So, in the wake of last night’s breaking news as to Luxon’s man in Tauranga, we of the Lumpen Commentariat that is Twitter (and, no doubt, just about anywhere else people gather to gossip and congeal outrage) came alive with the perhaps eminently predictable suite of condemnation.
And, it has to be said – if we can’t rally round as a loose-knit confederation of opinionated sorts to castigate a group of older boys ferociously beating up a 13 year old with wooden furniture-legs … then there would, indeed, be something very askew with our respective moral frameworks.
However, from where I’m sitting there’s been a bit of a ‘jump’ here. Namely, that made by various of us from condemning something done by a 5th former, through to demanding that a sitting MP resign.
Now that may be an entirely warranted ‘destination’ to have wound up at. Or it may not. But the issue here is rather bigger than just Uffindell. And that’s why I think it matters to actually slow things down and think things through – and ensure if we’re demanding a (figurative) guillotine or going in to bat for the guy, that we’re doing so for the right reasons.
Why is this a bigger issue than just Uffindell? Because, to put it bluntly – our MPs are, by and large, human. Humans have pasts. Some pasts are more insalubrious than others. I think we lose out, oddly enough, if we choose to insist that everybody in our ‘Representative House’ (not quite the same thing as a House of Representatives) absolutely has to have a squeaky-clean prior record.
Don’t believe me?
John A. Lee, an MP I hold in rather high regard and who made a demonstrably positive contribution to our country in a dire time … had prior convictions for theft, liquor-smuggling, and breaking and entering. He did a year in Mt Eden, and I don’t mean as a constituency MP.
Now, all of that got ‘overwritten’ by his subsequent backstory. He went overseas with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force during World War One, and came back a wounded war-hero. Blood – rightly or wrongly – does seem to wash out all sorts of other stains.
Slightly closer to contemporary times, we have Metiria Turei. Now, it’s difficult to escape the fact that she did, indeed, commit both benefit fraud and, curiously, electoral fraud. In 1993, for the latter, and in the Nineties for the former.
Personally, I think the main thing she was actually guilty of was perhaps unexpectedly poor political judgement. At least, in 2017 – twenty four years, just under a quarter of a century, after the thing which probably sank her.
But this is all supposition for another time.
Lest I be misconstrued (and pilloried in the comments-section) – I absolutely am not seeking to make the case that Sam Uffindell is some sort of latter-day Metiria Turei, nor the second coming of John A. Lee.
I also fully acknowledge that every so often an MP with a ‘background’ issue comes along wherein either the sheer malevolence … or the sheer bathos … of the circumstance in question means they’ve fairly little choice but to resign.
David Garrett would be the obvious emblematic exemplar for the latter. You just … can’t quite take seriously an MP (or the party which empowers them to speak for it) who makes a personal cause célèbre out of ‘tough on law and order’ and removing judicial discretion particularly for for violent offending – only to then turn out to have a rather … relevant personal history.
Garrett’s case is, however, instructive in another way. There was a man who went through the system and benefitted from notable leniency following his apparent effort to emulate a fictional hitman and steal the identity of a deceased infant. If he’d internalized the lesson, and come out and up and then out again into politics advocating for a more ‘nuanced’ approach at the pointy-end of the judiciary, things might have played out differently.
As somebody pointed out on Twitter yesterday evening – that’s partially what they, personally, found galling about the current Uffindell scenario. Namely, that Uffindell had, quite clearly, benefitted from not being in receipt of a heavy-handed approach to his youthful assault of a younger kid. And yet had gone and joined a party that’s often promoted itself as being ‘tough’ on youth offending.
(Although as a brief aside on that – oddly enough, the National Party, last time it was in Government, actually did make some reform efforts for our youth justice system to reduce the number of teens going through the harder edges of our criminal justice apparatus. They just seem curiously recalcitrant to claim credit for that kind of minor movement these days for some reason …)
All up, I think that’s basically it.
When it comes to a situation like this, we – the voting public (on or off twitter) – are probably looking for two things. First and foremost, ‘authenticity’. That’s a general rule and a given for politics. Hence the antiquated saying apt for the context – that once you can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made.
And second (and heavily interrelated with the aforementioned) – something to have happened in response to the putative offending conduct in question. That probably means demonstrable personal growth so you can say you aren’t the same guy who did X, along with actually taking ownership of the guy who did do X’s actions and making appropriate effort to make things right with the victim / society at large / probably not just God. (I mention that last one due to the American political set-piece wherein pretty much exactly that form of ‘repentance’ of the ‘performative’ and barely-even-self-flagellating variety all too often seem something of a one-stop-shop for certain ne’er-do-wells caught-out whilst seeking office)
Having things happen a lot further in the past definitely helps with all of that. Far easier to proclaim you’ve grown after a number of decades rather than a number of months and sound serious whilst doing so.
All of this brings us to Uffindell.
I think there’s probably a general awareness – and a certain amount of grudgingly-tolerant leeway – out there in the Kiwi electorate that some people may do stupid, morally reprehensible things when they’re younger and at an all-boys boarding school.
And, much more overtly to the point – that twenty two years is plenty of time to grow and become a better man. At least, in theory.
However, the corollary to that is that the onus is decidedly on National’s newest MP to demonstrate that he has in fact done so.
Which is where, I suspect, Uffindell is going to come rather unstuck. With an intriguing new spin on the ancient political maxim – “it’s not the crime that gets you … it’s the cover-up”. Or, in his case, and with deference to the rather recent timing of his calling up his victim to apologize – “it’s not the crime that gets you … it’s the thing that makes the ethics look entirely performative”. ‘Authenticity’, remember?
