible reasons why redacted versions of reports such as this can’t be made public. There are always ways to protect privacy while being open to scrutiny.
Given the opaqueness, political journalist Jo Moir says: “It is almost impossible to form a view on whether National leader Christopher Luxon made the right call reinstating Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell back into his caucus.” Furthermore, “it is impossible to know what other behaviour may or may not have been raised during the investigation.”
National is also still refusing to release the “terms of reference” that the party gave to Dew when it employed her to investigate Uffindell. This is very suspicious – because the public is not seriously able to interpret anything about the report’s supposed findings without knowing what she was told to investigate and what she wasn’t allowed to investigate.
The details of how the investigation was carried out, and it’s parameters are important. We don’t even know who was interviewed. Moir explains this well: “It would be a big call for Dew to conclude Uffindell didn’t do anything wrong at university if the only people she spoke to were friendly allies who support the MP’s version of events. It’s also unknown whether any other allegations surfaced about his time at King’s College or St Paul’s Collegiate, Hamilton, the school he moved to after being asked to leave King’s College.”
Uffindell might be a victim of National’s opaqueness
Uffindell himself is likely to be disadvantaged by National’s decision to keep all the details of the report’s investigation under wraps. Although it might prevent some of the more damaging details from impacting Uffindell and National in the short-term, it’s likely to prevent Uffindell from fully recovering from this scandal. It means that the public doesn’t really have closure on this episode. The public, and in particularly the voters of Tauranga, will remain suspicious of him given National isn’t willing to be open about what their investigation came up with.
Of course, Uffindell is likely to now refuse to discuss and be interviewed about the controversy by appealing to the fact that he’s been “cleared” and he wishes to put it behind him. But many voters will find this unsatisfactory.
Is the National Party exonerated by the report?
National didn’t just commission an investigation to determine Sam Uffindell’s fate, but also to attempt to clear the party itself of wrongdoing or a lack of integrity in its processes.
Hence with yesterday’s announcement both Luxon and Wood attempted to use it to boost confidence in the party as a whole, and show that they have dealt with the issue appropriately. But questions still remain.
As Claire Trevett writes today, “Luxon’s attempts to persuade the public that the National Party’s culture was changing – and that he was the man to deliver on that change and put together a strong team – are also dented. The very first selection on his watch has gone awry.”
Questions are also still being asked about why Luxon claims he wasn’t aware of Uffindell’s background earlier. It is now clear that Uffindell himself volunteered the information to the party’s pre-selection panel in Tauranga prior to his by-election campaign. And journalist Richard Harman reports today that, “National Party practice is that the panel would have reported to the party board of which Luxon is a member. Either it did not do that — or he somehow missed the report. That is the only way he could not have known about it before the story broke on Stuff.”
But at yesterday’s press conference both Luxon and Wood refused to confirm or deny that a report had been given to the leadership about Uffindell’s selection issues prior to the by-election. Suspicions therefore remain that Luxon himself has in some way been partly responsible for allowing this scandal to occur in the first place.
Do we need better systems of political accountability for party scandals?
It is now becoming a trend for political parties to bring in external lawyers and Kings Counsels to carry out investigations on internal party issues such as alleged integrity violations by politicians and party activists. For example, Labour has also used Kings Counsels such as Maria Dew to help deal with their own scandals. And they have also been guilty of failing to make enough of the resulting information public.
There is no doubt that the use of these processes can be positive. But we should also be careful not to treat Kings Counsel investigations as some sort of magic mechanism that is beyond reproach or scrutiny. Nor is their claimed “independence” beyond question. After all, as University of Auckland public law lecturer Edward Willis pointed out yesterday: “It is important to remember that they are being paid to do this work, usually by someone who has an interest in the outcome.”
If politicians want to exonerate themselves, then they are going to have to come up with a better process and, in particular, one that brings the public more into the process. The various mechanisms that both National and Labour have been using lately are rather elite and legalistic. As Willis argues, “Reassuring or convincing the public of a particular view requires bringing the public into the process.”
He concludes: “The way the report has been presented to the public in substance is as a National Party document for internal purposes. That, that may be appropriate. But it does not and cannot draw a line under the matter from a public/political perspective.”
Willis believes it’s especially important that the terms of reference (ToR) for such investigations are made public. He says these make a huge difference, as the “clever or cynical use of careful terms of reference can shape the substantive outcomes.” He concludes: “So if you want someone to rely on the KC investigation/report you need to let that person know what the ToRs are, and the person has to understand why the ToRs are appropriate to the issues giving rise to the investigation.”
The Uffindell scandal won’t be the last – we seem to be faced with more and more allegations of integrity violations in politics. Even in just the last few weeks, we have been evaluating claims and counterclaims relating to Labour MPs Anna Lorck and Gaurav Sharma. And, so often, the outcomes of these scandals are opaque and unsatisfactory. It seems we need to find new and better ways to deal with scandal politics that don’t involve politicians trying to close the discussion down.
Article originally published on Democracy Project and republished to The Platform with permission.