By Bryce Edwards for the Democracy Project
National is dripping "blue blood" again. The revelations over Sam Uffindell's violent assault indicate that the National Party under Christopher Luxon hasn't quite shed the toxicity and internal damage of the last few years.
The crises besetting the party have recently been well documented in journalist Andrea Vance's new book "Blue Blood: The Inside Story of the National Party in Crisis", but the party had hoped that the internal turmoil and scandal of those years had been left behind. This was a particular aim of the party's successful weekend conference – to show that under new management, the party's culture had changed. But that message has been undermined by this scandal and, once again, National faces serious questions about its integrity and culture.
The facts about the Uffindell scandal
The facts don't look good for the MP in question or the party as a whole. Sam Uffindell was involved in an ugly beating of a fellow student when he was at King's College in 1999. He was 16, and the victim was 13. Uffindell was forced to leave the prestigious private school.
Uffindell apologised to the victim last year when he was the Chair of the National Party's Papamoa branch. He then put himself forward this year for the National's candidacy in the Tauranga byelection. He informed the party selection panel of this ugly episode from his past, but he didn't inform the public.
The victim has now come forward with the story of the beating and the apology and suggests he has been used for political advantage. Uffindell is fronting up to media outlets for interviews expressing remorse. The MP and his party will be hoping to draw a line under the controversy and move on. But the matter does raise some important questions.
Should politicians be punished for the crimes of their youth?
Some will see this scandal as unfair and irrelevant, believing Uffindell should be judged on his record as an adult, or at least the totality of his life rather than what Uffindell now admits is "the biggest mistake of his life". Some believe in the possibility of redemption and argue serious mistakes a person makes in their youth shouldn't necessarily prevent them from becoming a politician 23 years later.
This defence of Uffindell is coming today from some interesting places. Leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury has suggested that the condemnation of the rightwing MP is over the top: "I can't believe we are wasting time on crucifying a new MP for something he did when he was 16. Look, I can't stand National MPs at the best of times, and it pains me to defend one, but the mistakes a child makes can't be held over them forever. Uffindell has gone on to make a contribution to his community, to his society and to his whānau, attempting to hold this act up for political purposes is cheap and lazy."
Bradbury says that Uffindell's crimes shouldn't be minimised, but the left shouldn't be seeking to capitalise on them either: "I get that we on the left are having some polling lows right now, but hanging someone for a childhood crime and praying that virtue signalling makes us more electable is a giant mistake."
Similarly, BusinessDesk editor Pattrick Smellie says the story "can be seen as a leak designed to deflect from a bad poll for the Government". Although he condemns Uffindell's behaviour, Smellie also believes it won't have much negative impact: "it is unlikely to be more than a bump in the road for National at this point in the electoral cycle."
Is the National Party still selecting candidates of low integrity?
One of the leading contributors to National's dire reputation in recent years has been the party's selection of candidates with poor character. There have been seriously damaging scandals involving the likes of Jami-Lee Ross, Todd Barclay, Hamish Walker, Andrew Falloon, and Jake Bezzant. A consensus emerged that National's candidate selection process was seriously flawed. In its obsession with trying to find the "next John Key" the party was erroneously bringing in ambitious young narcissistic and morally questionable candidates.
In the wake of the 2020 election loss, the party even commissioned an independent report on this problem, which recommended an overhaul of candidate selection and pointed to problems in the party's culture. A major attempt to improve standards was supposedly undertaken. But has it worked?
What's more, given the serious problems of bullying in Parliament, the selection of someone who has form for violence seems remarkably questionable.
Why did National and Uffindell keep the misdemeanour hidden?
There will always be politicians who make mistakes or have problematic pasts. The question is whether they are transparent and upfront about their failings. And there's always the risk that the "cover-up" is worse than "the crime".
There is no doubt that Uffindell was upfront to his own party selection committee when he sought the Tauranga nomination. There may be questions about whether they knew the full extent of the misdemeanour, but it's clear they knew about the 1999 attack and failed to get the candidate to be publicly honest about it.
This was a key mistake. National Party blogger David Farrar says today that if he had been on the selection committee, he would've insisted that Uffindell disclosed the incident publicly. He argues that it is always best to front foot these things and pre-empts your opponent's opportunity to seize upon something negative and use it to define a politician.
In fact, Farrar suggests Uffindell could have made a speech about the lessons of his past: "Imagine how powerful it would have been if Uffindell gave a speech (maybe even his maiden) on bullying at schools and said the reason it is a topic dear to him isn't that he was bullied at school, but because he once bullied and assaulted a student and how he has always regretted it and reflected on the impact it would have had, and how he wants to send a message to students to be better than he was and to reject bullying."
Nonetheless, some of Uffindell's constituents will feel they have been misled by him. Such a declaration surely had to come before voting took place. Notably, Uffindell says he stands by his decision not to inform voters before his election.
Has Uffindell been hypocritical?
The new MP has only been in Parliament for a week, and already he has positioned himself as an opponent of lawlessness and violence. In his maiden speech last week, he lamented "a growing culture of lawlessness, lack of accountability, a sense of impunity, and significant underlying generational social problems". That now seems highly ironic, if not hypocritical.
The victim of the 1999 attack also feels that Uffindell may have only apologised to him out of political expediency and his desire to be an MP. Given the timing, it's not hard to reach the same conclusion.
What happens now?
Whether Uffindell can survive this scandal probably depends on whether there is more to come out. He insists that he has now been entirely transparent and, if that is indeed the case, the public might be willing to accept Uffindell's current apologies, which are coming across as sincere and cut him some slack for something he did as a child.
The ball is now in the National Party's court. Uffindell has fronted and explained himself. The focus now needs to go on the National officials who have been party to what can be seen as a "cover-up". In particular, the nine members of National's selection committee should explain why they selected Uffindell but did not make him declare his past to the Tauranga electorate.
National's opponents will need to tread carefully in dealing with this scandal. Other parties will likely have some similarly negative skeletons in their closets, that are already known within Wellington's beltway. At the moment New Zealand politics has a culture in which politicians' private lives are viewed by opponents and are mostly "off limits" in terms of partisan competition. But this "gentlemen's agreement" not to weaponise failings in MPs' personal and family lives will very quickly be broken if National feels targeted by Labour and the Greens over the Uffindell scandal.