The new Tauranga MP apologised 22 years after an attack in a school dormitory, and before he entered politics. But the victim has been left feeling used, and it is not the first time National’s selections have come under the spotlight.
In his maiden address to parliament six days ago, Sam Uffindell lamented “a growing culture of lawlessness, lack of accountability, a sense of impunity, and significant underlying generational social problems”. That seemed unremarkable, boilerplate stuff at the time, in a speech that was unremarkable and boilerplate top to tail. It became remarkable only today, when it was reported that Uffindell had been “asked to leave” the exclusive Auckland boarding school King’s College in 1999 after violently beating a younger student.
Uffindell, then 16, and three others, had left a 13-year-old bruised and traumatised. The victim told Stuff’s Kirsty Johnston: “I was covering my head … they were smashing me.” Photographs of his injuries later showed “this skinny little white kid covered in bruises”. Last year, 22 years on, Uffindell called him to apologise. The victim, Johnston reports, had vowed never to forgive the older boy who attacked him, but after reflecting he “forgave the man Uffindell had become”.
The incident described speaks to a thudding, grim and enduring part of New Zealand. There should, of course, be space for atonement and forgiveness. Uffindell reflected, sought the man out and apologised. He insists that doing so was not an expedient act on the part of someone looking to enter politics, that it had nothing to do with any of that. The victim finds that hard to believe. The fact Uffindell had made no mention of his aspirations was part of what prompted him to speak.
“I sat down to watch the news on the couch with a beer and there he was, running for parliament. I felt sick,” he told Stuff. “It made me feel his apology wasn’t genuine, he was just doing it to get his skeletons out of the closet, so he could have a political career.”
Uffindell said the National Party was aware of what had happened, and, Johnston reports, “were grateful he had disclosed it to them” before his selection as the candidate in the Tauranga byelection, which he won handsomely. His political future may rest on whether those disclosures were full and frank, as well as what, if anything, Christopher Luxon knew.
One of the consistent themes in the National Party’s efforts to return to stability and success after the years of rancour and tumult that followed the departure of John Key and Bill English has been candidate selection. A Tauranga selection shortlist sporting five near-identikits was part of what prompted Christopher Luxon to acknowledge the need to present a more diverse group of would-be MPs to New Zealand. “We’ve been very clear that since the 2020 election we had a very diverse set of candidates, but we actually did really poorly in that election and as a result we didn’t have the diversity that we want,” he said, adding that Uffindell did help broaden the “diversity of thought”.
Sylvia Wood, elected the new president of the National Party on the weekend, has led a board committee focused on that challenge. “We have spent considerable time over the last year looking at our processes, vetting, selection, and we’ve been working very hard on candidate selection,” she told RNZ. That presents a tougher task in electorates, where the influence of party HQ is minimal compared to list placings.
At least as important – and arguably linked – to a paucity of diversity is the question of character. Whether Uffindell’s violent attack on a 13-year-old boy in a school dormitory – an attack he clearly profoundly regrets – should have bumped him off the top of the National selections for the Tauranga byelection I do not know. But, as Andrea Vance puts it in Blue Blood, her book documenting the bad times in the National Party, “a series of unsuitable candidate selections saw the party mired in scandal”. Think Jami-Lee Ross, Todd Barclay, Hamish Walker. Think Andrew Falloon, Jake Bezzant.
The internal inquiry into National’s 2020 election catastrophe, leaked to Vance, highlighted “weaknesses and errors” in candidate selection as a pressing problem. That the man who was violently beaten by Sam Uffindell in a school dormitory has been left feeling that an apology, more than two decades on, was cynical and incomplete, while Uffindell stands in parliament to bemoan a “culture of lawlessness, lack of accountability, a sense of impunity” suggests that problem may yet take some fixing.