Both major political parties have egg on their faces after incidents that question the criteria for candidate selection, writes PAT PILCHER.Hardly a week goes by without one (or both) of the major parties stepping in their own political dogshit and making a spectacular mess as they attempt to shake it off their shoes.
The National party stepped on a spectacular political turd when it came to light that Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell was expelled from Kings College because he had taken part in a vicious attack on a 13-year-old pupil using wooden bed legs, badly beating the victim.
The ensuing media circus saw the National Party looking increasingly worse for wear as Luxon desperately tried to scrape the offending turd from his shoe. At first, Luxon attempted to minimise the situation by saying that the attack happened long ago and that Uffindel is now a changed man. Luxon’s discomfort became even more obvious once it was confirmed that Uffindel had told the National party selection committee about the attack during the candidate selection process. National MP Todd McClay and ex-National party president Peter Goodfellow were both aware of the news, but Luxon claimed no knowledge of it, despite being the party leader. It goes without saying that this isn’t a good look for National and it certainly did Luxon’s credibility no favours.
The Uffindel saga took an even uglier turn as fresh allegations surfaced that he had bullied a flatmate while studying at Otago University. In what can only be described as “rinse, wash and repeat”, the public got treated to more media servings of the now monotonous Luxon word salad, with a liberal seasoning of blame dodging. Finally, Luxon suspended Uffindel, whose political future is to be determined by an investigation into the allegations. While many a Kiwi up and down New Zealand could be heard uttering “about bloody time!” Luxon also admitted that the investigation report would not be publicly available, and only a summary of the findings will be disclosed. So much for political transparency and trust.
So, what went wrong? A golden rule of public relations is never to run away from a fire – especially if you want to appear credible. Luxon’s abysmal attempts to minimise and deflect did nothing for him or his party. If that were all, National might have scraped by with their pride bruised and the matter would’ve eventually faded from memory. But the resulting media circus as Luxon prevaricated around who knew of Uffindell’s offending and his protestations that he didn’t were the equivalent of pouring a can of petrol onto an already raging bonfire. Given the long history of issues surrounding poor MP selection processes within the National party and Luxon’s inability to act decisively, it can at best be said that Luxon made a bad situation worse.
Meanwhile, in the other camp, Labour supporters had their smug smiles removed, thanks to Labour MP Gaurav Sharma. He levelled accusations of bullying at other Labour MPs, claiming that secretly recorded conversations were evidence of bullying and that Labour had tried to muzzle him by telling him how to keep information from the media. His allegations have yet to be substantiated.
The PM must have taken note of Luxon’s slow-burning media train-wreck. Her response was swift and decisive, involving a caucus meeting where it was decided that Sharma would be suspended from the labour party. Sharma was also offered mediation and the chance to put his arguments forward, which he rejected.
The suspension didn’t deter Sharma. He continued to level accusations at the Labour party, and was kicked out of caucus effectively making him an independent MP.
While Ardern’s actions were more decisive (and less messy) than Luxon’s, a criticism levelled at Labour is that little to nothing has been done to address accusations of bullying within the party. Even if there is no bullying, the allegations should be transparently investigated and addressed if trust is to be restored.
Uffindel and Sharma are not the first and they won’t be the last candidates who should never have been allowed to become MPs. This begs the question: What needs to change to prevent similarly unsuitable would-be candidates from becoming members (of Parliament) again?
Sadly, based on recent history, it’s fair to say that party candidate selection processes appear to be broken across the board. Although political parties have processes for selecting candidates, history has repeatedly shown that these do little to weed out narcissists, sociopaths and others with undesirable traits from becoming MPs.
As well as criminal background checks, all candidates should be subjected to character checks that’d see friends, work colleagues and acquaintances asked about their character. Equally important, there should also be personality profiling. This could help identify unsuitable personality traits (such as narcissism, egotism, low empathy and so on). When combined, screening processes could go a long way towards weeding out potential problem political candidates. While this might deprive the media of snore-inducing and salacious political soap opera stories, it’d save taxpayers vast sums of money by reducing by-elections and investigations.
Another idea could be to make MPs live on the Jobseeker benefit in a state house for two months – with access to their own income/assets blocked. A good many MPs come from advantaged backgrounds and most have never known the grinding misery of poverty. Spending a brief stint in the shoes of the poorest could go a long way towards helping MPs develop greater empathy and understanding of the challenges facing those most in need. For these screening processes to be truly effective, they would also need to be administered by an independent body such as parliamentary services. Either way, change is required as the current situation is not clearly good enough.