Olivia O’Malley is a former press secretary to New Zealand’s Leader of the Opposition and longtime Conservative staffer. She currently works in public affairs.
The sight of New Zealand’s Leader of the Opposition defending an indefensibly selected backbencher is not, in itself, new. But the latest scandal gives an insight into a more nimble and agile political reality than we are used to in the UK.
Just last week, the National Party’s newest MP, Sam Uffindell, was publicly exposed as a prolific school bully, having assaulted a younger student in his boarding school days and been expelled for it.
Now additional allegations about Uffindell’s time at university have surfaced, his political future representing the plum safe seat of Tauranga appears limited, unless he is fully exonerated by the independent investigation announced by Christopher Luxon, the Opposition Leader.
And Uffindell is just the latest in a long line of candidate headaches for the National Party.
First-term MP Andrew Falloon, forced to resign having sent explicit images to five women, including a teenage constituent; fellow first-timer Hamish Walker, who disclosed private patient information to journalists in an attempt to row back on being called racist; candidate Jake Bezzant, alleged to have, in an especially bizarre case, used intimate photos of a former partner to impersonate her in online sex with other men; or Jami-Lee Ross, a long-serving former MP accused of layers upon layers of sexual misconduct and on trial this week charged with electoral donation fraud…
Alas, the recent errors of the centre-right party’s sons are all too numerous.
Yet while nobody could deny the ‘Nats’ have an issue with candidate selection that has yet to be comprehensively resolved, what sets New Zealand’s scandals apart is that none of the aforementioned (save for Uffindell, whose future teeters on a knife edge at the time of writing) remains in politics.
Previous Opposition leaders – Judith Collins, Todd Muller, Simon Bridges all – moved swiftly to eject the offenders from their caucus, and it appears likely that, in the event Uffindell’s transgressions are found to be more significant than what has already been admitted, he will follow in the footsteps of poor candidates past.
This marks a stark contrast from the spectre of Chris Pincher remaining an MP despite further allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Relieved of the whip but not booted from the Conservative Party, he still gets a vote in this month’s leadership election.
The MP arrested for rape in May has fallen off the front pages, but he too remains at large, banned only from the House of Commons and still quietly able to attend to his constituency work.
And for the tragic politicos who follow the events of both countries closely, myself included, the question of why these differences in treatment persist arises time and time again.
It is true that New Zealand’s political system lends itself to more effectively disposing of troublesome backbenchers. Mixed-member proportional (MMP), the oft-maligned part-constituency, part-proportional system introduced almost by accident in 1996, instils a greater sense of party discipline than First Past the Post. Not only is there far less propensity to rebel against the party line, but without a high list placing many MPs would simply not have a seat.
Similarly, the fact that MPs do not directly employ staff probably helps to curb the worst excesses of in-office bullying, with the Parliamentary Service usefully stepping in to bounce aides from office to office in the event their employment does not pan out as smoothly as one might have hoped.
None of this is to say that New Zealand does not have its own issues – to which the Labour Party is just as susceptible as the National Party, with allegations of bullying levelled by now-suspended first-term Labour backbencher Gaurav Sharma last Thursday.
But systematic differences aside, perhaps a simpler answer to why Conservative MPs accused of serious misconduct remain in post is more likely: the National Party has shown political will where the Conservative Party has not.
In all of the above cases, for the candidate or MP to remain would have been simply untenable and politically toxic in New Zealand. Far from trying to ride out the scandal, the decision to resign or be stood down usually comes quickly, after a week or less of political pressure and media front pages.
Recent events support this: the Uffindell allegations broke on Monday, and by late Tuesday night, Luxon had announced an investigation. On the other side, Labour’s Sharma wrote a scathing column alleging internal bullying last Thursday, continued flinging accusations on social media, and was suspended from the Labour caucus on Tuesday.
This is exactly the way things should work. There is no glory in keeping MPs in post where there is clear evidence of wrongdoing, or where the MP in question has all but admitted to the allegation. Pincher has rightly sought medical help, but the truth of the matter is that his constituents deserve far better.
Whoever ends up our next Prime Minister, they should take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book.