One Question Quiz
National leader Christopher Luxon and MP Sam Uffindell (Image: Tina Tiller/Getty Images/Supplied)
National leader Christopher Luxon and MP Sam Uffindell (Image: Tina Tiller/Getty Images/Supplied)

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 14, 2022

Jobs for the bad boys

National leader Christopher Luxon and MP Sam Uffindell (Image: Tina Tiller/Getty Images/Supplied)
National leader Christopher Luxon and MP Sam Uffindell (Image: Tina Tiller/Getty Images/Supplied)

They all embarrassed their party during their tenures as National MPs. But what else do Andrew Falloon, Aaron Gilmore, Todd Barclay, Jami-Lee Ross and Sam Uffindell have in common?

Being a politician is a strange job and it takes a strange kind of person to do it well. But many of the people who seek political power are the wrong kind of strange, so parties try to be careful about who they select as candidates. This is a dark and difficult art. They want people who represent their members’ values to the wider public but most members of political parties are also rather weird. So your candidates can’t be too much like them or they’ll scare the voters. And parties have to vet the applicants: dredge up their awful pasts, but this information needs to be held close, not spread around or used to automatically disqualify, because everyone has an awful past – how many of us can truly say we’ve never brutally attacked a 13-year-old asleep in bed, or destroyed our own flat in a drug-fuelled rage? – and if the disclosures were misused no one would ever reveal anything.

It’s all very fraught. Parties try to get it right because once someone is elected to parliament they can be impossible to control. MPs aren’t employees – they represent the voters. They don’t work for their party leader or for parliamentary services or the speaker of the house. They can only be fired by the voters, and they get a handsome payout if they leave after a general election, so if you try to usher them out before then they’ll usually cling to their seat, salary and perks while screaming their lungs out.

The tensions arising from this dynamic twist through our politics like high voltage cables. Most of the time the parties step over or around the live wires. The party whips manage their MPs with carrots and sticks – promises of promotion, threats of deselection, briefings to the press gallery – while party officials scrutinise their candidates carefully. But from time to time the wrong people get through and then they arc and thrash in the media, throwing out cascades of sparks, lighting up their party’s internal failures for all to see. And voters generally respond by punishing that party mercilessly in the polls.

On Monday afternoon Stuff investigative journalist Kirsty Johnston broke a story about parliament’s newest MP, Sam Uffindell that neatly encapsulated every negative stereotype National’s critics love to perpetuate about it: privileged white guy, elite boarding school, abhorrent cruelty, inept party processes, terrible candidates. Now National is faced with the question of what to do with Uffindell: keep him in parliament and have him step down next year with the risk of additional allegations coming to light? Or suffer the humiliation of a second Tauranga by-election? And whatever they decide is contingent on Uffindell going along with it.

But surely their larger problem is that National – its committees, MPs and officials – still don’t grasp the risk of selecting candidates that direct media discourse onto their party’s negative qualities while also making it harder to communicate their key messages. Here’s Christopher Luxon being interviewed by Guyon Espiner on RNZ earlier this week:

Luxon: We are the party of law and order–

Espiner: So you’re a party of law and order. Andrew Falloon sent a pornographic image to a 19-year-old. Hamish Walker leaked sensitive medical information about Covid-19 patients. Jake Bezzant… I don’t even really want to say what he did. Aaron Gilmore – do you know who he is?

Luxon: (Pause) Yes.

Espiner: Jami-Lee Ross is before the court at the moment so we won’t go too far into that. And Todd Barclay secretly recording his staffers’ phone conversations. Are you the party of law and order?

Sam Uffindell
MP Sam Uffindell in his Tauranga electorate (Photo: RNZ/Supplied)

Back in July, about the time Sam Uffindell won his by-election and began his now doomed political career, Kemi Badenoch emerged as a rising star of British Conservative politics. A 42-year-old Nigerian migrant who worked at McDonald’s while studying at a non-Oxbridge university, Badenoch was a breakthrough candidate in the Conservative leadership contest. She wasn’t senior enough to reach the final round but the right of her party was enraptured by the sight of a Black woman attacking wokeness and critical race theory, and the Daily Telegraph declared that “Kemi Badenoch is the future of conservatism”.

The diversification of right-wing politics is a global trend, part of the Great Realignment in which the traditional left-right coalitions of the 20th century are dissolving and reshaping. In the US it took the form of the red and black wave that broke for Trump in 2020 accompanied by a growing Hispanic drift to the Republicans, demographic shifts that almost cost Joe Biden the election. And if you looked at National during the 2010s, the diversification of the party was well underway. Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges and Hekia Parata were senior ministers; Melissa Lee was an undersecretary, Shane Reti and Harete Hipango won electorate nominations and then seats in the house. (I suppose we should also list Jian Yang, the Honourable Member for Chinese Military Intelligence, although it would be nice to see MPs representing the preferences of Chinese New Zealanders, rather than Beijing.)

But in the last five years the project has been abandoned. National seems to regard diversity and representation as a tedious chore the horrible left-wing media keeps nagging them about rather than a way to improve the culture of their party and the calibre of their MPs while expanding their voter base. Instead of selecting on merit they’ve become a party of identity politics repeatedly elevating candidates that are strange-in-a-bad-way because they reflect the membership’s race and gender preferences, rather than their suitability for public office. It’s a live wire the party keeps grabbing, compulsively. And the repeated shocks could kill its chances at the election.

Follow our politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Keep going!