Hence, he manages to go from his victim reportedly receiving the apology with a sentiment along the lines of (to quote Stuff’s reporting): “he would never forgive the boy who hurt him, but forgave the man Uffindell had become.” … through to, once it became apparent just what Uffindell was intending on getting up to shortly thereafter:
“But then a few months later I sat down to watch the news on the couch with a beer and there he was, running for Parliament,” the victim said. “I felt sick.”
“But seeing that – 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.”
But let’s move forward.
The thing that gets me about these skeletal-scandals is that they often seem to blow up far bigger, and give far more emphatic reason to dislike a public figure than anything they may have done (or are intending to do) that’s more contemporary. That doesn’t sit right with me.
If we’re going to dislike anybody, it should be the Nat MP in 2022 for things he’s doing in 2022 (or thereabouts, plus or minus a year or two maybe)
Not some idiot 16 year old that’s now 22 years in the past and doesn’t actually wield political power.
Which doesn’t at all men that this current scandal ought have no bearing upon that matter of public perception. Quite the contrary.
Even leaving aside whether a teenage boy’s actions considerably betray the character of the man in later life … it can fairly be argued that not making amends earlier (indeed, until shortly before going for National Candidacy selection) doesn’t speak well to his character, ethics, and judgement as the older man.
Ultimately, of course, none (or, at least, very few) of us are Uffindell. We can’t answer honestly what might (or might not) have been going through his head – either on a reportedly near-daily basis over the preceding years, or as he made the decision to front up to his victim as and when he did.
Personally, and without intending to proffer this as either the definitive truth nor something innately defensible, I suppose I can see how a man might be significantly guilt-wracked by his previous conduct to the point that he has a genuinely hard time fronting up to try and make amends, for a span of years and then decades. Maybe.
I’m not saying that to try and turn Uffindell into the victim, here, by any stretch of the imagination. I dare say that any queasy feeling Uffindell might have had about looking to engage with his victim should prove soundly eclipsed via many orders of magnitude by those emotions his victim has had to grapple with both over that same period of time, and in imminent anticipation of being contacted by his former tormentor. And that’s before he saw the guy’s face on a billboard or the 6 o’clock news as some sort of purported bright shining hope. (‘Bright, Shining Hope’ being a rather relative measure – and in the context of National’s current concepts of ‘adequacy’, I mean … )
It is not, perhaps, beyond the bounds of possibility that Uffindell actually was reasonably genuine with his apology – and was also, correspondingly, rather breathtakingly tone-deaf with how it would look to make such an approach and then some months later commence inserting himself into the public eye as a political aspirant.
Certainly, I don’t think anybody is going to be losing money swiftly by betting against National and various of its MPs proving to be remarkably short-sighted, lacking in strategic cogency, or that simple dimension otherwise known succinctly as ‘E.Q.’.
We can probably demonstrate the inherent truth of that by considering just how many MPs or would-have-been-MPs the National Party has (nearly) fielded over the past two years despite the people National actively entrusts to be aware and out ahead of issues or actively filtering for undesirables … being aware of various of these guys’ occasionally rather bizarre (or, if you prefer, Bezzant) shortcomings and still deciding to wave them on through to candidacy anyway.
That is to say – the National Party does not appear to have been positively selecting for perspicacity with either its party or parliamentary office-holders for awhile now.
Although, in fairness – and yes, even in that most unforgiving of arms of our civic judiciary, the Court of Public Opinion, there is at least some scope for a ‘duty of fairness’ to yet prevail – that ‘lack of perspicacity’ and/or ‘sense’ can cut both ways.
Uffindell’s apology appears to have occurred in July of last year. That’s probably just under eleven months prior to his election in June’s Tauranga by-election. He almost certainly didn’t plan for it to happen that way. After all, circa June last year, Tauranga’s MP was still one Simon Bridges – who seemed very much to be anticipating sticking around for the foreseeable so as to be able to snatch back leadership of the National Party when Collins seemingly-inevitably imploded. There was no sign a by-election was to ensue.
Which doesn’t mean that Uffindell didn’t have a candidacy in mind mid-way through last year – it just may have been mid-late 2023 that he was thinking of, rather than mid-way through 2022.
Does that change things? I don’t know. I’m not sure anybody really does. And besides which – it’s rather immaterial, now, isn’t it.
Things happened as they have, and we (or, more likely, the Parliamentary National Party) have to work out what now to do to move forward from it (or through it) in earnest.
Speaking of which – short of National deciding to do something rather unexpected and somehow keel-haul/waka-jump/whatever a freshly-minted MP out of a job in a safe-seat just won on by-election … unless Uffindell himself resigns (which should surely result in a record turnaround time between by-elections for a seat), there’s precious little to be done about the fact that said MP is now part of our public life.
The only thing that the mass majority of us can really do in this situation is hope that said MP hasn’t just learned the lesson of the 16 year old boy, but also the lesson of the truly adult man. Which is one not of Comms, but rather of Values.
And spends the rest of his time in public life working very hard to not just ‘show’ us they’re better, but to actually be better ; and, one hopes, somehow make a positive forward-proofing difference in exactly the area they came unstuck in in the first place.
Now how they do that, of course … well, I don’t know.
But he better be thinking hard in earnest.
Because like it or not – as of yesterday evening, he went from having one victim who felt manipulated and misled through to having the best part of the entire country potentially feeling not entirely dissimilarly towards him.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see whether he’s better at convincing us that he’s a changed and genuinely penitent man than he was the gentleman whom he sought to convince of all of this the first time around.