I shook my head in disbelief when the National Party announced its candidate in the Tauranga by-election. Sam Uffindell seemed the ultimate white bread man.
He conformed to every National Party stereotype: white, male, with a privileged background and a successful business career. In other words, the perfect candidate for a party previously led by John Key (who lacked the privileged background, but ticked the other boxes) and now by Christopher Luxon, who between them seem to have laid down the template for National’s vision of the ideal politician.
Unfortunately, Uffindell also came across as a dullard – stolid, uninspired and uninspiring. In that respect too, he could be compared with Key and Luxon, although if you were to be charitable you might concede that those two at least had some vestige of personality – unlike Uffindell, who displays all the charisma of a concrete block.
If you wanted to be cynical, I suppose you could say he was the perfect candidate for Tauranga, a city that gives the impression of worshipping Mammon more fervently than any other outside Auckland. But even so, Uffindell seemed a spectacularly tone-deaf choice.
Granted, the cult of diversity has been taken to dangerous extremes whereby important appointments are made on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation and other signifiers of victimism rather than ability. But at a time when the New Zealand electorate has never been more demographically dynamic, Uffindell was an anachronistic reversion to the 1960s, when everyone took it as read that those who represented us in Wellington would be middle-aged (or older) white males.
He reminded me in some ways of Alastair Scott, the National MP who represented my own electorate of Wairarapa for two terms. Scott was a wealthy merchant banker and vineyard owner whose main talent, apart from making money, was turning up for photo opportunities. He bailed out in 2020 – perhaps because he realised he had done nothing to earn advancement in the National hierarchy, or saw his Labour rival Kieran McAnulty looming large in his rear-vision mirror – and now the energetic McAnulty has a good chance of turning the seat into a safe Labour one. Has National learned nothing?
But back to Uffindell. Anyone thinking that the MP for Tauranga must have hidden depths visible only to the National selection panel would have been disabused of that notion by his maiden speech in Parliament. Maiden speeches are political set pieces that give neophyte politicians a rare chance to tell us something about themselves, their values and their vision, as Thomas Coughlan reminded us in the New Zealand Herald. But Uffindell’s told us little, other than giving the impression that he was mightily pleased with himself. Take this excerpt, for instance:
"I spent the first 12 years of my career in Sydney and Singapore—modern, forward-thinking, successful, advanced economies and societies. I led high-performing teams and high-performing cultures. I worked to reduce inefficiencies, to innovate, to problem-solve. We committed ourselves to utilising our resources to the best of our ability and to achieving set, measurable outcomes.”
“When I was young I played a lot of sport, and every time I played my dad taught me to play to win—and I did. And I loved it. Now we don't even keep the score.”
And this, which must surely make him a sitter for the title of parliamentary brown-noser of the year, assuming such an honour exists:
“In Christopher [Luxon], I have huge confidence that he will rise to be one of our great Prime Ministers, and it is and always will be an enormous honour to serve on his team. He inspires confidence, commitment, and belief, and he has all the skills, experience and vision necessary to drive our country to where we want to be. ”
As of yesterday, of course, we do now know something more about the new MP for Tauranga, although he didn’t mention it in his maiden speech and it’s something he would doubtless prefer to have kept secret.
Should Uffindell be punished for what appears to have been a nasty act of bullying that he committed as a teenager at boarding school against someone three years younger? That’s a tricky question. Many of us did things in our past lives that we now regret and are ashamed of.
On the other hand it can be argued that what he did, even though it happened 22 years ago, says something about his character. And more to the point, Uffindell must realise that when you put yourself forward for public office, you invite the public’s scrutiny and judgment regarding your past conduct. Such judgment can be harsh, but that’s the nature of a transparent democracy
We are also entitled to form opinions about the timing of his apology to his victim. Not everyone will be convinced he apologised because it was something that had weighed on his mind and he wanted to clear his conscience.
His victim certainly doesn’t seem to think that. He appears to have accepted the apology in good faith at the time but later wondered (as you would) whether it was given in an attempt to empty Uffindell’s cupboard of a potentially embarrassing skeleton before he announced his run for office. You don’t have to be a sceptic to regard the timeline as suspicious.
And then – oh, dear – there’s the National Party. Deputy leader Nicola Willis says she didn’t know about the unpleasant episode at King’s College until yesterday. This conveniently distances her from the now problematical MP for Tauranga and absolves her of any embarrassing implication in a cover-up. But it’s beyond astonishing that no one in the party thought to tell National’s leader or his deputy about the existence of a political landmine awaiting inevitable detonation under Uffindell and the party.
What does this tell us about National’s selection procedures and its internal lines of communication? You can only conclude that even after repeatedly choosing narcissistic, entitled, dysfunctional male candidates whose flashing neon warning signs appear to have been ignored, the party keeps re-cocking the selection pistol and aiming it in the direction of its feet. This puts a giant question mark over National's claim to competence and will leave people wondering whether the party can be trusted to govern us.